fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

do we own our fanfic stories and fan-art?

Over at Tumblr, there's a blog, batshitsherlockfans, that has quite a lot of people upset, in my opinion reasonably so. In their own words, it's a "compendium of the looniest of loony posts from Sherlock fans, mostly sourced from Tumblr. Caveat emptor: Twitter and Pinterest nutters are not safe."

So what you get are pictures and threads taken from Tumblr and other third party sites, along with the blog-runners' captions about how absolutely wrong those things are. The commentary is in my often really immature - it actually reminds me in a way of that Princeton kid whose piece on checking his privilege went viral a few weeks back. Some of them are proper reblogs (where you can trace the post back to its original author/artist, and where the original author/artist gets notifications and credit for the activity). Others are what are called reposts, where someone has taken an image and reposted it to a third-party site like Pinterest or WeHeartIt, and then that image has made its way back to the Tumblr site. Rule #1 of Tumblr seems to be DO NOT DO THIS and it's often considered stealing or at least majorly wrong becuase you're using someone else's work in a way they wouldn't approve of. I'm not trying to defend the site. What I would like to do is understand it a bit better, and specifically what exactly is wrong with it, what bothers people so intensely. This was kind of provoked by the current backlash against the site but is a bit longer-simmering than that for me. The Sherlock fandom (both regarding Doyle and the BBC) has a rather fascinating relationship with canon that I'm still trying to wrap my head around.

Right, so in relation to the batshitsherlockfans site (and skipping past their wonderfully offensive coopting of words used to describe mental illness in the interest of space), people upset with this site seem to be upset for two basic reasons: first, that they often share art without proper credit to the original creator, and second, that they are critical (I'd go so far as to say bullying or abusive) of the images. Basically, they're shining a spotlight on what people post on the website, not tos ay this is good but to say good God, this is awful! These seem to be very different charges to me and involve different set of issues.

On the first point, I think internet culture is growing in two rather different directions On the one hand you have content-creators, people who put in the hard work to do something clever that hasn't been done before and because many artists want to share their work with others for a variety of reasons, they put it out there on various sites dedicated to sharing fanworks. Then you have people who don't create but want to share, preferably in a way the people they're sharing with will get the much use out of. And online these days that usually means embedding a picture or video outside of its original context.

I'm not trying to excuse this, particularly when it's done maliciously or carelessly. I do think, though, that there are some situations where we are still working out just what counts as crossing a line. For instance, a lot of people are okay with embedding a YouTube video that only shows the video and title but not any accompanying summary or creator name or comments or whatever else that you'd get on the YouTube page itself, because you can click through and get to the full page if you're so inclined (even though very few people will). There's a part of me that wonders why that's acceptable but (say) embedding an image of a painting from DeviantArt where if you clicked on the image it would take you back to the DA page isn't okay. Or for that matter why it's okay to use an icon someone creates as long as I mention them as the creator on my page of userpics, when 99% of the people who see the icon will only ever see the image used on a different page. I'm also of a generation where hotlinking was considered rude as well so I've had to relearn that tendency and recognize the old concerns don't really apply anymore.

It's a learning curve, and I've messed up (incidentally, quite a bit) on issues like this. My point isn't that those mistakes were okay, but rather that I think in some cases you have a clash of expectations that gives rise to good-faith mistakes, rather than people maliciously trying to steal the credit for what someone else created. I don't think this particular site gets to make that claim; they seem to do it often enough and must have been told this is majorly frowned upon in some circles by now because apparently they will take down art if an artist complains or add credit if asked, begging the question of why they think they're entitled to post the art without that credit until they're asked. But I do think in general, there's sometimes contradictory standards on what kind of sharing is okay in what kind of context, and it can be a bit confusing particularly as standards seem to vary from site to site. (Take for instance the expectations for someone like George Takei sharing a comic on FB without crediting the original comic-artist compared to someone sharing a painting of Aragorn on Tumblr without crediting the original artist.) I do think there's room for good-faith mistakes, even though I don't think this particular site falls into that category.

Then there's the second issue. batshitsherlockfans doesn't just share without giving proper credit; it does this in a shaming context, and I think this is what makes a lot of people feel that the site has crossed a line even more strongly than they would otherwise. The thing is, public shaming sites aren't exactly new. A few examples of non-fannish shaming sites I'm aware of:, ShitMyStudentswrite,,, and the PublicShaming tumblr. There's even a tumblr where people share the absolute worst snippets of fanfic stories in various fandoms, IIRC. The idea that when you put something out there online, other people aren't allowed to mock it, even collect it on a site designed specifically for that purpose, seems a bit like a hard sell to me because it's so common in other contexts.

Now, I don't like that people do this. I think in this particular case the art and threads the site creators are poking fun at are being selected because they're Johnlockish in nature. I'm not a big fan (and that's an understatement if you can't tell) of making fun of people when you judge their work to be unworthy, particularly when it's not the quality of the work (a silent call for them to do better) so much as the nature of the work. But in a weird way, going strictly by the nature of copyright law and intellectual property law (what I know of American law, at least), sites like this are engaging in criticism of a work rather than simply copying it. They probably have more of a legal leg to stand on for why they should be allowed todo this than they would if they just reposted screencaps of someone else's work because they were collecting the best Sherlock art on the internet in a Buzzfeed-like format.

One thing I've noticed as I've gotten more and more involved in the Sherlock fandom (both Doyle and Tolkien) is that its approach to canon seems vastly different than what I saw in the Tolkien fandom. In Tolkien, you have the Tolkien Estate asserting a (legally valid, as far as I can tell) claim to control what's published based on Tolkien's work. They're not going to go after fanfic published for free on the internet, but if someone tried to print and sell a collection of Tolkien-based fanfic, I don't doubt for a second CT & Co. would be all over that like white on rice. So there's an assumption of what you might call harmless illegality, and a drive to recognize and respect Tolkien's legacy. Some people in the Tolkien fandom actually are a little amused by the idea that one fanfic author could be upset if another fanfic author used her headcanon or original character in another story without credit. (I don't; I think what we add to the canon is our own intellectual property.)

With Sherlock, on the other hand, you have not only one of the most-adapted canons in recorded history, you have a long history of people writing what's been called pastiches, original mysteries in the style of Sherlock Holmes. You have movies like The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and shows like Sherlock which take the canon in ways that (arguably) Doyle never intended, and do a wonderful job f playing with it - and do it all for profit. So there's a different set of expectations, really. People do fanart and fanfic and share it for free, but they also use it to create professional, published stories and nonfiction and art and video. And there's this assumption that Doyle almost has the same status as a fairy-tale or mythological story: something that's free to be reinterpreted and rehashed and used as the building blocks, not as the intellectual property of an original creator. (Legally, much of the Doyle canon is in the public domain in the US.) So when someone like Graham Norton or Caitlin Moran brings up fanworks in a derogatory way, I see Sherlock creators being bothered by this, feeling like they've been stolen from in a way I'm not sure I can imagine Tolkien fan-creators being. (Though it's never come up, so perhaps I'm wrong in that expectation?) It certainly seems legitimate for fan-creators to offer commissions where someone will pay them a certain fee and they'll crate a work to meet the person's prompt.

I'm not judging these expectations, btw. The culture when it comes to the original canon and how much the fan-creator "owns" their creation seem to be very different in the two verses, and for perfectly legitimate reasons rooted in long fannish history. But in Sherlock fandom, the line between fandom and professional fannish creator seem much more porous than they ever did in Tolkien. When I'm writing Sherlock or Doyle fanfic, I'm engaging with the source material in a very different way than I do when I write Tolkien fanfic. But that does leave me wondering where the line is drawn. I think with shows like Graham Norton that show fanwork, even if it's not done in a shaming context (which, frankly, it all too often is), the problem is it's being shared in a context which the original fan-creator never intended. And that's a problem for obvious reasons.

But I wonder if there's not also an expectation on some peoples' parts that while their work may be shared, it has to be shared in a way that is positive? In Tumblr, there seem to be some unwritten rules about adding commentary to things you share and the way you discuss certain things which I never quite seem to be able to get a handle of, and most times when I disagree with something I just let it pass in silence because it's not worth the trouble. But if I was compelled to react critically to someone's work for whatever reason, sometimes I get the impression that there's not an accepted way to do that, and at some level that bothers me because so much of how art works is being free to react to things, not just say "I liked this." Art, at least my art, has always been a dialogue between myself and other creators, including the source material but also ideas developed by other fans. And I like to think others would feel free to do the same with me. Actually, I can't think of a better compliment than someone taking what I created and developing that idea in another direction. At least if it was done in a way that made it clear this was a new thing which i didn't necessarily approve of.

That may not be a universal expectation, though, and I'd be interested to hear what other people think. to what extent (if any) do you think you "own" the fanfic stories you create, and to what extent are you indebted to the authors whose worlds you're writing within? If you wanted to interact with another fan-artist's or fan-author's work--either to share it or to create something else built off of it--what kind of ways do you think are okay to do that and what ways of doing all that would cross some kind of line in your mind? Does it matter whether the fan-creation is done for a profit or a commission or sold professionally? Done to complement the original artist or criticize them or tell your own story using their framework? Have you noticed different expectations in dfferent fandoms, and do you have any thoughts on that, why something is okay in one fandom but not the other?

I know this can be a touch subject, so I hope people can react to these questions (and everyone's answers) in the way they're offered. I'm trying to understand and see what other people think, not say that any specific case (least of all that Tumblr site I mentioned which seems immature but also more than a bit not-good IMO) are okay in the way they have handled these kinds of issues. So with that in mind... any thoughts?
Tags: fandom, sherlock, tolkien
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