Carrie Cutforth

Authorless Arthur

December 8, 2011
King Arthor statue

Whereby I start out by giving you the impression I may be a communist BUT prove I’m a rampant capitalist and cover a lot of ground YOU ALREADY KNOW (but I say it sooooo well).

Please read Andrea Phillips and Scott Walker’s takes to see much better articulated opinions on the topic than mine.

The problem regarding “value co-creation” isn’t at all about monetization as some have commented (and I do agree with Andrea Phillips that I think part of the problem is terminology – sorry, Scott). The problem or rather the confusion arises from exclusively Western ideas about intellectual property: the fundamental idea being that ideas can be owned as a form of capital and therefore monetized. It is important to understand that this notion came out of the modernist era, which triumphed the individual artist as an author of ideas (and therefore owner of ideas). This is a very heady statement that is doesn’t exist in many cultures, including much of Europe’s own pre-modernist culture.

Largely in the West, one subscribes to the idea that someone can be an author of a work and therefore profit (as J.K. Rowling does with Harry Potter) or ideas can’t be owned as it is in the public domain (as in the authorless King Arthur) and anyone is free to create “original” works based on public domain ideas that can then be monetized for their specificity apart from the original work (such as this forgettable addition). Fan fiction that is created as “an expression of love” to extend the storyworld that the fans do not wish to see the borders of, as Andrea Phillips notes, is traditionally not monetized. However, to hint it is not monetized because it is simply the product of a fan’s expression of love is not accurate. Fan fiction is often not monetized because the fans do not have permission to monetize it (that is assuming it is good enough for anyone to be willing to pay for it). Fan fiction is only allowed to be created in the West with the expressed (or inexpressed) permission of the original author (unless in the public domain). Fans get this permission by the author’s reputation of not suing the fans. This is where vibrant fan communities coalesce. Harry Potter has a huge fan fiction community because J.K. Rowling hasn’t rattled its cage. Whereas other properties such as the Archie Comics property are notorious for cease and desist actions and that is why one is hard-pressed to find Archie Comic fan fiction (especially when it comes to slash). This is where Andrea Phillip’s take on fan fiction being “expressions of love” is much more romantic and altruistic and a lot less seedy than mine is, likely because I obviously have much more perverted tastes in fan fiction. (I can almost hear the collective “Ew,” as your read my last sentence).

But back to the whole idea regarding the ownership/authorship of ideas. This is strictly the paradigm of the West – one that took several hundred years to develop to the point where it is now. In other cultures, this paradigm is non-existent: such as in China, which drives Western companies crazy when they try to import the Western paradigm inside the borders of China. In China, anyone can open a Starbucks across the corner of a “legitimate” Starbucks (owned by Starbucks) where even the irony is full of lead. In China: there is no counterfeit. And just why should a Louis Vuitton purse made in one factory be any different from a Louis Vuitton purse made in a factory twenty steps over by the same process and materials and often by the same workers be considered illegitimate? Because someone, Louis Vuitton (presumably???), designed it and therefore OWNS THE IDEA of it: Louis Vuitton who has *likely* never stepped foot, and by stepping foot I mean placing his foot on the peddle of the sewing machine, in one of the factories in China that makes his purses, *counterfeit* or otherwise. We refer to knock-offs, the reproduction of a stolen ideas, as fakes.  Even when the fakes are work of fiction such as a black market Harry Potter DVD, it is called a fake not fan fiction. It is only fan fiction if the work has been adapted and changed, where original content that the fan has worked hard to produce has been asserted into the mix. But what most people don’t know is that while China may lead in piracy it also leads in Harry Potter fan fiction, which may or may not be monetized. I tried desperately to illegally download a copy of Lena Henningsen’s chapter, “The Politics of Fakery: Harry Potter between Fake and Fan Fiction” to erudite more on the matter but sadly NO ONE has bothered to try to illegally profit from it by hosting free but ad-supported copies online. Quelle surprise.

This is where there is some legitimate confusion about value co-creation. Legitimizing and monetizing fan fiction may seem a bit like communism where the *workers* (fans) collectively own a piece of the intellectual property pie. But in this other paradigm, other paradigms: no one owns ideas — one can only monetize the material object (or immaterial object in the case of digital) that they produced/re-produced, never having to give a cut to the original IP owner because the owner doesn’t own the idea. No one can monetize the idea of Harry Potter, not even J. K. Rowling herself, in order to get a royalty or cut of each and every black market and grey market and market market copy of Harry Potter out there. I’m not saying Western companies and artists don’t try. They try and fail precisely because they are up against a culture with a huge population that does not give one entity control on monetizing ideas. Starbucks may win a few legal battles in China here and there regarding the intellectual property of their logos but they have failed to stop counterfeit Starbucks opening across the nation.

Back to our authorless King Arthur. Who is the original author of King Arthur? We don’t know. Why? Because the culture in which King Arthur sprouted from didn’t care to grant sole authorship to a single individual so that person could monetize the shit out of it (and their heirs or the corporations who became their future stake holders) for several generations to come. If our current paradigm existed then in the location that is now England, we would be damned sure to know about who that was now because OUR CULTURE cares about whose name it is that is scrawled across the first work of King Arthur as The Author. Never we mind the fact that the legend of Author is a centuries old conglomerated co-created work of “fan fiction” where anywhere between dozens and thousands anonymous and unanonymous people contributed to our current notions of King Author. And back in the day, canon was not determined by the original author but was determined by the demands of public taste. (Of course, I am ignoring the slim chance King Author was based on a real public figure and therefore already in the public domain. I could have easily have used any numerous fictional deities I will not name on risk of offending anyone but then I couldn’t have used my play on words in the title).

The idea of value co-creation is very much rooted in this notion of owning ideas where the owner of the intellectual property is simply granting permission to the fans to own a PORTION of the production of the work the FAN himself/herself has done. The fan, who puts his/her soul, into this expression of love will never own the 100% of the WORK. They will only own a cut with the expressed permission of the original IP owner.

So how is it seedy when the original IP owner INCORPORATES the fan’s production, with the fan’s expressed permission, into the canon and then gives that fan wages/interest/royalty for the fruits of their hard-earned labour? What if the original IP owner just started culling ideas from fan fiction and incorporating that into the canon to be monetized and the fan got nothing? Would that be less seedy?

What about the other scenario? The one in which the original IP owner grants the fan permission to produce “expressions of love” as long as they never seek profit for the fruits of their labour by NOT suing them. Is it less seedy to for an author to say (expressed or inexpressed): “I own original IP and any labour a fan puts into an expression of love based on my storyworld, whose boundaries have been enlarged by said fan fiction, cannot be monetized because I have the right to sue them if I see fit. They don’t get a cut and I don’t get a cut because I myself can’t profit off of the fans production because they have produced original content based on my ideas which I cannot sell myself”?

Is this less seedy? Or is that just bad business sense?  This seems like a strange perversion to the ultimatum game where everyone walks away a loser.

Value co-creation isn’t monetizing fan’s expressions of love. It is legitimizing the fan’s production as having some monetary value. Let me rephrase that: it is legitimizing some fan’s production as having monetary value because the original IP owner knows THEY CAN SELL it to someone ELSE who puts monetary value on it the moment that buyer demonstrates a willingness to pay for it.

Aye, but that is the rub. Someone has to be willing to pay for it. While Mike Monello makes a great point when he says: “Tell me, how much “value” did Star Wars fan fiction add to the release of the Star Wars Blu-Ray set in dollars? How much less would it have made if fans were not making fan art and mash-ups? What’s the split there? And where is the break between riffing on a pop culture landmark and adding actual creative value?” I would argue this point further: how much value does fan fiction take away from original IP by flooding the market with free content. Piracy or the fake is not only the problem original IP creators needs to contend with although it is often the strawman. Much of the problem is the free or next to free content, fan fiction and otherwise, is flooding the market and now everyone is competing for eyeballs. I would argue the problem is not monetizing fan fiction it is a whole bunch of people devaluing the market through fan fiction, free “professionally” produced content, or near free or near professional. Blogs killed the newspaper industry and now a lot of people are realizing that this notion that information needs to be free is unsustainable. Add to Andrea’s point “Wikipedia doesn’t look like it would work on paper, either, and somehow it does”. That being said: Wikipedia is going to collapse if it doesn’t get money. And if you don’t believe me: look into Jimmy Wales dead eyes on every page of the site.

So then let’s get back to the concept of fan fiction as works of passion and therefore monetizing works of passion is somehow seedy. I want to inverse Andrea’s argument regarding love and money. Is money inherently sordid? Or is it the fact of “bringing” love “into the equation of” money that “suddenly transforms it into something sordid and cheap”?

As a creator of intellectual property myself, are my works cheapened because I want my labour weighted with monetary value? Are we really adverse to the notion that the work going into producing intellectual property, whether it is made with love or devoid of love, has monetary value? Or is it only cheapened if I am a fan? The moment I stop being a fan and creating work only out of love am I simply looking to cash in? Or are my hands clean if I only profit from intellectual profit if I wrote devoid of passion and love for my characters? Does J. K Rowling not love Harry Potter because she accepts millions from fans who also adore him? Or as we read Harry Potter are we, unsure of Rowling’s intent because now “money is involved,” and in the back of our minds we are now wondering if she is merely a “corporate shill”?

If somehow legitimizing fan fiction will open the floodgates to those simply trying to “cash in” by producing works based on original IP then there are ways that are far more profitable: such as the Disney model where they produce well-established “brands” based in the public domain where they can own 100% of the profit. Why would any fan with an intent of raking it in go through all the labour of producing a work they will never 100% own when there are MUCH MUCH easier ways of making money? Such as ripping DVD’s and selling them for profit in Chinatown. Producing fakes are demonstrably much more profitable than hours labouring to create fan fiction.

As far as exploitation goes, I don’t find value co-creation any more lecherous or toxic than the good old garden-variety standard publishing industry where legitimate “authors” get a penance percentage of the profits for their work. Or the literary magazine model where writers work on spec and get the privileged to be paid in copies of a literary magazine that and the honour of being selected to be in a esoteric magazine with a distinguished and small readership in order that they may hold onto tenure positions in Masters of Literature departments. I mean…if you want to talk about toxic communities…

But doesn’t this all come down to fair terms? Fair value? Fair percentages? Fair legitimacy? For all content producers, including fans, becoming responsible in seeing monetary value in not only fruits of their labour but OTHERS as well by paying for content, and that making money from an expression of love is not a bad or sordid thing at all?

That being said I am going to finish fleshing out my future webseries It’s so Niche it’s Nietzsche, a portfolio piece I’m distributing for free on twitter to build my personal fan base. And then I will entertain myself for hours in the sandbox called Facebook.