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Research update: book! + thoughts on fan labor

After my last post, I realized belatedly that I've never officially mentioned the book project I'm working on, though a few of you have kindly listened to me go on (and on and on) about it offline and/or in private.

The short version is that I am working on a book proposal for the University of Iowa Press, which is starting a new fan studies series. An editor at the press contacted me a while back and asked if I'd like to write a book for them, to which I said "...um, okay," because while I hadn't given much thought to writing a book about vids (my last book-length project was my PhD dissertation, which primarily inspires thoughts of oh god never again no way), I am not so stupid that I'd say no to that question when somebody from an actual university press comes asking.

I hasten to add that the book is not a done deal: There's no contract, I haven't even turned in the proposal yet, etc. But I am, to my own surprise, actually excited about the prospect. Or at least more excited than terrified. Most days. *facepalm*

I've been kicking around ideas for a while now, both ideas for individual chapters and ideas about the shape and focus for the book as a whole. The thing I keep coming back to--the thing that has always interested me, even back when I was doing literary studies--is authorship and textual ownership. (This interest is part of why the shift over to fan studies and vids never felt like a huge leap to me, even though it looked like one to most of my colleagues.)

So one of the things I want to write about is what exactly constitutes authorship in vidding. These are things that are, I think, obvious to any vidder and most clued-in vidwatchers, but perhaps not so obvious to people not familiar with vids: choice of music, choice of clips, choice of in and out points, duration of clips, order of clips, plus of course any technical manipulations done to the clips (color, speed, other effects), and possibly other things I'm not thinking about...?

Thinking about this topic got me thinking about how fans themselves construct and police authorship, especially in response to perceived plagiarism. I haven't witnessed many vidding plagiarism kerfuffles in the last few years; I don't know whether that's because it happens less, it doesn't happen in the communities I'm involved in, it's harder to detect because there are so many more vids now and vidding communities are so decentralized, it's so common that everybody's just given up making a fuss about it, or some other reason entirely.

But when it did happen and got called out, someone would inevitably show up to make the argument (usually in the most patronizing way possible) that "you stole those clips in the first place so you can't care if someone stole from you" argument--the argument that by remixing rather than making an original video the creator gives up her right to claim authorship. And of course people would promptly resist that argument on multiple grounds, one of which was the work that a vidder put into manipulating those clips--manipulation that, from most vidders' point of view and certainly from mine, renders the vid a fair use of copyrighted materials.

When I rambled about this to my editor, she pointed out that I seemed to be suggesting that fandom operates on a labor theory of value, in which a vidder’s ownership of her work stems from the effort that she puts into selecting, editing, and juxtaposing clips and music. This way of thinking about creativity and authorship is decidedly different from the prevailing capitalist theory of value, enshrined in current copyright law, in which ownership stems from the wealth invested in producing the original source materials, no matter who performed the labor.

I think fandom's tendency to value making over formal ownership also shows up in the way we talk about our shows and the people and companies in charge of them. Many of us don't know or care who officially owns the copyright to our shows--certainly I couldn't tell you, off the top of my head, who owns most of the shows I'm fannish about. Instead, we're more likely to be interested in who made those shows, the creators and writers and producers who gave us the characters we love. (Many of us are also interested in the actors who embody those characters, but that part is more obvious, I think.)

Now, I may be biased on this point, since my history in fandom is tied up with the Buffyverse and thus with The Cult Of Joss, and I do think that Joss is one of a relatively small number of actively fan-friendly high-profile writer-creators in whom fans have a specific emotional investment. But I feel pretty comfortable saying that the phenomenon extends well beyond Joss, especially now that so many writers and show-runners use blogs and Twitter to communicate directly with fans.

I assume that to some extent the fannish perspective is a product of the relatively straightforward relationship between a show and its writers/producers (right there in the episode credits) as compared to the not-always-obvious relationship between a show and its copyright holders, and I suspect it also has to do with the way we think about musicians and print authors.

But to be honest, I'm less interested in causes than effects. How else does this theory of value manifest, and how does it play out in various fannish situations, especially vid-related situations? And how is it being affected by recirculation platforms like YouTube and Tumblr, which tend, structurally speaking, to downplay signs of authorship?

So that is what I've been thinking about for the past week, partly just because I think it's interesting but also because I think it's something that might be useful in fan studies even outside the relatively small circle of people who are interested in vids specifically.

This entry was originally posted on Dreamwidth (comment count unavailable comments). Comment wherever you prefer.


I'm going to be the person that says I don't care if someone rips off my vids. I take it as the person enjoyed it enough to steal it and pretend they made it. I remember when I first started vidding and I would take other people's vids to steal clips out of them. I didn't know it was "wrong." I just didn't know how to get proper clips back in the day. I am all about remixing and reusing and recylcing. I don't mind if someone takes my vid and pastes it on their facebook or pulls clips out of it. I know that's not the typical view, so I respect other's ownership of their vids and don't steal clips like I did when I first started. Ooops.

Along the same lines as Joss, Dan Harmon embraces aspects of fandom.

Tumblr is amazing for remix and reuse of vidding. I've seen vids put up and just hours later someone will pull out gifs in comments. Then someone will write a hashtag fic to go along. It spirals into amazingly creative things.