The founders of FanLib.com saw no reason they couldn't cash in on the internet traffic. Formerly from Yahoo, Chris Williams, the CEO and co-founder of FanLib, has an impressive resume. FanLib has corporate backing and $3 million of venture capital invested into the site.
"My colleagues and I want it to be the ultimate place for talented writers like you," Naomi of FanLib wrote to fanfiction writers. "In case you're wondering, FanLib's not new to fanfiction. Since 2001, they've been producing really cool web events with people like CBS, Showtime and HarperCollins to bring fan creativity into the big leagues."
FanLib did their homework. "We scouted for serious fanfiction authors on various sites and invited only a few hundred based on their writing and impact in the community," co-founder David Williams says, and fans agree that their search focused on popular writers. What's a "serious" fanfiction writer? A serious fanfiction writer could have anywhere from 30 to 100 stories, with upwards of 700 regular readers subscribed to their blogs or LiveJournal accounts. Currently, fanfiction writers do their own marketing through networking with other fans, posting in blogs, fan-run archives, and various fanfiction communities targeted to their readers.
Unfortunately, FanLib did little more than ask the writers to hand over the product.
FanLib's creators immediately ran into trouble with fans critical of FanLib's plans to turn profits on their freely provided fanfiction with no compensation to the authors beyond t-shirts and prizes. To fill the site with content, authors who signed up were issued points for each story they uploaded, earning $50 gift certificates from Amazon.com. Fanfiction writers were also unhappy at a clause where FanLib owned the rights to any fiction they posted.
Fans pointed out that FanLib's stringent TOS shunted all risks of copyright violation to the fanfiction writers, though this was not vastly different from other fan sites according to fandom_lawyers, who call it a poorly assembled boilerplate. Fanfiction lies in a legal gray area where it is largely protected because it is non-profit, since it is hard to prove harm where no money has changed hands. This protection fans feared could be threatened by FanLib's profits. In the past, George Lucas has sent "cease and desist" letters to a large Star Wars website, and Anne Rice has done the same for fanfiction based on her vampire chronicles. Other authors are more indulgent. Rather than fight a legal battle, the sites either moved or closed, though new Star Wars fanfiction sites appeared almost immediately, proving fanfiction was about as easy to stamp out as dandelions.
Even before FanLib's launch, a group of Tolkien fans voiced concerns about their privacy. FanLib sign-ups originally required writers give an address and phone number. Co-founder David Williams responded in lotrfanfiction's forum with a vehement defense of FanLib. "Hi, My name is David and I'm the co-founder of FanLib.com. I'd like to maybe clear up some misunderstandings. WE DO *NOT* ASK FOR ADDRESS AND PHONE NUMBER ON THE SITE. This is purely a misunderstanding. It probably arises from when people who participate in our contests and giveaways claim a prize." Later in the conversation he suggested the fans had mistakenly browsed a different site.
Regarding FanLib's ownership rights he explained, "Speaking of our Terms of Service, it says, just one sentence after the one quoted in this post, 'The foregoing license granted by You TERMINATES ONCE YOU REMOVE OR DELETE A SUBMISSION FROM THE WEBSITE.' So, the only rights we ask for cover what's actually posted on the site, and only while it's posted. It wouldn't be appropriate to distribute your work without these rights. BTW, you can also make submissions private if you like. We ask for "derivative" rights only so we can excerpt and summarize fanfics when we showcase them on our homepage. We took great pains to make sure this was all done properly and in a way that's good for fanfic authors."
He also defended FanLib's intention to profit from fanfiction, explaining LiveJournal and FanFiction.net also profited, though it was unclear how LiveJournal's community networking service profited specifically from fanfiction. "In fact," he said, "based on public stats for those two sites, they're for-BIG-PROFIT."
Eventually, David apologized for his tone, while FanLib had stopped requesting personal information. The TOS still gave writers the "heebie-jeebies," and they did not appreciate the denial that FanLib had ever requested this information. Said Nieriel Raina, "I'm afraid there is not much you can do to remove my very bad first impression of your site. Not to mention when I tried to join initially, it DID ask for personal information and I'm not the only one, yet you deny this. Sorry, you won't find me there."
FanLib launched this week to negative blowback among the very writers -- and source of revenue -- they hoped to court. The contentious and divisive fanfiction communities were uncharacteristically unanimous in their dismay at what they regarded as an outside big business interloper. Two separate public appeals were made by popular fanfiction writers with subscribers in the thousands to avoid FanLib. Within three days, 23 of the 60 articles that appeared in the newsletter Meta Fandom (metafandom) concerned FanLib, none of them positive, although a few suggested FanLib might force the court case that would decide fanfiction's legal standing once and for all.
"While I don't mind the increasing public light being brought to bear on fanfiction, I do strongly object to people who aren't fandom making money off it," wrote one.
"It smells of exploitation and viral marketing," said another.
They seem to be right. FanLib's marketing brochure describes its new entertainment marketing service to be like "a coloring book, players must 'stay within the lines'" where a mass audience can "collaborate democratically in a fun online game that you control." [Emphasis theirs.] They promise their partners "Full monitoring & management of submissions & players." Which is odd, given David Williams' answer to hadesphoenix on FanLib's forum. When asked, "who sponsors the site and why? (Like, are we under surveillance or something?)" David replied, "You are not under surveillance by us. Fan fiction has been going on for a long time in a kind of black market and we understand that the fact that we're trying to do it commercially and out in the open makes a lot of people skeptical."
The frustrated CEO of FanLib, Chris Williams responded via LiveJournal comments to several of his critics, "hey everyone, I'm Chris one of the founders of FanLib> it's really late and i have been working on the site all day. I'm exhausted but i just realized what was going on here and all of the commentsts are making me sick. we're a small company with 10 emplyees who work 16 hours a day to try and make a great website. we're real people! with feelings and everything! we have been working on this and dreaming about it for a long time and you are just here to shit on it without giving us a chance. i care deeply about what you think but this is crazy. we're good people here and you make us sound like we're an evil corporation or the govt. sending your kids to war or something. we really are all about celebrating fanfiction and fanfiction readers and writers. im sorry this is so short and please excuse the fact that i am cutting and pasting this across a bunch of ljs but i gotta get some sleep."
Telesilla, one of the Meta Fandom contributors, opened the floor. "In a comment to a previous post of mine, Chris Williams, the co-founder and CEO of FanLib, linked me to FanLib's FAQ and told me to consider the dialog open. Therefore, I have gone through the FAQ question by question and expressed my concerns."
Williams replied that he did not have time to respond, but he would organize a Q & A session soon. Fans were unimpressed. "While I completely understand being busy with a new project, you should be aware that in the last 24 hours or so, you've managed to confirm all of my initial reservations about FanLib and add a few new ones," commented Darkrosetiger.
Still Chris Williams assures fans that, "I believe whole-heartedly that fanfiction authors and readers should be celebrated and supported. That is my mission in life."
FanLib miscalculated. Probably as a result of past "cease and desist" letters against them, fanfiction communities are close knit, where membership within the community is an important credential, one which FanLib lacks and the owner of the long-standing FanFiction.net has. The established FanFiction.net lost its cachet and many of its more popular writers with its 2002 decision to remove NC-17 fiction, one reason FanLib had to cherry-pick through LiveJournal and multiple archives for its invitees. Unlike professional writers, online fanfiction writers are not hungry for venues to publish. There was nothing in it for the writers. Offers of FanLib t-shirts did not entice them.
FanLib also failed to research the demographic of their writers, with a patronizing tone and site design aimed at teenagers, where many of the fanfiction writers they invited were professionals and university students in their 20s, 30s, and older, including their own employee jdsampson who'd been writing fanfiction since the 1970s. Yet the owners appear confident that a "young audience of teens [make] up such large part of the community." Their current ad campaign, featuring a 98-lb weakling (who doesn't read fanfiction) alongside an muscleman who reads fanfiction on FanLib.com, left fans mystified and vaguely insulted. It seemed to be aimed at a stereotypical Star Trek fan with Spock ears in an ill-fitting uniform and a Klingon phrasebook. The fact that FanLib's founders were men counted against them as well with several prominent writers. According to one 2003 survey, 96% of fanfiction writers are women, and the exploitation of women writers is a current hot topic. Among the feminists, an attempt to make money off of women fanfiction writers with no compensation went over like a lead balloon.
Most of all, the unresolved question of the legality of fanfiction hangs over the community. Is it derivative "transformative" work protected under Fair Use, or does using another writer's characters in your story count as copyright infringement? This is less cut and dried than it seems, as works such as Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea use characters from Bronte's Jane Eyre in the same fashion that fanfiction writers do. Jane Eyre, however, has an expired copyright. According to professional writers, writing another author's characters seems to be acceptable so long as that author is dead. Yet parody of living authors' works is accepted. Is a story where Frodo is gay a parody?
The legal limbo of fanfiction was raised on FanLib's forums, and the owners replied with a question. "Do you think fanfiction authors should be persecuted?" Chris Williams answered. "Something just feels so right about fanfiction."
Many fanfiction writers crave legitimacy for their hobby, which FanLib's publishing partners HarperCollins seemed to provide. However, FanLib's partners only endorse specific tie-in contests on the site. A careful reading of FanLib's TOS revealed that legitimacy to be a thin veneer. FanLib had legally distanced themselves from fanfiction even more than was usual, with a clause that fans defend FanLib. Says Caer, a fanfiction author, "In real life, I write magazine nonfiction –- and I would run, run, run from a contract with legal liability terms like FanLib’s. I wouldn’t even try to negotiate better terms; I don’t work with publications who try to screw over their authors like that." In fact, the TOS was designed primarily to protect the owners of the copyright. David Williams explains in iMedia Connection, "If, for example, someone submitted a script about a talking tulip, and months later, a singing daisy appeared on The L Word, there is nothing to prevent the submitter from claiming Showtime stole the idea. FanLib lawyers worked painstakingly to develop an industrial strength online user agreement and set of rules in order to mitigate these concerns."
Fan reaction against FanLib was as angry and intense as if they had discovered a fraud. At the very least FanLib was guilty of exploitation. While FanLib earnestly marketed to their advertising partners, they never attempted to get a buy-in from the fans themselves, seeming to assume that the fans would play along the way children will follow an ice cream truck. Not so. David and Chris Williams, FanLib's co-founders, were caught flat-footed, outsiders in a culture they had hoped to profit from, but did not understand.
I'm open for edits, comments, and changes. I probably won't have time for a lot of discussion this week -- last week of classes -- but I'll read everything and comment where I can.
Thank you, guys, for all the peer review edits.
ETA: Added correction. Chris Williams did reply.
ETA2: Additional correction. From jdsampson at fanthropology, corporate sponsors are only associated with specific contests.
ETA3: Added Chris Williams' assurance that fanfiction was his mission in life.
ETA4: Added Chris Williams' statements about the legality of fanfiction, and a bit more about ff.net.
ETA5: Updated with information from Fandom Lawyers.
ETA6: Added changes from taverymate on fandom statistics.
*ETA7: Correction from wrenlet, Chris Williams was with Yahoo, not Google.
ETA8: Added revealing FanLib marketing brochure info from Riba Rambles.
Links to posts about FanLib:
Pawprints of the Mind 'FanLib Association Chain'
Fitness for the Occasion 'Corporations and People: Content and Control'
Valleywag 'BROUHAHA: Fanlib's storyline gets hijacked'
Slashdot.com 'Fan Fiction Writers Balk at FanLib.com'
Picked up at Zicos 'Fan Fiction Writers Balk At FanLib.com'
Mary McNamara 'Internet Goes Nova Over Showtime, Starz, Moonves Partnered FanLib.com'
Califa Police Gazette 'FanLib: Boo!'
Chris Williams Responds to Fan Concerns in Jenkins' Blog
BBC's Chris Vallance 'FanLib and Fan Fiction'
Henry Jenkins (author of Textual Poachers) 'Transforming Fan Culture into User-Generated Content: The Case of FanLib'
Liblog 'FanLib - Marketing Fan Fiction'
Teresa Nielsen Hayden at Making Light 'FanLib wholly exploded'
Lis Riba 'FanLib: Chump Change from My2Centences'
Scalzi at Ficlets Blog 'Corporatized Fan Fiction?'
Jim Macdonald at Making Light 'Fanfiction, Monetized'
John at the Whatever blog 'FanLib to Fanficcers: All Your Writing Are Belong To Us'
Sci-fi author Tobias Buckell 'FanLib'
Ivan Askwith at MIT Convergence Culture Consortium 'FanLib Provides Another Home For FanFic Writers'
Designated Sidekick on The Candy Floss Aneurism 'Hey Fanlib - An open letter from a marketer watching yet another fan connected company self harm'
akfrankel on Killerstartups.com 'Fanfiction In Demand'
Studio Splurd 'FanLib'
Silent Hill Fanfiction Archive 'FanLib is Bad'
David Kaplan on paidContect.org 'Storytelling Social Net FanLib Launches With $3 Million In Funding'
7/26/06:HarperCollins Press Release HarperCollins Publishers and FanLib Launch Groundbreaking Online Community Events'
John Fine in BusinessWeek 'Putting The Fans To Work'
'Speedpainting + this FanLib thing'
Synecdochic compares FanLib and LiveJournal's TOS'
Stewardess has links to more articles.
And mockery, anyone? life_wo_fanlib (watchdog group)
Important note (added 5/25/07): It's been brought to my attention by scarah2 that FanLib is asking members for their FanFiction.net emails and passwords. I set up an account with FanLib and checked this out. It's true (this is a screen capture of the page requesting my password). Do not give out passwords under any circumstances. This is basic internet security.
FanFiction.net says, "May 22nd, 2007 -- The login process has been enhanced to prevent 'bots' from attempting to access your accounts. Please note to never share your email and password combination with anyone."
Lastly, there's a wild rumor that LJ's being pressured to ban users partially due to complaints arising from the FanLib situation.
I have had many requests to link to this post. Please feel free.