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On Permission in Fandom and other Fannish Etiquette



Transforming transformative works
Several years ago, there was a challenge on an LJ flashfic com that created a huge kerfuffle: the challenge was to remix an existing story but did not require the remixer to get permission from the original author. Fans split pretty decisively between those who felt that transformative works were transformative works were transformative works...and those who felt that fannish rules of conduct should differ between source text owners and fellow fans; between those who felt we existed in a community where it was polite to ask whether one could remix and rewrite another person's fanfic...and those who felt that all texts should be treated with the same (dis)respect. [If you missed it back when, and really want to see the wank of yesteryear, here are some basic links: the original challenge and debate in comments; the Fandom Wank report; and, representatively, carolyn_claire, cofax7; and marythefan on the issue.]

Personally, I've always been torn on the issues: I firmly believe that all transformations/adaptations/derivations should be permitted. I firmly believe that especially in a place like fandom, here our pseudonym and reputation are often our only "reward," mutual respect is really important. I firmly believe that "professional fan fiction" (the usual litany of Wide Sargasso Sea, Wicked, and the Hours) is fundamentally different from fanfic, insofar as the culture surrounding fanfic is often an important part of the texts. As a result, I believe that our fannish interactions should probably differ from the relationship of fans to professionals.

And yet, looking at this discussion from six years ago, I can barely fathom the passion and the arguments. I'm pretty sure the same discussion would not occur today in the same way. After all, we've moved on from a culture where the fannish etiquette would discourage fans from sharing vids with other fans without explicit permission and where academics seriously debated whether they should link to a fannish LJ post in an article to a tumblr culture where the entire platform is meant to reproduce in toto essays, images, and fan works. With an interface like tumblr, asking a person to fully reproduce a piece is as bizarre as those fans in the olden days who'd regularly ask whether they could link a post on the Internets. Hypertextual linking is kinda what the internet is there for, right? Just like copying is what tumblr is there for. Heck, LJ in its ever desperate attempt to mimic all things everywhere, has a similar built in function now.


Fannish etiquette and its shifting rules
So why am I starting with all of this ancient history that doesn't have anything to do with podfic (in fact, I may not have heard my first podfic until after that incident, and I definitely did not record until a year later). Because it raises two issues that I think are important for how we look at podfic and the permission culture surrounding it.

(1) For one, it showcases the centrality of fannish rules that are quite different from any legal or even normal people interactions. Connecting another fan's legal name and pseudonym is one of those fannish etiquette things that often doesn't make a lot of sense to mundanes and yet is one of the deeply held and shared rules. [Though, clearly, with changing fan cultures and changing attitudes of fans, this may soon disappear as well.] We share a fannish space, a community, and as such, it is polite to follow the arbitrary yet nevertheless established rules. And just like any other shared convention, over time, these rules and expectations may change.

The biggest issue here for me is the ever increasing fan community (and really, to even use the singular here is ludicrous!). We were multitudes when we came online in the early 90s; we were even more diverse when the popular media began to notice us in the early 00s; and now? While I'd love to think there's still a three degrees of separation between me and any other fan, I know better. One of my best friends purposefully does not have a Blanket Permission statement on her fiction, because she likes to communicate with the potential podficcer. That's a very old skool view of fandom, I think, where we all are here to talk to one another. I tend to stay in my corner of comfort usually when I ask permission, and pretty much don't expect to be turned down by people I know. But that again presupposes a containable group of people, where I may not have met this author in person, but they've met this friend I roomed with at a con kind of scenario. And I don't think that's anywhere remotely likely any more when I look at fandom today.

(2) For another, it raises the question of what, in fact, constitutes transformative works, i.e., where are the borders of creator autonomy and control, what kinds of engagements with the fan work are acceptable, and which require some form of permission (clearly not legally as much as culturally). Personally, for example, I feel perfectly within my right to analyze and criticize a story and even to quote segments, but within fannish norms that wasn't necessarily accepted a decade ago. Everything else, as we have seen above, is even more complicated within the circumferences of fandom.

Would I be OK to use a character another fan created? To rewrite their story with the pairing or the ending I'd prefer? I certainly would. But I would not share it publicly! Heck, I have files on my computer that I spellchecked, others where I pulled out certain terms I dislike, one where I swapped the pairing, because I had a dom/sub preference. And that's a frustrating thing for writers, but it is the same frustration they seem to feel when I don't want to read their WiP a day at a time as it is posted, when I read the surprise ending first, when I skim and skip entire sections because I'm not interested in that story line or that character. Readers are notorious in not doing what we're supposed to, and noone should know that better than the (fan) reader turned (fan) writer! After all, Rowling's still frustrated with all those Draco apologists, right? :)

So, connected with the do not transform my work is also an even stronger, do not copy my work. That would be clearly plagiarism if done without acknowledging the author (and in fandom all we have is our name and reputation, so withholding this virtual reward of feedback and positive name recognition is clearly a bad thing!), but it's also not considered a good thing when done with author name and links and all. Here we stumble into the tumblr phenomenon again, which is kind of counterintuitive to old skool fans. Because even with a clear link, which would negate the feedback and acknowledgment issue, there is a sense in which fandom for a long time existed in the fringes, and fans individually or collectively wanted to retain the ability to pull their works. As a fan who has issues with her pseudonymous identity, I totally get that. As a fan who loves archives and wants access to everything long after the fact, I loathe it. As fandom is becoming less stigmatized, these prohibitions are less severe, but posting a story in full without explicit permission of the author, for example, still seems in bad taste.


Transformation and derivation, collaboration and performance, oh my!
So, this is the general state of the field into which podfic has stumbled. Transformative—or not? Collaborative. Or not really? A copy of the text. Or not? Certainly, a version, but with extensive work on the podficcer's part. Because I think that there is a difference between what writers do when they write fanfic or even what artist do when they illustrate and what we do. The closest I've come in analogy is translation, which seems to be a good model. In the end, to me the term transformative fanwork is kind of useless, because we get stuck in layers of connotations and legal meanings. For a little while there fanfic was happy with letting itself be called derivative fiction, which often seems more appropriate to me. But in that vein I'd actually see translation and podficcing less as derivation and more as adaptation.

I actually think talking about it in terms of performance and translation is really useful. Translation is, I think, the closest fan work to podficcing. It keeps a lot of what makes something specifically this work of art yet translates it--not into another medium but another language. And anyone who's read the classics (or Beowolf or any foreign book) in different translations know what a difference this makes!Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal, for example, has a great web site (http://fleursdumal.org/) where there are often 3, 5, 7 translations of the same poem. And they make a difference. After all, most podficcers appreciate different version of one story exactly because there is more to the podfic than just the author's words. The specific performance matters!

Francesca Coppa's essay Writing Bodies in Space is an interesting argument that posits fan fiction as an embodied translation so to speak. Just like theatre performances, fan fiction offers different versions of the same 'source' and plays with it. I think that's a fascinating but maybe limiting description of fan fiction, but it gets to that aspect of fanfic that is closest to what podficcers do: a performance, a version of a written text. We don't often think of novels or short stories demanding performance, but then an Ibsen play can almost be read like a novel, so....

But we remain in most cases close to the source text. Whereas fan fiction can go and write fanfic of fanfic of fanfic, we are like the fanfic writers who come back again and again to the moment of the source, revisit this central scene/story again and again. In so doing, we are more closely tied to the source and short of retelling a fic in our own words, I do think that we are indebted to the writers in ways these writers are not indebted to The Powers That Be. We do use the writers' words, after all, just like theatre performances do. My favorite punk!rock favorite version of Macbeth couldn't have existed without Shakespeare's words and plot, but Shakespeare's written play would continue to exist without this performance. It would be much poorer for it though!!!

The one analogy I've yet to see mention is the vidding connection. Vidding remains in the same medium yet brings to it editorial tools, cutting the music, juxtaposing the shots etc. At the end of the say, however, the images are given. (And yes, they can import images from other texts but then we can add music or soundtrack as well...the basic argument stands, I think.) And yet, we consider vidding not a performance. We think of it as derivative or, more narrowly, transformative. It doesn't add new material (derivative), it doesn't translate into different language/form/medium (performative), but it does manipulate and alter the very medium initially given.

And we would probably be upset as fans to demand of vidders to get permission, but that seems to be a function of the media economy, i.e., the artist whose work gets sampled is not at the same level we are. I'm pretty sure people would protest a remixing of a famous vid without permission (I'm sure, for example, that counteragent got permission for her beautiful hommage, Destiny Calling. But just like with the fanfic of fanfic issue, above, the point is that it is a lateral appropriation rather than taking from a more powerful (cultural and economic) agent.

Which brings us back to podfic. Maybe our problem is that we're too close to the source text. In fanfic, the transformative argument is more easily made with extreme AUs than with canon compliant stories that could be mistaken for "the real book." I wonder if the same's true for us. Would sampling the first lines of 100 Teen Wolf fics be transformative? Would 25 sex scenes read one after the other be? How would that differ from reading a story beginning to end.

In fact, looking at the way theatripod has moved beyond what I'd consider a podfic definition to edit the story into a script and perform it more like a radio play, I am reminded of the way the more radical transformations in fan fiction actually have a stronger standing, i.e., if someone writes a story that could be mistaken for a tie-in novel, there's the potential for having the products be mistaken for one another. Noone's gonna mistake this NC17 Snarry story for Rowling's work! Likewise, we have all these conversations about how much and how little we can deviate from the story when we are reading it. But changing prose into a script; deleting entire segments, really transforms the original work in a way that they can't be mistaken for one another.

They aren't our words. We are borrowing, citing, performing them. Then again, Rebecca Tushnet argues in "Copy This Essay" (http://www.tushnet.com/copythisessay.pdf) that there isn't and shouldn't be a word limit on what is appropriate citation. Aren't we doing a performative citation? When and where would that be OK?


Procedures and policies
I think of Blanket Permission a bit like Creative Commons these days. Things are copyrighted online for better or worse, but the author has the choice to control the strictness of that copyright. When I put CC on an blog post I write (or publish in a place that has a standard CC license), I agree from the get go that this essay can be reproduced (in part of course always as a citation, but even in toto as long as name, title, and original publication are linked). Likewise, the creator can specifically determine what they allow and what they don't, in any desired combination: for example, "allow remix, podfic, and translation with credit; do not allow commercial transformation and full reproduction."

I cannot and do not want to enforce BP on those that do not want it, or tell them how to frame their BPs. I do think that thinking of podfic as just another form of creative fan work--resembling some in one aspect and others in another--may indeed get people to realize that BP is a creative CC and welcome the wider dissemination of their creative ideas. Then again, I may just have to wait another decade and the issue will have become moot anyway. Or maybe it already almost has.

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