Remixing the Remix: Fannish Appropriation and the Limits of Unauthorised Use




fan works, remix, copyright, plagiarism, fan communities

How to Cite

Busse, K., & Farley, S. (2013). Remixing the Remix: Fannish Appropriation and the Limits of Unauthorised Use. M/C Journal, 16(4).
Vol. 16 No. 4 (2013): remix
Published 2013-08-11

In August 2006 the LiveJournal (hereafter LJ) community sga_flashfic posted its bimonthly challenge: a “Mission Report” challenge. Challenge communities are fandom-specific sites where moderators pick a theme or prompt to which writers respond and then post their specific fan works. The terms of this challenge were to encourage participants to invent a new mission and create a piece of fan fiction in the form of a mission report from the point of view of the Stargate Atlantis team of explorers. As an alternative possibility, and this is where the trouble started, the challenge also allowed to “take another author’s story and write a report” of its mission. Moderator Cesperanza then explained, “if you choose to write a mission report of somebody else’s story, we’ll ask you to credit them, but we won’t require you to ask their permission” (sga_flashfic LJ, 21 Aug. 2006, emphasis added).

Whereas most announcement posts would only gather a few comments, this reached more than a hundred responses within hours, mostly complaints. Even though the community administrators quickly backtracked and posted a revision of the challenge not 12 hours later, the fannish LiveJournal sphere debated the challenge for days, reaching far beyond the specific fandom of Stargate Atlantis to discuss the ethical questions surrounding fannish appropriation and remix. At the center of the debate were the last eight words: “we won’t require you to ask their permission.” By encouraging fans to effectively write fan fiction of fan fiction and by not requiring permission, the moderators had violated an unwritten norm within this fannish community. 

Like all fan communities, western media fans have developed internal rules covering everything from what to include in a story header to how long to include a spoiler warning following aired episodes (for a definition and overview of western media fandom, see Coppa). In this example, the mods violated the fannish prohibition against the borrowing of original characters, settings, plot points, or narrative structures from other fan writers without permission—even though as fan fiction, the source of the inspiration engages in such borrowing itself. These kinds of normative rules can be altered, of course, but any change requires long and involved discussions. In this essay, we look at various debates that showcase how this fan community—media fandom on LiveJournal—creates and enforces but also discusses and changes its normative behavior. 

Fan fiction authors’ desire to prevent their work from being remixed may seem hypocritical, but we argue that underlying these conversations are complex negotiations of online privacy and control, affective aesthetics, and the value of fan labor. This is not to say that all fan communities address issues of remixing in the same way media fandom at this point in time did nor to suggest that they should; rather, we want to highlight a specific community’s internal ethics, the fervor with which members defend their rules, and the complex arguments that evolve from all sides when rules are questioned. Moreover, we suggest that these conversations offer insight into the specific relation many fan writers have to their stories and how it may differ from a more universal authorial affect. 

In order to fully understand the underlying motivations and the community ethos that spawned the sga_flashfic debates, we first want to differentiate between forms of unauthorised (re)uses and the legal, moral, and artistic concerns they create. Only with a clear definition of copyright infringement and plagiarism, as well as a clear understanding of who is affected (and in what ways) in any of these cases, can we fully understand the social and moral intersection of fan remixing of fan fiction. Only when sidestepping the legal and economic concerns surrounding remix can we focus on the ethical intricacies between copyright holders and fan writers and, more importantly, within fan communities.  

Fan communities differ greatly over time, between fandoms, and even depending on their central social interfaces (such as con-based zines, email-based listservs, journal-based online communities, etc.), and as a result they also develop a diverse range of internal community rules (Busse and Hellekson, “Works”; Busker). Much strife is caused when different traditions and their associated mores intersect. We’d argue, however, that the issues in the case of the Stargate Atlantis Remix Challenge were less the confrontation of different communities and more the slowly changing attitudes within one. In fact, looking at media fandom today, we may already be seeing changed attitudes—even as the debates continue over remix permission and unauthorised use. 

Why Remixes Are Not Copyright Infringement

In discussing the limits of unauthorised use, it is important to distinguish plagiarism and copyright violation from forms of remix. While we are more concerned with the ethical issues surrounding plagiarism, we want to briefly address copyright infringement, simply because it often gets mixed into the ethics of remixes. Copyright is strictly defined as a matter of law; in many of the online debates in media fandom, it is often further restricted to U.S. Law, because a large number of the source texts are owned by U.S. companies. According to the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 8), Congress has the power to secure an “exclusive Right” “for limited Times.” Given that intellectual property rights have to be granted and are limited, legal scholars read this statute as a delicate balance between offering authors exclusive rights and allowing the public to flourish by building on these works. Over the years, however, intellectual property rights have been expanded and increased at the expense of the public commons (Lessig, Boyle). 

The main exception to this exclusive right is the concept of “fair use,” defined as use “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching..., scholarship, or research” (§107). Case law circumscribes the limits of fair use, distinguishing works that are merely “derivative” from those that are “transformative” and thus add value (Chander and Sunder, Fiesler, Katyal, McCardle, Tushnet). The legal status of fan fiction remains undefined without a specific case that would test the fair use doctrine in regards to fan fiction, yet fair use and fan fiction advocates argue that fan fiction should be understood as eminently transformative and thus protected under fair use. The nonprofit fan advocacy group, the Organization for Transformative Works, in fact makes clear its position by including the legal term in their name, reflecting a changing understanding of both fans and scholars.

Why Remixes Are Not Plagiarism

Whereas copyright infringement is a legal concept that punishes violations between fan writers and commercial copyright holders, plagiarism instead is defined by the norms of the audience for which a piece is written: definitions of plagiarism thus differ from academic to journalist to literary contexts. Within fandom one of the most blatant (and most easily detectable) forms of plagiarism is when a fan copies another work wholesale and publishes it under their own name, either within the same fandom or by simply searching and replacing names to make it fit another fandom. Other times, fan writers may take selections of published pro or fan fiction and insert them into their works. Within fandom accusations of plagiarism are taken seriously, and fandom as a whole polices itself with regards to plagiarism: the LiveJournal community stop_plagiarism, for example, was created in 2005 specifically to report and pursue accusations of plagiarism within fandom. The community keeps a list of known plagiarisers that include the names of over 100 fan writers. Fan fiction plagiarism can only be determined on a case-by-case basis—and fans remain hypervigilant simply because they are all too often falsely accused as merely plagiarising when instead they are interpreting, translating, and transforming. 

There is another form of fannish offense that does not actually constitute plagiarism but is closely connected to it, namely the wholesale reposting of stories with attributions intact. This practice is frowned upon for two main reasons. Writers like to maintain at least some control over their works, often deriving from anxieties over being able to delete one’s digital footprint if desired or necessary. Archiving stories without authorial permission strips authors of this ability.   More importantly, media fandom is a gift economy, in which labor is not reimbursed economically but rather rewarded with feedback (such as comments and kudos) and the growth of a writer’s reputation (Hellekson, Scott). Hosting a story in a place where readers cannot easily give thanks and feedback to the author, the rewards for the writer’s fan labor are effectively taken from her. Reposting thus removes the story from the fannish gift exchange—or, worse, inserts the archivist in lieu of the author as the recipient of thanks and comments. Unauthorised reposting is not plagiarism, as the author’s name remains attached, but it tends to go against fannish mores nonetheless as it deprives the writer of her “payment” of feedback and recognition.

When Copyright Holders Object to Fan Fiction

A small group of professional authors vocally proclaim fan fiction as unethical, illegal, or both. In her “Fan Fiction Rant” Robin Hobbs declares that “Fan fiction is to writing what a cake mix is to gourmet cooking” and then calls it outright theft: “Fan fiction is like any other form of identity theft. It injures the name of the party whose identity is stolen.” Anne Rice shares her feelings about fan fiction on her web site with a permanent message: “I do not allow fan fiction. The characters are copyrighted. It upsets me terribly to even think about fan fiction with my characters. I advise my readers to write your own original stories with your own characters. It is absolutely essential that you respect my wishes.” Diana Gabaldon calls fan fiction immoral and describes, “it makes me want to barf whenever I’ve inadvertently encountered some of it involving my characters.” Moreover, in a move shared by other anti-fan fiction writers, she compares her characters to family members: “I wouldn’t like people writing sex fantasies for public consumption about me or members of my family—why would I be all right with them doing it to the intimate creations of my imagination and personality?” George R.R. Martin similarly evokes familial intimacy when he writes, “My characters are my children, I have been heard to say. I don’t want people making off with them.”

What is interesting in these—and other authors’—articulations of why they disapprove of fan fiction of their works is that their strongest and ultimate argument is neither legal nor economic reasoning but an emotional plea: being a good fan means coloring within the lines laid out by the initial creator, putting one’s toys back exactly as one found them, and never ever getting creative or transformative with them. Many fan fiction writers respect these wishes and do not write in book fandoms where the authors have expressed their desires clearly. Sometimes entire archives respect an author’s desires:, the largest repository of fic online, removed all stories based on Rice’s work and does not allow any new ones to be posted.  However, fandom is a heterogeneous culture with no centralised authority, and it is not difficult to find fic based on Rice’s characters and settings if one knows where to look. Most of these debates are restricted to book fandoms, likely for two reasons: (1) film and TV fan fiction alters the medium, so that there is no possibility that the two works might be mistaken for one another; and (2) film and TV authorship tends to be collaborative and thus lowers the individual sense of ownership (Mann, Sellors).

How Fannish Remixes Are like Fan Fiction

Most fan fiction writers strongly dismiss accusations of plagiarism and theft, two accusations that all too easily are raised against fan fiction and yet, as we have shown, such accusations actually misdefine terms. Fans extensively debate the artistic values of fan fiction, often drawing from classical literary discussions and examples. Clearly echoing Wilde’s creed that “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book,” Kalichan, for example, argues in one LJ conversation that “whenever I hear about writers asserting that other writing is immoral, I become violently ill. Aside from this, morality & legality are far from necessarily connected. Lots of things are immoral and legal, illegal and moral and so on, in every permutation imaginable, so let’s just not confuse the two, shall we” (Kalichan LJ, 3 May 2010). Aja Romano concludes an epic list of remixed works ranging from the Aeneid to The Wind Done Gone, from All’s Well That Ends Well to Wicked with a passionate appeal to authors objecting to fan fiction:

the story is not defined by the barriers you place around it. The moment you gave it to us, those walls broke. You may hate the fact people are imagining more to your story than what you put there. But if I were you, I’d be grateful that I got the chance to create a story that has a culture around it, a story that people want to keep talking about, reworking, remixing, living in, fantasizing about, thinking about, writing about. (Bookshop LJ, 3 May 2010)

Many fan writers view their own remixes as part of a larger cultural movement that appropriates found objects and culturally relevant materials to create new things, much like larger twentieth century movements that include Dada and Pop Art, as well as feminist and postcolonial challenges to the literary canon. Finally, fan fiction partakes in 21st century ideas of social anarchy to create a cultural creative commons of openly shared ideas. Fan Cupidsbow describes

strong parallels and cross-connection between all sorts of different movements, from Warhol to opensource, DeviantArt to AMV, fanfiction to mashups, sampling to critique and review. All these things are about how people are interacting with technology every day, and not just digital technology, but pens and paper and clothes and food fusions and everything else. (Cupidsbow LJ, 20 May 2009)

Legally, of course, these reuses of collectively shared materials are often treated quite differently, which is why fan fiction advocates often maintain that all remixes be treated equally—regardless of whether their source text is film, TV, literature, or fan fiction. The Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works, for example, does not distinguish in its Content and Abuse Policy section between commercial and fan works in regard to plagiarism and copyright. 

Returning to the initial case of the Stargate Atlantis Mission Report Challenge, we can thus see how the moderator clearly positions herself within a framework that considers all remixes equally remixable. Even after changing the guidelines to require permission for the remixing of existing fan stories, moderator Cesperanza notes that she “remain[s] philosophically committed to the idea that people have the right to make art based on other art provided that due credit is given the original artist” (sga_flashfic LJ, 21 Aug. 2006). Indeed, other fans agree with her position in the ensuing discussions, drawing attention to the hypocrisy of demanding different rules for what appears to be the exact same actions: “So explain to me how you can defend fanfiction as legitimate derivative work if it’s based on one type of source material (professional writing or TV shows), yet decry it as ‘stealing’ and plagiarism if it’s based on another type of source material (fanfiction)” (Marythefan LJ, 21 Aug. 2006).

Many fans assert that all remixes should be tolerated by the creators of their respective source texts—be they pro or fan. Fans expect Rowling to be accepting of Harry Potter’s underage romance with a nice and insecure Severus Snape, and they expect Matthew Weiner to be accepting of stories that kill off Don Draper and have his (ex)wives join a commune together. So fans should equally accept fan fiction that presents the grand love of Rodney McKay and John Sheppard, the most popular non-canonical fan fiction pairing on Stargate Atlantis, to be transformed into an abusive and manipulative relationship or rewritten with one of them dying tragically. Lydiabell, for example, argues that “there’s [no]thing wrong with creating a piece of art that uses elements of another work to create something new, always assuming that proper credit is given to the original... even if your interpretation is at odds with everything the original artist wanted to convey” (Lydiabell LJ, 22 Aug. 2006). 

Transforming works can often move them into territory that is critical of the source text, mocks the source text, rearranges relationships, and alters characterisations. It is here that we reach the central issue of this article: many fans indeed do view intrafandom interactions as fundamentally different to their interactions with professional authors or commercial entertainment companies. While everyone agrees that there are no legal, economic, or even ultimately moral arguments to be made against remixing fan fiction (because any such argument would nullify the fan’s right to create their fan fiction in the first place), the discourses against open remixing tend to revolve around community norms, politeness, and respect.

How Fannish Remixes Are Not like Fan Fiction

At the heart of the debate lie issues of community norms: taking another fan’s stories as the basis for one’s own fiction is regarded as a violation of manners, at least the way certain sections of the community define them. This, in fact, is not unlike the way many fan academics engage with fandom research. While it may be perfectly legal to directly cite fans’ blog posts, and while it may even be in compliance with institutional ethical research requirements (such as Internal Review Boards at U.S. universities), the academic fan writing about her own community may indeed choose to take extra precautions to protect herself and that community. As Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson have argued, fan studies often exists at the intersection of language and social studies, and thus written text may simultaneously be treated as artistic works and as utterances by human subjects (“Identity”). In this essay (and elsewhere), we thus limit direct linking into fannish spaces, instead giving site, date, and author, and we have consent from all fans we cite in this essay. 

The community of fans who write fic in a particular fandom is relatively small, and most of them are familiar with each other, or can trace a connection via one or two degrees of separation only. While writing fan fiction about Harry Potter may influence the way you and your particular circle of friends interpret the novels, it is unlikely to affect the overall reception of the work. During the remix debate, fan no_pseud articulates the differing power dynamic:

When someone bases fanfic on another piece of fanfic, the balance of power in the relationship between the two things is completely different to the relationship between a piece of fanfic and the canon source. The two stories have exactly equal authority, exactly equal validity, exactly equal ‘reality’ in fandom. (nopseud LJ, 21 Aug. 2006)

Within fandom, there are few stories that have the kind of reach that professional fiction does, and it is just as likely that a fan will come across an unauthorised remix of a piece of fan fiction as the original piece itself. In that way, the reception of fan fiction is more fragile, and fans are justifiably anxious about it.

In a recent conversation about proper etiquette within Glee fandom, fan writer flaming_muse articulates her reasons for expecting different behavior from fandom writers who borrow ideas from each other:

But there’s a huge difference between fanfic of media and fanfic of other fanfic authors. Part of it is a question of the relationship of the author to the source material … but part of it is just about not hurting or diminishing the other creative people around you. We aren’t hurting Glee by writing fic in their ‘verse; we are hurting other people if we write fanfic of fanfic. We’re taking away what’s special about their particular stories and all of the work they put into them. (Stoney321 LJ, 12 Feb. 2012)

Flaming_muse brings together several concepts but underlying all is a sense of community. Thus she equates remixing within the community without permission as a violation of fannish etiquette. The sense of community also plays a role in another reason given by fans who prefer permission, which is the actual ease of getting it. Many fandoms are fairly small communities, which makes it more possible to ask for permission before doing a translation, adaptation, or other kind of rewrite of another person’s fic. Often a fan may have already given feedback to the story or shared some form of conversation with the writer, so that requesting permission seems fairly innocuous.

Moreover, fandom is a community based on the economy of gifting and sharing (Hellekson), so that etiquette becomes that much more important. Unlike pro authors who are financially reimbursed for their works, feedback is effectively a fan writer’s only payment. Getting comments, kudos, or recommendations for their stories are ways in which readers reward and thank the writers for their work. Many fans feel that a gift economy functions only through the goodwill of all its participants, which remixing without permission violates.

How Fan Writing May Differ From Pro Writing

Fans have a different emotional investment in their creations, only partially connected to writing solely for love (as opposed to professional writers who may write for love but also write for their livelihood in the best-case scenarios). One fan, who writes both pro and fan fiction, describes her more distanced emotional involvement with her professional writing as follows,

When I’m writing for money, I limit my emotional investment in the material I produce. Ultimately what I am producing does not belong to me. Someone else is buying it and I am serving their needs, not my own. (St_Crispins LJ, 27 Aug. 2006)

The sense of writing for oneself as part of a community also comes through in a comment by pro and fan writer Matociquala, who describes the specificity and often quite limited audience of fan fiction as follows:

Fanfiction is written in the expectation of being enjoyed in an open membership but tight-knit community, and the writer has an expectation of being included in the enjoyment and discussion. It is the difference, in other words, between throwing a fair on the high road, and a party in a back yard. Sure, you might be able to see what’s going on from the street, but you’re expected not to stare. (Matociquala LJ, 18 May 2006)

What we find important here is the way both writers seem to suggest that fan fiction allows for a greater intimacy and immediacy on the whole. So while not all writers write to fulfill (their own or other’s) emotional and narrative desires, this seems to be more acceptable in fan fiction. Intimacy, i.e., the emotional and, often sexual, openness and vulnerability readers and writers exhibit in the stories and surrounding interaction, can thus constitute a central aspect for readers and writers alike. Again, none of these aspects are particular to fan fiction alone, but, unlike in much other writing, they are such a central component that the stories divorced from their context—textual, social, and emotional—may not be fully comprehensible.

In a discussion several years ago, Ellen Fremedon coined the term Id Vortex, by which she refers to that very tailored and customised writing that caters to the writers’ and/or readers’ kinks, that creates stories that not only move us emotionally because we already care about the characters but also because it uses tropes, characterisations, and scenes that appeal very viscerally:

In fandom, we’ve all got this agreement to just suspend shame. I mean, a lot of what we write is masturbation material, and we all know it, and so we can’t really pretend that we’re only trying to write for our readers’ most rarefied sensibilities, you know? We all know right where the Id Vortex is, and we have this agreement to approach it with caution, but without any shame at all. (Ellen Fremedon LJ, 2 Dec. 2004)

Writing stories for a particular sexual kink may be the most obvious way fans tailor stories to their own (or others’) desires, but in general, fan stories often seem to be more immediate, more intimate, more revealing than most published writing. This attachment is only strengthened by fans’ immense emotional attachment to the characters, as they may spend years if not decades rewatching their show, discussing all its details, and reading and writing stories upon stories.

From Community to Commons 

These norms and mores continue to evolve as fannish activity becomes more and more visible to the mainstream, and new generations of fans enter fandom within a culture where media is increasingly spreadable across social networks and all fannish activity is collectively described and recognised as “fandom” (Jenkins, Ford, and Green). The default mode of the mainstream often treats “found” material as disseminable, and interfaces encourage such engagement by inviting users to “share” on their collection of social networks. As a result, many new fans see remixing as not only part of their fannish right, but engage in their activity on platforms that make sharing with or without attribution both increasingly easy and normative. Tumblr is the most recent and obvious example of a platform in which reblogging other users’ posts, with or without commentary, is the normative mode. Instead of (or in addition to) uploading one’s story to an archive, a fan writer might post it on Tumblr and consider reblogs as another form of feedback. 

In fact, our case study and its associated differentiation of legal, moral, and artistic justifications for and against remixing fan works, may indeed be an historical artifact in its own right: media fandom as a small and well-defined community of fans with a common interest and a shared history is the exception rather than the norm in today’s fan culture. When access to stories and other fans required personal initiation, it was easy to teach and enforce a community ethos. Now, however, fan fiction tops Google searches for strings that include both Harry and Draco or Spock and Uhura, and fan art is readily reblogged by sites for shows ranging from MTV’s Teen Wolf to NBC’s Hannibal. Our essay thus must be understood as a brief glimpse into the internal debates of media fans at a particular historical juncture: showcasing not only the clear separation media fan writers make between professional and fan works, but also the strong ethos that online communities can hold and defend—if only for a little while. 


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