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Honor among thieves – Or why most fanfiction writers don’t use creative commons licenses

Today I was looking at a video and saw the creative commons logo flash by.
In the free art world, Creative Commons licenses are the winners of the copy left licenses. People like the idea of publishing things in a way that keeps the art in “the commons” and still allows people to get credit for making it.

One of the largest free art cultural movements today is the fanfiction movement. People all over the world are writing stories about their favorite characters and publishing them for free on the internet. So why don’t these two movements overlap?

I would be lying if I said that I haven’t seen fan works published under CC licenses. I have, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Fanfiction culture, for the most part, stands outside of the free culture movement. Why?

It has to do with law, society, and culture.

Fan fiction is illegal. No matter how you slice it, most fan fiction stories describe characters who, according to copyright law, belong to someone else. Whether you believe that characters can be owned is irrelevant. The facts are that if one so chose, one could seek legal recourse to prevent a person from publishing a story containing characters if they owed the copyright for such characters. This makes fanfiction writers outlaws.

The copy left movement, which includes Creative Commons, is a movement that seeks to use laws to keep works in the public domain. Therefore the CC licenses expect law to be on their side, and will use legal means to prevent others from removing or claiming the work.

The two movements are on opposite sides of the legal divide.

Telling stories is natural for people, and telling stories about heroes that everyone knows is as old as people sitting around a campfire, if not older. Our modern day heroes are characters in books, TV, and movies: Iron man, Spongebob, Elizabeth Bennett. We tell stories using these characters, and because they are familiar, people can easily understand them.

In the modern day, however, some stories are forbidden. It isn’t so much illegal to tell the stories as to sell the stories, but as publishing revenues continue to drop, it is increasingly uncertain how much pressure will be exerted to prevent and control stories written by fans. Fear of the copyright owners has led fans to gather together for protection. They have their own private culture and are wary of outsiders. Since society has labeled them pirates and thieves for doing what they can’t help doing, they form their own society with their own rules and their own laws. The society at large may reject them, but there is honor among thieves.

The copy left movement also has their own society. A society of idealists who are fighting against the system that takes works out of the commons and puts them into private hands. They have their own specialized language and myths (e.g. the commons). Neither group seems to be reaching out to others. If others convert and conform to their subculture they will most likely be accepted. I, however, see very few people attempting to bridge the divide between cultures which have vastly different philosophies, languages, and goals.

The internet is fractal. It is not a field where we can see everyone, it is instead a shoreline with many hidden coves and edges. It is easy for a person in a subculture to believe that they are seeing the entire world. When inside of a closed culture, as both the copy left and fanfiction movements are, one sees mostly those who one interacts with. Although CC licenses are making gains on online sites where individuals post their own content, I have seen no movement to include such licenses on fanfiction sites. I think this is because many fan writers think that such a license is dishonest. If one uses characters that others claim to own, what right has the fanfiction author to tell others how they can use them? If the law says that a person cannot claim stories that they have written as being their own work, why should one acknowledge the law at all?

Where Are We?
Now we exist in a world where the dominant legal culture oppresses artists rather than supporting them. Acts of creativity which should be celebrated are considered illegal or at least illegitimate unless they are backed by the official publishing, music, and film industries.

One group hoping to hold on to individual rights is the free culture movement. One hoping simply to create is the fanfiction culture. As long as fan works are considered illegal usurpers on the legal rights of others they can never find a common ground. Fan fiction needs to be decriminalized. Copyright law needs to be changed.

About rozzychan

Rosalyn Hunter is the principal writer on the series Lunatics. Please support us. http://lunatics.tv


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