On Original Content and Gray-Area Fanworks

In our last newsletter, we mentioned that we were evaluating the policy on hosting original fic on the Archive of Our Own. This has generated a lot of awesome and passionate discussion, but also a lot of confusion, so we’d like to clarify a few things. (A personal note from Rebecca Tushnet: I phrased the inquiry badly, and I apologize. I’m 100% committed to supporting transformative works, as is everyone on the Archive.)

To address one of the main causes for concern — we are all on the same page in terms of caring about fanworks FIRST. That is why all of us here are working on the OTW and the AO3. That is our main goal and that is always going to be the main goal. The question we’re chewing over is not whether to make the AO3 also into a site for hosting original works but what to do when fans using the AO3 also use it to post works which aren’t clearly transformative works, but which are considered part of the fannish experience by some fans.

We’re talking about things like anthropomorfic, works which are in a mixed archive that needs rescuing via Open Doors, doujinshi from yaoi fandom, and other examples (there’s a longer discussion below, if you want to read on). There are a lot of works in this grey area which are hard to pin down. Among other things, this makes our current policy a practical problem of enforcement. We don’t want people who are posting works that they consider fannish to have to wonder if Abuse is suddenly going to show up and say “take that down.” This is the reason why we started to consider changing the policy — not because we actively want to host original fiction.

Many people have expressed a concern that loosening the policy on original works might weaken our legal position. We would not even be considering a change if we felt in any way that this would be the case (see below for a more detailed explanation of why we’re not concerned on this score). We also wouldn’t consider a change if doing so would consume more of our resources. In fact, it’s the other way around. What would consume more of our resources in this case would be policing fannishness. We don’t have a giant Support and Abuse team (we always are looking for more volunteers!) and we don’t really want to be making fine-line judgments about the fannishness of content.

Obviously we would have to reinstate a more aggressive policy and come up with some way to police it if original fiction did somehow start to take over the archive or consume too many resources. But we think that this is very unlikely. The archive is fundamentally designed for fanworks, and that’s what our coding resources are always going to go towards.

Specifically — since this also seems relevant — this is not a choice between hosting original fic vs. hosting fanart or vids. If it were, of course we would choose fanart and vids, without question. We’re already working on that; but this conversation has no bearing on that at all. Hosting fanart and vids is a major technical project that we are working on (as fast as we can!). A lot of design and content policy and coding groundwork is being done towards that goal and has been for some time. You can help us out on that, in fact, by giving us ideas!

Your comments and suggestions are very welcome, either now or later on. All proposed TOS changes are posted for public comment, and we are only now beginning to consider what a change might look like.

For those who are interested in even more detailed discussion, read on to learn why we are thinking about this now.

The archive is not a place for all fictional works and it will never be. Since we began planning for the Archive, though, some fans have been asking for the ability to archive certain non-canon-based works along with their canon-based works. Archivists with mixed collections have told us that they want to use Open Doors, but want to make sure that their contributors are all welcome on an ongoing basis. We try to take such requests from fans seriously, just as we decided very early on to accept real-person fiction despite the fact that the legal and social issues surrounding RPF differ substantially from those surrounding fictional-person fiction.

We’re thinking about various types of fannish activity (in art and vids as well as text) and how we can write a policy that is inclusive of those traditions while not opening us up to original creative works in general.

We are also running into persistent problems of blurry edges and enforcement, as noted above. In practice, archive users seem to be using the tag “original” in multiple ways.

1. Mission

The main question is whether a change would interfere with our mission, something we take very seriously. The OTW is committed to protecting fanworks and serving fans, and fans define themselves (and the things they create) in a lot of different ways. In particular, we are trying to do a better job of making welcome international fans and fans from other communities that clearly are making transformative fanworks, but that don’t always look exactly like the fannish communities many of our Board and volunteers come from.

When we started getting input on this topic, we found that in many parts of fandom, the distinction between original work and fanfic is kept very clear; in other parts of fandom, this distinction is extremely unclear, and archives (the kinds of archives which might ask Open Doors for help preserving them) include both kinds of works.

Here are some examples on a spectrum — probably to each of you some of these will seem more worth hosting and protecting, and others less so, but hopefully they illustrate the broad grey area we are concerned about:

  • Some Xena writers have embraced the idea that “the characters of Xena and Gabrielle were in fact archetypes that could be explored in different times and diverse cultural backgrounds.” In such “uber” fic, it is apparently common not to mention Xena or Gabrielle by name, not to have flashbacks or other direct references to the show characters, and otherwise to proceed by creating new archetypal female heroes and companions. The context provides the fannish linkage.
  • In major fannish challenges like Yuletide that we want the archive to be able to host, participants often push the edges of fannish sources — things like the song “Jesse’s Girl” become inspiration for stories, without really being something we can call fandoms.
  • Similarly, in Anthropomorfic, we have stories not just in the fairly clearly defined Mac/PC fandom, which has a source, but about characters like “Fandom” and “LJ”, and pairings like “Coffee/Milk/Sugar” which don’t clearly fall into the category of transformative fanworks, and yet are part of clearly fannish experiences like the Porn Battles and challenges.
  • In Japan, “BL” (“Boys Love”, often called “yaoi” outside of Japan) fandom includes a broad range of creators and formats. Fanfic/art/comics and original fic/art/comics are often seen as two genres of the same fan activity. Also, Doujinshi (sometimes referred to as Japanese “fan comics”) are defined mostly by production, distribution, and audience rather than by content. (Some feature original characters; some feature pre-existing ones.) The crucial distinction is that they are self-published outside of the mainstream manga industry. Both English-speaking and German yaoi fandoms similarly have a genre of original work, sometimes called “original fandom,” that is very popular and strongly connected to fanfic-producing fandom.
  • Jane Austen fandom boards often integrate original work into their forums, mostly Regency romance. In at least one board, the sub-forum for original fic is for original fic and fanfiction of other canons that are not Austen. They’re similar in style, similarly considered, and written and read by the same people.
  • Some writers of original slash consider their work to be a variant of their fanfiction, and it’s hard to draw an obvious line between for instance, an RPF story with the characters renamed, versus a completely original slash story.

In short: if someone strongly considers their output fannish, we don’t want to be the fandom police telling them that it isn’t. We don’t want to have a policy that would force Open Doors to say to a fannish archivist who needs our help that we would only save half her archive, even if we think the archive as a whole is an important part of fannish history and the stories in the archive talk to one another even if some are original and some are specifically fannish.

2. Our legal and nonlegal missions are overlapping, but not identical

Not all fan fiction, even very narrowly defined, needs the legal advocacy to which we are committed: Jane Austen fanworks, for example, are based on sources in the public domain, and they are welcome on the archive, along with works based on multiple other public domain sources. RPF for 18th century people, too, has no conceivable legal issues.

Additionally, though we’ve seen some concerns expressed on this point, we do not think that allowing non-canon based fiction weakens the Archive’s legal position any more than allowing fiction based on public domain sources or RPF does. Transformative works are valuable for the specific insights they offer, whether into a work or a whole culture, and that’s true even though there are also good stories that don’t count as transformative works. If a particular fanwork were challenged, we would defend the choice of that particular source.

3. Resources

The Archive is designed for fanworks and fandom; all our features are designed to serve them best; that is our continued commitment. Our tech people do not anticipate a technical/hosting/tagging burden from allowing the kinds of original works under discussion. If that changed, we would always prioritize core fanworks (though we would not remove any works already in the archive that didn’t violate the content policy — that is, there would be no purging).

In terms of resources, enforcing a ban also presents continuing challenges. For example, if an author selects a fandom and claims that a work is just an extreme AU, like the Xena Ubers discussed above, we would rather not start evaluating content. We might not even have staff familiar with the fandom.

Side note: This issue has also provided a useful preview of art policy: our discussions have made it pretty clear that we don’t want to spend much time judging a creator’s choice of connection with a fandom in visual art, any more than we’d want to evaluate whether a piece of fan fiction was in character. So, if White Collar inspires a fanartist to draw a picture, absent any other concerns, such as spamming, we would honor “White Collar” as a fandom tag for that artwork.

If we moved to a rule that works on the Archive are allowed as long as they fit into some identifiable fannish tradition, even if they don’t belong to a specific canon, we would alleviate most or all of our enforcement issues. Deciding whether something is meta/commercial spam/a personal journal is easier than deciding whether fiction by fans is “fannish enough.” We also anticipate enforcing our noncommercialization policy strictly: authors would not be allowed to promote sale of non-Archive works by “advertising” on the archive with stories.

4. Where do we go from here?

For those who are concerned about original fiction, we would welcome your suggestions for policy lines that we would be able to easily enforce. We encourage your thoughts on how you would deal with some or all of the gray-area categories mentioned above, from anthropomorfic to original slash.

Archive of Our Own
  1. Laura Shapiro commented:

    Thank you very much for taking the time to explain all of this.

  2. DarkEmeralds commented:

    Thank you for clarifying the matter. Every discussion I’ve entered into on this topic in the last week or so has discovered those very fuzzy edges you talk about, and I applaud the OTW’s willingness to take the most open possible stance; at the same time, I’m glad to know the question was never intended to be about opening the archive for the posting of purely original works. (That’s what blogs are for, no?)

    I hadn’t appreciated all the nuances, like doujinshi, and the special areas like super-AU-dom that some fandoms get into more than others. Fandom is never as simple as we think–even if we already think that it’s wildly complex!

  3. Red Eft commented:

    If we moved to a rule that works on the Archive are allowed as long as they fit into some identifiable fannish tradition, even if they don’t belong to a specific canon, we would alleviate most or all of our enforcement issues.

    Hrmmm. What counts as identifiable? What counts as tradition? Would you have to- what, write an argument, cite sources? Something about that makes me nervous. My suggestion would be that it be defined by the user- ie, if they feel the work that they’ve produced is fannish, however they define it, then it is, no questions asked. This might lead to people ‘sneaking in’ original work, but I think that would be minimal. (Obviously, if it wasn’t minimal, the policy would need to be revisited.) It’s not perfect, but I feel like… having to point to fannish traditions seems like it would involve more enforcement, not less.

  4. ratcreature commented:

    Thanks for the clarification. I think original works that are part of collections that are predominantly fannish and taken on by Open Doors in their entirety are somewhat of a special case.

    But when it comes to works that are archived directly in the AO3 I mostly want everyone using the archive treated equally, and the policies be the same across fandoms, without a lot of special cases and individual exceptions codified in the policies. The same across media too, once AO3 allows to archive art (and other media, like personally I’d love to see filks archived ever since I’ve seen on fanlore that filk CDs and such have been produced and that that wasn’t just a live thing). Or at least as equal as factors outside of the archive’s control, such as laws, allow. I understand that for example rules about underage character sex may likely have to be different for visual than for written fanworks etc. but as much as it is possible I’d like the rules to be the same for everyone. That is really the most important point for me.

    So if you say that e.g. for the Japanese doujinshi original ones would be allowed, then western original fancomics should be allowed as well, because whether it is comic fan publishing their autobiographical comic fanzine or a manga fan shouldn’t matter. I mean, I have been in comic fandom before I found online tv fandom, and publishing your own comic in a fanzine with a few copies (or on your website) is something that I definitely see as fanac, and for years those comic fanzines were the only things I’ve known as fannish works (admittedly with a fluid field towards professionalism in self-published independent comics). Those kinds of comics were the first fandom stuff I archived on my website too.

    Similarly if for one genre being say a nonprofit work of a genre fan is enough to be eligible, e.g. say you allowed all original yaoi, it would be unfair to deny that to other genres that have genre fans doing amateur original work.

    But personally I think that allowing works that are product of being a genre fan (or a fan of a medium), is too broad a definition to be practical, no matter how closely it resembles fanworks for particular sources in the production environment. I mean, certainly there are communities of comic fans, sf fans, fantasy fans, yaoi fans, whatever, who function quite a lot like communities of fans of specific comics, or tv series, etc, and both groups produce “fanworks”, in the sense that they are works by fans often made in the context a fannish community. That definition of “fanwork” would include pretty much anything with a creative community or at least all amateur/non-profit work, like writing original science fiction with the writers group of your SF club or publishing your autobiographical comic zine or making your no-budget amateur film etc etc. That is all done in communities who are fans of something and who practice fandom in their way. And to pick some “traditions” over others, I’d be very hestiant to do that.

    So I think that the overall guidelines should ask that a work is based on some other text/canon/source specifically, rather than just “fannish” in the sense of genre or medium related fannishness, or the archive would be really really broad. Which I could accept as well if it works for the OTW’s resources (it would certainly work for me, if I could put up my really old original comics in the archive as well, I just don’t expect I’d be able to!). What I’m wary of is trying to pin down specific exceptions, because like I said I think the rules should be as universal as possible.

    I can see the point about the content policing and its problems, I don’t want to see a lot of that on AO3 either, both for philosophical as well as for practical reasons, but for me it would work well enough that it is left to the discretion of the users what they see as “fanwork” within the archive’s policy guidelines, whatever those will turn out to be.

  5. ciaan commented:

    I think that the policy you laid out here sounds about like the policy I would want. In the shortest terms, say “this is an archive for fanworks” and then leave it up to the creators to decide if their works are fannish, without really policing that. :)

  6. ~Doro commented:

    None of these examples seem gray to me. They all fit neatly into one of two categories: works that are based on a source and works that belong to a genre. Xena ubers are based on Xena: Warrior Princess, RPF AUs are based on RPF characters, a story that is based on a song is still a story that is based on a source and you don’t have to explain who Coffee/Milk/Sugar are because everyone who has ever had a coffee will be familiar with them. On the other hand, Boys Love/original slash and original romance are genres.

    For those who are concerned about original fiction, we would welcome your suggestions for policy lines that we would be able to easily enforce.

    Basically there seem to be two options:

    1. You allow everything that is based on a source
    2. You allow everything that is based on a source or belongs to a genre (all genres have fan communities attached to them so if one genre is allowed, the same should be true for all other genres)

    Both options would be fairly easy to enforce. If something is based on a source, the creator should be able to tag it with the appropriate fandom label and if it belongs to a genre, they should be able to name the genre. Policing the lines therefore would only consist in requesting that creators tag their works with the source they are based on or with the genre they belong to. If the creators don’t think it is based on a source or doesn’t belong to genre, the work should be removed. (However, the existence of original creative work that doesn’t belong to a genre seems unlikely, so all original creative noncommercial work would be allowed as long as it’s tagged appropriately. Personally I think this definition is too broad and therefore the archive should stick to works that are based on a source and let the creators decide if their work fits that definition.)