The Future of Fanworks Legal Q&A – Post 4

Banner by James of 2 red jets heading up in a grey sky towards an OTW logo

Welcome to the final Q&A post with copyright specialists on “The Future of Fanworks.” Today’s responses are from Dr. Sonia Katyal.

Don’t forget to join us for our final Milestone Month chat on March 29th!


1) What do you remember as your first encounter with fanworks or issues surrounding fanworks?

I believe my first encounter with fanworks must have come through learning about slash fan fiction for an article I was writing on gender and copyright, called Performance, Property, and the Slashing of Gender in Fan Fiction. At the time, I thought that slash was one of the most imaginative, liberatory, and revolutionary modes of honoring male characters in major texts – and the fact that it largely began through the relationship between Kirk and Spock – underscored precisely how culturally transformative slash can become.

2) Since that first encounter, have there been any notable changes you’ve seen regarding fandom and fanworks? Are there any things that have endured, or that you think may never change?

One major change, to me, is the way in which content owners have crystallized their control over copyright—tolerating some areas, but cracking down on others. In the beginning, copyright owners seemed to object to broad forms of fan fiction; yet today, we see more and more examples of ‘tolerated uses,’ whereby content owners will not object if the site is clearly noncommercial or labeled with disclaimers. On the other hand, they may continue to object if the content on a web site includes video or other forms of copyrighted images, and if the content is overtly pornographic or sexual. So while content owners now realize that it’s a good thing to allow fans to express themselves, they still often draw the line when the web sites consist of images or content that they may find disagreeable in some form.

3) What are some things you’d like to see happen — or not happen — with fanworks in the future?

I would like to figure out ways to legally recognize the incredible creativity and authorship that fans add to copyrighted works. I would like content owners to limit their claims of copyright control (and ownership) over fan created works; and allow fan created works to flourish under the rubric of fair use.

4) Given the increasing visibility of fanworks to both content/source creators and the public, what do you think are some important points to emphasize — or sources to use — when explaining fanworks to people who are unfamiliar with them?

That there is tremendous creativity and brilliance in these works, often far more depth and complexity to the characters than one might ordinarily see in a piece of commercial content. One of the best quotes on this comes from Henry Jenkins, who has written, “…Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.”

5) Do you think the scrutiny from academics, legal practitioners, entertainment industries and the media, have affected the creative freedom of source creators or fan creators? Are there ways in which different online spaces can have rules of engagement that vary based on a person’s particular connection to the community?

Of course—any internal community, particularly those online—have their own sets of norms and rules that guide the posting and circulation of content. The scrutiny that lawyers and academics have exercised over the world of fandom has both enabled certain kinds of speech, and also suppressed others.

6) The OTW proposed designating February 15th an International Fanworks Day to celebrate all things fanworks. Anyone can participate by advocating for, creating, or appreciating the wide variety of fanworks available. How would you choose to celebrate the event?

I would ask all content creators to cease and desist, for a single day, from circulating their own content and/or attacking fan fiction, and instead spotlight the work of their brilliant fans – on their websites, merchandise, and other forms of copyrighted content. Recognizing the value of transformation, it seems, is the greatest form of integrity in copyright.