Wednesday, 25 June 2014

ESSAY: Monetising Fan Labour

The following essay was written as part of my MLitt Film & Television Studies. I also gave a talk based on this essay at Glasgow School of Art for a symposium alongside Dr David Sweeney.

Should fan labour be paid and if so, how?


Fan creativity plays a central role in every fan community. Before they found their home online, fans would swap handmade fanzines at conventions and perform ‘filk’ songs together. Now these can be expressed in places like Tumblr and YouTube, where they are all the more accessible to those outside of the community. Within online fan culture remix plays a central role in fan creation. Fan fiction, gif sets, vlogs, art and songs all take the characters or subject of an original text and express them in new ways. As Lawrence Lessig says: “If the twentieth century made culture generally accessible, the twenty-first will make it universally accessible” (Lessig, 2008, 42).

In the age of Web 2.0 where collective intelligence plays a vital role in the spread of information, there has become an imbalance between grassroots production and mass media corporations. Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green describe this in Spreadable Media (2013) where they discuss the differing value systems each faction has. On one side we have the large mass media corporations who consider monetary value the driving force and on the other the grass roots collective intelligence who see the worth of creations in non-monetary terms (Jenkins, Ford, Green, 2013, 55). There becomes a problem here as in order for Web 2.0 to be a wonderful collaborative space these two factions need to be able to work together. How do media corporations approach controlling fan creations and how do they attempt to harness their success through monetisation and fan labour? Should they be attempting to make money from fans or is there another way to make this difficult relationship work?

This essay will focus on three key areas of mass media interaction with fan creation. The first being attempts to monetise existing fan content, through staking claims to copyrighted material in fan remixes and issuing ‘cease and desist’ letters. The second is taking steps to encourage fans to create through official avenues, by establishing sites that direct revenue straight back into the corporation pocket. And thirdly the most direct way, of actually employing individual skilled fans to become part of the creation process of the media object be it films, TV shows or games. The question needs to be asked, should fan labour be paid and how?



Monetising Existing Content

In June 2009 YouTube user rebelliouspixels uploaded his remix video entitled Buffy vs Edward: Twilight Remixed. It has since had 3.5 million views and 14.5 thousand comments. This clever video mashes up scenes from Twilight with scenes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer giving a very different storyline and very different female lead from Bella Swan. The result is humorous and satisfying, with the aim in relliouspixels’ words to be a “critique of Edward's character and generally creepy behaviour” (McIntosh, 2013). Three and a half years later rebelliouspixels received a message from YouTube informing him that his video “matched third party content” owned by Lionsgate and as a result “ads may appear next to it”(Ibid. 2013).

Rebelliouspixels then had to go through YouTube’s fair use dispute process, seeking help from lawyers, as again and again Lionsgate did not drop their audiovisual and then visual claim on his work. In January 2013 the content was reinstated with no explanation and is currently still available to view on YouTube.

What is interesting about this story is this video was on YouTube for over three years before any claims were made against it. Relleliouspixels has written a blog post about the saga, in which he details some of the exposure his remix had, including features in numerous web news sites and a 2010 Webby nomination. The remix has also been publicly identified as an example of fair use:

“This past summer, together with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, I even screened the remix for the US Copyright Office at the 2012 hearings on exemptions to the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act 1998). Afterward my Buffy vs. Edward remix was mentioned by name in the official recommendations by the US Copyright Office on exemptions to the DMCA as an example of a transformative non-commercial video work” (Ibid. 2013).

It had extensive exposure in those three years, but the point at which it became of interest to Lionsgate was after their buy out of Summit Entertainment, the previous owners of Twilight. They became aware of it and they wanted to monetise it. When the creator did not want to conform to this, the video was taken down.

This case is a prime example of mass media attempting to monetise existing fan content online. As a successful remix video using Lionsgate’s copyrighted material they felt they had a stake in any money that could be made. But the remix creator was not profiting financially from his creation. The idea of differing value systems is clear here as the creator was rating his success on the exposure it had received in blogs and articles and in interaction on the subject of fair use and copyright. He found value in gaining a high reputation for his analysis of the Twilight characters and measured his success in terms of a reputation economy and also a gift economy in sharing his word widely (De Kosnik, 2013). Lionsgate clearly looked at the situation in purely commercial terms. As is discussed in Spreadable Media, online creators:

“create media texts because they have something they want to share with a larger audience… Users generating online content are often interested in expanding their own audience and reputation. They may measure their success by how many followers they attract on Twitter, just as television executives value the number of eyeballs their programs attract” (Jenkins et al, 2013, 59).

So what rebelliouspixels has achieved is wider coverage for his remix and a good reputation, which is an important part of fan creation and what has been termed a reputation economy (De Kosnik, 2013). However as highlighted by Jenkins et al, we cannot think of fan currency in the same terms as we would large media corporations. There is more than just a sense of self worth to be achieved and it is perhaps very much more important:

“We must likewise recognise a desire for dialogue and discourse, for solidifying social connections, and for building larger communities through circulation of media messages… They are embracing material meaningful to them because it has currency within their social networks and because it facilitates conversations they want to have with their friends and families.” (Jenkins et al, 2013, 60)

This ‘currency’ allows a creator to spread their message far and wide and to share opinions throughout their communities. This is a very important distinction to make between the two factions. While the mass media industry spreads news, it also works predominantly for profit. The grass roots communities conversely have the power to share information and “perspectives often not represented in mass media” (Jenkins et al, 2013, 60). This allows for a more genuine voice of the people, as it is coming directly from the source in a gift economy.

It could also be argued rebelliouspixels has worked for free in order to draw attention to Lionsgate’s text. However, as Tiziana Terranova notes “free labor, however, is not necessarily exploited labor” (Terranova, 2003). Fans are happy to create and gain a lot from their experiences besides payment and in this case they can be described as “engaged” rather than “exploited” (Jenkins et al, 2013, 60). While fans may be happy to produce content for free for the perks of reputation and the joy of spreading the word, it does become a problem when they come under attack by mass media for their creations. As De Kosnik explains “Conventional wisdom holds that companies and individuals that own the copyrights to mass-media texts will not sue fan producers, as long as the fans do not make money from their works” (De Kosnik, 2013). It is this trust that has been broken in the damage of the ‘moral economy’ (Jenkins et al, 2013, 52) and it leaves both parties unsure of where they stand.

Duffet discusses this in Understand Fandom and highlights the reaction of fear that seems to come from the media side:

 “Insofar that they can be collectivized, the media industries do not quite know how to react to fan creativity (Jenkins, 2008, 154)…Media organizations encompass a diverse set of interests and voices too. At worst, they can take an authoritarian stance and attempt to use legal means to police and prevent fan creativity.”
(Duffett, 2013, 175)

This fear results in brash decisions from media companies to put their foot down and assert authority unfairly over the individual creators who will find it very hard to fight back against expensive lawsuits.  It appears this is the case in Lionsgate’s reaction to the Buffy vs. Edward piece. As a piece of criticism it was doing no harm in terms of revenue to Lionsgate. The need to control all content seems to be the driving force here along with the hope of a profit.

 Of course criticism is not always met well. By its very nature it can appear damaging to the creator of the original text. Rebecca Tushnet discusses this in her piece on Copyright Law, Fan Practices, and the Rights of the Author:

“[M]oral rights against distortion appear even more ill suited to the realities of creativity once we accept that criticism, mockery, and other uncomfortable transformations draw on material present in the original works. What an author intends to produce and what others understand her work to have produced often diverge” (Tushnet, 2007, 60)

Buffy vs. Edward criticises the original text of Twilight, it does so by replacing what the creator deemed as an unsatisfactory character in the original text, Bella Swan, with another character from a different story, Buffy Summers. The resulting remix expresses what rebelliouspixels felt went wrong initially and gives us a different interpretation of the text. It mocks the original narrative with a humorous outcome.
This is one way in which fan creations can be seen as troubling to the rights holders. What is viewed as damaging from this point of view is seen as fair criticism from the remixer’s point of view. In order for these two factions to get along, there needs to be an assumption that there will be a ‘divergence’ between the original meaning and how it is interpreted. And any resulting creations whether favourable or mocking deserve to be seen or heard, not fined or removed.


Encouraging involvement through official platforms

The media industry has come up with other solutions apart from the ‘cease and desist’ strategy, in an attempt to target the roots of their problem with fan created content. Official websites, social media pages and other services do attract audiences and fans do get involved in competitions and in purchasing official merchandise. When attempts are made to take too much control of fan creations, which already have their own homes, it is less successful. Most recently Kindle Worlds has been Amazon’s attempt to monopolise the fan fiction market. In this model fans are given the opportunity to submit work based on a small selection of approved texts, following a series of guidelines, for approval to be published on Kindle. If their work sells they receive royalties, but the rights to their work belongs to Kindle, and the payment they receive is a fraction of what Kindle keep or pass on to the copyright holders.[1]

In this model fans are paid for their labour and while it is debatable whether this payment is fair, it still brings fans into what Lawrence Lessig calls a “commercial” economy and what Lewis Hyde calls a “commodity” culture (as seen in Jenkins et al, 2013, 66-67). This creates tension, as the very nature of Hydes’s “gift” economy or Lessig’s “sharing” economy is that value is placed on non-monetary achievements. By attempting to commodify an integral part of fan culture, corporations will end up alienating themselves even further from the communities with which they are trying to connect. The commodity culture is very much what the grass roots faction goes against. The belief that information should be free to be shared is integral to their identity.Terranova cites Richard Barbrook’s work on the gift economy:

“Within the developed world, most politicians and corporate leaders believe that the future of capitalism lies in the commodification of information.... Yet at the "cutting-edge" of the emerging information society, money-commodity relations play a secondary role to those created by a really existing form of anarcho-communism. For most of its users, the net is somewhere to work, play, love, learn and discuss with other people.... Unrestricted by physical distance, they collaborate with each other without the direct mediation of money and politics. Unconcerned about copyright, they give and receive information without thought of payment. In the absence of states or markets to mediate social bonds, network communities are instead formed through the mutual obligations created by gifts of time and ideas” (Terranova, 2003).

From this account we can see how being offered the chance to submit fan fiction for the chance of a financial reward would not sit well with fan writers. Fans are happy to spend their time and give their ideas with the reward being implicit in benefitting the rest of the community. Financial gain definitely plays a ‘secondary role’ to this faction, especially when ownership of rights comes into play. If a fan was to write a story based on one of the approved texts, like The Vampire Diaries, they would have to adhere to multiple regulations on the content, so explicit scenes for example are not permitted. Once the work is available on the platform Kindle offers a pay out for each copy of the story sold, but that is where the rewards end. They keep the rights to that story and if the creators of The Vampire Diaries wanted to use one of these new characters or plots, they could do so without the fan’s involvement.  By monetising fan fiction there is also the risk of alienating readers, as they would now be charged to read what they could previously find for free. Fan fiction already has many homes on the web where there are no restrictions on the content. As fan fiction primarily exists to fill the gaps where original texts could not go, censoring these creations severely limits the service’s appeal.

Above all this the move can be seen as plain insulting with the media industries entirely missing the mark in their understanding of how the gift or sharing economies work. Jenkins at al sum this up by saying “many participants are frustrated when companies offer them financial compensation at odds with the informal reciprocity that operates within some forms of peer-to-peer culture” (Jenkins et al, 2013, 69).

While Kindle Worlds is a good working example of paid fan labour, it can also be seen as a brazen attempt to cash in on an already rich cultural activity. It is an idea that certainly thinks beyond the need to penalise fans in a copyright war but it does not go far enough. There is a confusion between the grassroots idea of worth and the commercial idea of value, and to move forward there needs to be a greater understanding between these two ideals (Jenkins et al, 2013, 69). As Lessig makes clear, monetising fan creativity is not the way for media industries to forge a beneficial bond:

“If sharing economies promise value, it is the commercial economy that is tuned to exploit that. But as those in the commercial economy are coming to see, you can’t leverage value from a sharing economy with a hostile buyout or a simple acquisition of assets. You have to keep those participating in the sharing economy happy, and for the reasons they were happy before. For here too money can’t buy you love, even if love could produce lots of money” (Lessig, 2008, 212)

For Kindle Worlds to truly be successful, it needs to be more than a vanity publisher for fan fiction. It aims to make fans happy, but not fore the reason they were happy before.

Employment for Skilled Fan Creators

A successful way to include fans in the official side of production has been to employ those with skills. Fans have been hired as scriptwriters, directors, and craftsmen with their knowledge of the text allowing them to be invested employees in the actual production process. Recently two members of the R2-D2 Builders, Lee Towersey and Oliver Steeples, have been employed to build droids for the upcoming Star Wars films:

 “It all started when Kathleen Kennedy toured the R2-D2 Builders area at Celebration Europe this past summer in Germany,” says Steeples, who finished his first R2-D2 in 2007, after 10 years of collecting parts and researching. “She posed for pictures with us, looked at all the droids we’d built and was very complimentary. I mentioned that the R2-D2 Builders in the UK were available if required, as a semi-joke. When I was contacted to work on the film by [executive producer] Jason McGatlin, it was on her recommendation” (Star Wars Blog, 2013)

While this is not an opportunity that all fans can take advantage of, it does incite pride in fellow fans that ‘one of us’ can make it to the professional level. It shows that hard work in fan creations can yield real world results and as well as a financial gain the pair will be perceived as top of their game in the reputation economy. In this situation fan skills are appropriately acknowledged by the media industry and utilised to benefit both parties. This is certainly a situation where fan labour should be paid, but it does not tackle the issue of the large grass roots community and how to cultivate a fair relationship between them and the mass media. The employing of a few skilled fans can be seen as just token gestures to appease the tension. De Kosnik mentions the employment of fans professionally in discussion on the already apparent monetisation of fandom:

“Almost all fans pay for the privilege of participating in fan communities, at the least by purchasing access to the initial object of fandom and usually in many more ways… And, occasionally, the culture industries pay fans for their work, as when video game companies buy game mods or when Hollywood studios hire fan film directors or special effect designers for industry jobs. Money already permeates fan production” (De Kosnik, 2013).

With money ‘permeating’ fandom it is easy to see why media industries take a logical step in attempting to ‘leverage value’ (Lessig, 2008, 212) from it. It is a very one-sided financial relationship where fans pay out to join in. Pleasure is gained from purchasing merchandise, attending midnight film screenings or book launches. Fans invest their time in creating videos, fiction and art all inspired by an original text, but they also invest a vast amount of money. Their activities online add to the value of a text, which keeps it alive, along with their financial support. In return fans thrive on a gift or sharing economy. Jenkins et al cite Flourish Klink in saying, “fans do not owe companies anything but rather freely give their labours of love (Jenkins et al, 2013, 61).” This would point to a conclusion that fans are owed something back in return. De Kosnik argues:

“What is disturbing about the “free” model of fan labor, in which fans “get” to increase the worth of mass-media products without receiving pay, in exchange for the relief they feel at the prospect of never being sued for creating value, is that it settles for too little, too soon, in the ongoing negotiations between the culture industries, capitalist markets, and individual consumers/laborers” (De Kosnik, 2013).

Fans certainly deserve more for their efforts than just the opportunity not to be sued. But the basis on which they create is not with the expectation of financial reward. In hiring skilled fans professionally, there is certainly a clear answer to the question of fan labour being paid labour. But this is not a solution for the fan community at large. Instances such as this certainly give fans goals to dream of, however it would be both impossible and pointless to attempt to employ every skilled fan into the production process. Skilled fans employed to work in production are certainly fan labourers, but the same cannot necessarily be said about fans contributing to the gift economy.

Should Fan Labour be Paid Labour?

In answer to the question ‘should fan labour be paid, and if so how?’  a conclusion can be drawn that the question is perhaps too simple. Fans should be paid if they are employed to do a job, certainly, but if they are happily indulging in their fandom then perhaps the best answer is to leave them be. These fans do not need to be labelled as ‘fan labourers’ at all as the time and money they invest is arguably paid back in the reputation they receive and the sharing they take part in.

It will be difficult for the mass media to merge successfully with the grass roots faction, especially if the offerings come in the form of ideas such as Kindle Worlds, where the lure of a little money can never be enough to hide the obvious exploitation. In this particular case it seems pointless to attempt to reinvent the wheel.

New and fresh ideas need to come. Lessig believes that there is a solution and that it needs to be a ‘hybrid’ of the two factions. He reasons that for a constructive solution to be found, both parties’ needs must be met. As Jenkins et al explain, “Lessig stresses that any viable hybrid economy needs to respect the rights and interests of participants within these two rather different systems for producing and appraising the value of transaction (Jenkins et al, 2013, 67).”
Fans want to continue remixing their favourite texts and gaining praise and reputation within their community for their skills. Media corporations want to keep control of their copyrighted material and continue making a profit.
What are stopping these changes from happening are perhaps the events that have come before it, as Lessig observes:

 “The ‘copyright wars’ have lead many to believe that the choice we face is all or nothing. Either Hollywood will win or ‘the Net’ will win. Either we’re about to lose something important that we’ve been, or we’re going to kill something valuable that we could be. Whoever wins, the other must lose (Lessig, 2008, 34).”

This needs to be overcome for both factions to find trust in each other in the Web 2.0 landscape. The differing values of commercial and sharing economies need to remain in place so that a solution can be created to allow both factions to get what they need and to function successfully.







References



De Kosnik, A., 2013. Interrogating “Free” Fan Labor. SpreadableMedia.org, [Web Exclusive Essay] Available at: [Accessed 6 December 2013]


Delmar, J., Hernandez-Santaolalla, V., Ramos, M. 2013. Fandom-generated content: An approach to the concept of ‘fanadvertising’. Participations, [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 December 2013]


Duffett, M., 2013. Understanding Fandom: An introduction to the study of media fan culture. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.


Jenkins, H. 2008. The Moral Economy of Web 2.0. Confessions of an Aca-Fan. [Blog] 18 March. Available at: [Accessed 6 December 2013]


Jenkins, H. 2007. Transforming Fan Culture into User-Generated Content: The Case of FanLib. Confession of an Aca-Fan. [Blog] 22 May. Available at [Accessed 6 December 2013]


Jenkins, H., 2006. Convergence Culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.


Jenkins, H., 2006b. Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press.


Jenkins, H. 2006c. Taking the You Out of YouTube? Confessions of an Aca-Fan. [Blog] 2 November. Available at [Accessed 6 December 2013]


Jenkins, H., Fords, S. and Green, J., 2013, Spreadable Media: Creating value and meaning in a networked culture. New York: New York University Press.


Lessig, L., 2008. Remix: making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. [ebook] London: Bloomsbury Academic. Available through University of Glasgow Library website [Accessed 6 December 2013]


McCulloch, R. 2013. Of proprietors and poachers: Fandom as negotiated brand ownership. Participations, [online] available at: [Accessed 6 December 2013]


McIntosh, J. 2013. Buffy vs. Edward Remis Unfairly Removed by Lionsgate. Rebelliospixels, [blog] 9 January. Available at: [Accessed 6 December 2013]


StarWars.com Team. 2013. R2-D2 Is in Star Wars: Episode VII, and He’s Fan-Made. Star Wars Blog. [Blog] 19 November. Available at [Accessed 6 December 2013]


Terranova, T. Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy. Electronic Book Review. [Online] available at: [Accessed 6 December 2013]


Tushnet, R., 2007. Copyright Law, Fan Practices, and the Rights of the Author. In: J. Gray, C. Sandvoss and L. Harrington, eds. 2007, Fandom: Identities and communities in a mediated world. New York: New York University Press. Ch. 4.









[1] Previous examples of similar endeavours include Lucasfilm’s offer in 2000 to give Star Wars fans an official home for their fan creations, the only catch was that Lucasfilm would own anything published on the site, which meant they’d be able to use or remove content without any payment or notice to the creators (Jenkins, 2006, 157).  Similarly FanLib.com was an attempt by a media corporation to create a business out of fan fiction. Fans disapproved of the plans for FanLib to turn a profit and also own the rights to any fiction posted on the site. While owning the rights, FanLib would not be libel for any legal action against the fan fiction leaving the fans with all of the risks and FanLib with all of the profit (Jenkins, 2007).

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