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Monthly Archives: May 2013

On May 22, Amazon announced “Kindle Worlds,” a New Publishing Model for Authors Inspired to Write Fan Fiction, and my corner of the fan-studies internet exploded. Reading (and having) those conversations and looking at the big picture, I come to two conclusions: economically, it’s a bad deal; culturally, it’s incompatible with my generation’s understanding of what fandom is and how fan fiction works. Since I got to a full-length blog on just point one, that’s what I’ll tackle this week.

But first, an acknowledgement that, as Francesca Coppa noted in an email exchange in which I participated, “sadly, it’s the best offer yet,” since some in the industry “want to monetize vidding and other fanwork on YouTube and take the all of the profits entirely.” By comparison to this, then, Kindle Worlds looks pretty good, an example to say “look, you really have to cut in the fans if you’ve going to do something like this” (Coppa). I think it’s important to both recognize that this is an improvement and articulate what we like about it (which many are doing) and also articulate what about it is still troublesome (which I’m doing) in order to not let that turn into taking whatever we can get.

Coppa’s point above, that some in the industry feel entitled to the entirety of the income from remix uses of its intellectual property, shows why the analytic lens of labor is so vital. On one hand, that is, it shows why we still need the labor theory of value, because the frequent assumption on the part of industry is that all the value comes from the “raw” material of the media that’s used in remix, rather than something being added by the labor the fan puts into it.

The labor theory of value lets us see the work of value extraction in Amazon’s initiative; they see a thing that could have its value extracted but isn’t being

meskextracted currently, and so they’re extending extraction to it. Hence Melanie E.S. Kohnen’s point:

(Embrace is always enclosure! The industry’s arms are made of fences!)

We also need a labor framework because what Amazon is offering is, the consensus contends, work for hire (as argued by Livia PennKaren Hellekson, and John Scalzi). And it’s work for hire on pretty bad terms.

In the Kindle Worlds framework, writers have no control and have to take what they can get. As Nele Noppe pointed out at the Fanhackers Tumblr,

while fic writers will get some money, they have zero control over how much they might want to charge or how much of a cut they deserve, and no options to negotiate. Amazon can organize its business the way it pleases, of course. But this “you will take what we offer you or nothing” approach may offer a big clue to how Amazon believes the rights of all parties should be balanced out when fic writers and copyright holders try to share income from fanworks.

Penn further points out that, by paying based on net rather than gross profit, fan writers are left open to being billed into oblivion: of a thousand-dollar gross, “a hundred dollars to pay their slush pile department, another a hundred dollars goes to their copyediting department, two hundred dollars to their market research department, another two hundred to their advertising department, and three hundred ninety to the legal department.”

It might seem ridiculous or paranoid to suggest this, but this is well documented in the music industry (TechdirtCourtney Love at Salon), and Penn gives the example that “the actor who played Darth Vader has NEVER been paid residuals for ‘Return of the Jedi,’ because those come out of… you guessed it, the net profits, and the *fifteenth highest grossing film ever* has NOT made a net profit yet.”

The Amazon Worlds contract, at least as described in the press release, is set up in a way that exploits fan writers’ relative weakness compared to massive companies and the likelihood of their ignorance of these kinds of business practices.

Moreover, Amazon’s offer is a bad deal because publishing this way removes the writer’s control over further use. They (either Amazon or the licensor, it’s unclear) can republish the story itself in anthologies or translations (Noppe, Scalzi, Penn).

The release of all copyright in the contract also seems to suggest that They (whoever They are) can take the ideas in it for other uses; in Penn’s sharp summation, “they are *not* going to pay you more if they take one of your original characters and make them the star of a spin-off web series that then earns them a million billion dollars” (see also Noppe, Scalzi).

(However, this may not be the case; established author Barbra Annino, tapped to write one of the pilot novels, stated that under her contract “if I should create a character within this world, I am free to use that character elsewhere in my own work” and that she understood this to be how the other contracts would work as well.)

The arrangement also quite likely constrains further creativity from its writers, either though prohibiting offering the story for free elsewhere (Noppe) or opening up authors to being sued for copying themselves through writing something too similar later on (Penn).

These are, as both Hellekson and Scalzi (themselves professionals) and legal scholar Rebecca Tushnet point out, worse terms than writers usually get—indeed, as Hellekson puts it, they’re “terms that professional writers would be inclined to reject.”

This is particularly interesting given that (as Coppa reminded me) other literary second-comers didn’t have to give up this much control OR money: Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone didn’t need to license Gone With The Wind; Lo’s Diary reworked Lolita with a 50-50 royalty split with Nabokov’s estate. The difference between “real” writer and fan writer is nontrivial, then, and related again to both not seeing fan work as work that adds value and exploiting (presumed) fan weakness/ignorance.

Both Hellekson and Scalzi gesture toward the benefits of unionization to protect from just such abuses, Hellekson pointing to the Freelancers’ Union and Scalzi to the Writer’s Guild of America as the union for “official media tie-in writers and script writers.”

And then there are a set of non-labor legal issues. One thing that several fan scholars found quite objectionable was the seeming implication that fan fiction required licensing rather than being fair use (Suzanne Scott, Kohnen, Noppe; this is a trouble with licensing generally, see the Brennan Center for Justice’s Will Fair Use Survive?: Free Expression in the Age of Copyright Control [pdf]).

For writing fan fiction, licenses are almost certainly not required, but for selling it they may be, since one of the four factors in Fair Use includes whether the use is commercial. However, commercial uses have sometimes been judged fair (Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone prevailed over Margaret Mitchell’s estate, 2LiveCrew was able to sample Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman) and noncommercial ones sometimes unfair.

The real issue is that precedent is unclear because cases like fan fiction, where the relationship to the remixed text is not antagonistic, haven’t really been argued before courts. Fans tend not to have the financial wherewithal for such fights; as Henry Jenkins put it in Convergence Culture, “someone who stands to lose their home or their kid’s college fund by going head-to-head with studio attorneys is apt to fold” (p. 131). There’s also the factor of having to fight with the owners of something they love, an affectively and ethically gray area for many fans.

This uncertainty both in the law itself and on the part of fans in knowing the lay of the land (weakness and ignorance again!) works in industry’s favor. They, as Coppa pointed out, know the law quite well and know when things are likely fair use, but they also know they’re likely to get away with insisting on their ownership of fan products.

These questions of labor and compensation and ownership fairness, then, mean that deciding whether publishing with Kindle Worlds is worth doing is complicated and requires having a lot of information and background knowledge that many people don’t.  As Scalzi put it, “the thing that can be said for it is that it’s a better deal than you would otherwise get for writing fan fiction, i.e., no deal at all and possibly having to deal with a cranky rightsholder angry that you kids are playing in their yard. Is that enough for you?”

Or Penn:

work for hire is bullshit– well, *unless* you don’t actually deeply care about the stories or characters or other creative work, and just want a paycheck because you have kids to feed. If it’s just a job, then not owning your creative work is fine. (But if that’s the case, you want to make sure you are being compensated fairly, and as I said in point one, “you get nothing but a percentage of the *potential* net from the ebook sales and NOTHING ELSE” is NOT a case of you being compensated fairly.)

Certainly, I think we should take seriously the fact that part of the ease of exploiting this creative labor is that fandom and certain fan practices are still stigmatized. VentureBeat, in its news coverage of the announcement, couldn’t resist referring to fanfiction as “a passionate hobby that earns you ridicule from friends and co-workers.” Fast Company calls fanfic a “parallel universe.” (Obligatory shameless self-promo for my article on fandom and stigma.)

In the end, as I suggested in my SCMS presentation earlier this year, fans’ capacity to consent to such arrangements is uncertain because of vastly unequal power, limited choice, and lack of knowledge. Meaningful consent isn’t impossible, but it does require treading very carefully, and I worry that excitement and the seductions of marketing-speak may render such care difficult to come by.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week, “The End of Fandom as we know it?”

I woke up last Tuesday morning, as many did, to Angelina Jolie’s New York Times op-ed, which got to me first via @IMKristenBell.

I do, as most seem to, believe that both undergoing the preventive surgery and making the announcement took a lot of courage on Jolie’s part. It was undoubtedly painful, plus probably scary to have currently healthy tissue removed.

There’s also the factor of, as Anne Helen Petersen put it, “Star Famous For Boobs Has Double Mastectomy” (which I got via @bertha_c). Jolie’s breasts were somewhat necessary for her job in a way that they aren’t for most people. (I wonder: Did she have them insured, like Tina Turner’s legs?)

But, while not disputing the personal difficulty involved, I want to look at this structurally, as is my wont.

Alongside that personal difficulty, that is, Jolie has some significant advantages. She is definitely aware of some of the privilege she has, noting that “The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.” (Others have noted this awareness: Shakesville, via @kouredios; the Guardian, via @bertha_c again; Gina Neff over at Culture Digitally)

But Jolie’s statement that “On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity” pointed to some other forms of privilege she didn’t discuss, and of which she may not be aware.

Biology declared that Jolie’s breasts were “time bombs” (I saw this phrase in a headline about someone else’s breast cancer decision-making but I can’t find it again now to give credit). Medicine had the capacity to remove them. And cosmetic surgery to make her body look the way she felt it should was available to her.

Jolie had access to those procedures because she’s very wealthy, obviously, but what’s important to me here is a less tangible form of access. She had access to these procedures because it makes sense that a ciswoman would be able to access surgically-produced breasts.

A transwoman who had the same conviction that her body looked correct with breasts would, even today, be considered somewhere between mentally ill (still in the DSM 5) and dangerous (the “transwomen are men pretending to be women so they can be sexual predators in locker rooms” narrative; see, when it’s out, Laurel Westbrook and Kristen Schilt‘s forthcoming piece “Doing Gender, Determining Gender: Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System,” a followup to their award-winning 2009 article Doing Gender, Doing Heteronormativity: Gender Normals, Transgender People, and the Social Maintenance of Heterosexuality).

In both cases, there are medico-biological-scientific-y reasons for why one’s body is out of alignment with one’s sense of self. But one set of reasons is seen as more valid than the other. The exact same body-shaping procedures that for transfolks are often framed as “messing with nature” are readily available to people who have a different gender identity—we can think also here about the treatment of gynecomastia in bioboys being considered perfectly legitimate as a way to prevent mental distress, but the desire for the same breast tissue removal in transmen is a sign of mental distress.

What does this say, then, about the rules of embodiment? We believe that bodies “naturally” do two (and only two) things, and never the twain, and we’re prepared to surgically intervene to make sure it happens. That’s not exactly a new insight—it matches what Anne Fausto-Sterling has argued about intersex babies. However, I don’t  know that it has been extended to questions of breasts rather than just genitals before, and I’d add that we’re also prepared to deny surgical intervention, depending.

But I want to push a little harder on it.

Jolie’s comments that she doesn’t “feel any less of a woman” and that it “in no way diminishes my femininity” are surely for the benefit of those who feel like substandard women after losing one or both breasts to cancer.  That is a real experience that is powerful to the people who have it. But I want to ask where such a feeling of inadequacy comes from.

Time after time, the commentators have marveled that Jolie resisted the dictates of beauty and sex appeal:

It’s remarkable because Angelina Jolie is generally regarded as one of the most beautiful women in a world that profoundly values beauty and defines women’s worth by their sex appeal, and she is telling women to value their health. (Shakesville)

That breasts do not exist just to turn on other people will not come as a surprise to any sentient adult human being. Nor, it should go without saying but sadly does not, do breasts make the woman. But brutal, mature reality does not generally have much of a place in the fantasy land where the myths of celebrities and public perception intermix. (The Guardian)

But she doesn’t need them to be beautiful, or to be loved, or to maintain that stardom.  Women have been hearing this message for years, but with this editorial, Jolie not only makes it available to men, but proves it through the very existence of her resilient, still sexual body. (Petersen)

But what all of these comments about rejecting beauty standards miss is that Jolie got her breasts back.

Maybe not “hers” in the traditional sense, but visually, which is all anyone cared about in the first place (as problematic as that is, and in which she surely intervened by emphasizing health). The full trajectory does not suggest that “she doesn’t need them to be beautiful, or to be loved, or to maintain that stardom” or refute the logic “that profoundly values beauty and defines women’s worth by their sex appeal.”

She did not go on with her career as a breast-less woman. If anything, this event actually suggests that the breasts do make the woman, however it is that one comes by them, much like breast removal is so key to making “proper” men. (Also here, the challenges with talking about breast cancer in men.)

This is not to say that I think she shouldn’t have had reconstruction, not least because I’m not in the habit of prescribing what other people do with their own bodies. Also, it falls under “sane response to an insane system.” But I will wager it never occurred to anyone to even consider not doing reconstruction. A breast-less woman is virtually incomprehensible to us. And certainly not eligible to be sexy.

And that rule of embodiment, the tight equation of “breasts” and “woman,” is one that we really need to take a hard look at.

It points to a situation in which we have loaded a whole lot of meaning onto bodies. The general belief, that is, is that if you feel X way, you must be Y thing, and your body must look like Z.

Now, I am probably the most anti-identitarian person on the planet. I am deeply suspicious of the move from X to Y in the above formulation, and generally think identity is a trap. But I think we can leave that aside in this case, because we’re talking about embodiment in relation to already-established identities—Jolie as woman and our hypothetical transfolks (who are themselves a subset of all the ways one might identify as trans).

Ultimately, I really don’t think that Jolie’s case and the conversations occurring around it are cause for celebration that we’ve thrown off the yoke of oppressive standards of embodiment and the reduction of people to their bodies. In fact, I think it is more firmly settled on our collective shoulders than ever.

I saw on the news at the gym early last week that somebody had created a 3D-printable gun. What I didn’t realize (perhaps because gym news does not come with sound) until the story broke about the State Department ordering the firm to pull the plans off the internet (which came to me from Betabeat via @memories_child) that they had indiscriminately released the blueprints to said 3D-printable weapon to anybody and everybody.

The thing that got me worked up enough to blog (when my disgust wouldn’t fit in a tweet) was the statement in the article that: “Mr. Wilson believes that he is immune to the Department of State’s review procedures as Defense Distributed is a nonprofit and the blueprints are protected under the public domain.”

Being a nonprofit does not make you exempt from anything but taxes, and certainly not arms control statutes. Neither does not violating copyright. Let’s work through how bad of an idea it was to release those blueprints to the whole world:

Yes, Americans are allowed to have guns, but there are lots of countries where it’s either outright illegal or highly regulated. It seems to me that Defense Distributed just broke all those jurisdictions’ laws once for each time the file was made available to someone in any of those places. Clearly the US wouldn’t extradite, but good luck to the DD folks on visiting much of the wealthy part of the world on vacation ever.

And then, there may be no national law about background checks, but there are, as discussed in my post about the Boston bombings, many state ones, which it seems to me have been broken once for each time the file was made available to someone in those places. The same is true of laws regulating sale to minors.

More broadly, many Americans may be allowed to transfer their guns to each other without a background check (40% of sales happen that way, according to the statistic floating around the internet—one example–plus informal transfers among family/friends), but Americans can’t as blithely transfer weapons to people in certain countries under laws about arms control. Defense Distributed just broke those laws too, once for each time the file was made available to someone in any of those places.

There are also international treaties about arms transfer. Defense Distributed has also broken those once for each time the file was made available to someone in a location covered by those treaties. Adding these all up, with 100,000 downloads they’re looking at thousands of years in jail were they ever prosecuted. (I don’t think they ever would be, but if it happened-)

Releasing the file indiscriminately was, in short, a demonstration of profound ignorance about implications. (Children left behind! This is such a failure of basic “critical thinking to see the big picture” that everybody should learn.)

Also, not incidentally, it’s an impressive act of American-centrism, assuming either that what is okay in this nation can and should go for everyone else also or that everyone on the Internet is American like themselves. It is therefore perhaps an important moment to consider the fact that just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.

Cody Wilson of DD noted that “the files are all over the Internet, the Pirate Bay has it– to think this can be stopped in any meaningful way is to misunderstand what the future of distributive technologies is about.” He’s right that this cat is out of the bag, which he terrifyingly describes as DD “winning”; now what is left for the consequences to come rolling in.

The first time someone commits a crime with a gun printed from DD’s plans, I would wager that they would potentially be liable, if not criminally than civilly—a person might not win that case, but it might not get tossed out of court immediately either.

Moreover, the ideology that sees complete, unfettered access to firearms as the divine right of Americans (and maybe humans generally) is often coupled with one that is ready to deny rights (including human rights) to anyone it classifies as “terrorist” (a term that gets thrown around quite loosely in this realm). I wonder, then, what people who hold such views will do the first time one of these shows up in the hands of a quote-unquote terrorist.

Will they advocate for the DD staff to be treated the same way as Bradley Manning, accused of treason for “aiding and abetting” the enemy (though I’ve seen no discussion of how the release of the WikiLeaks cables was anything more than diplomatically embarrassing)? I doubt it.

Likewise, if the legal system is going to hold the folks at Napster and Grokster financially liable for the infringement that occurs via their product even if they say that’s not what it was intended for, would those same people be ready to throw the book at the uncontrolled transfer of this intellectual property, since DD could reasonably be expected to know it would be used to shoot people? Again, I doubt it.

Both the Manning and filesharing cases are nonsensical, but one could apply their logics to the 3D gun and make some kind of sense. But I think it likely that no one will.

And finally, insult-to-injury, this is not about copyright. There’s a bit of “that word, I do not think it means what you think it means” with the use of “public domain” in the article.

I’m pretty sure that if someone picked up DD’s plans and started selling guns based on them, they’d be upset and maybe sue. I suspect, that is, that they haven’t relinquished their ownership of the blueprints (i.e. given the ownership to the public in the public domain) even if they have chosen to make them freely available. Plus, copyright has exactly nothing to do with gunshot wounds.

Recently, my friend and colleague T. J. Tallie  published Queering Natal: Settler Logics and the Disruptive Challenge of Zulu Polygamy in GLQ, and since T. J. often has smart things to say I prioritized reading his article in my ongoing project to keep up on recent work my field and related ones.

It’s a great piece that does an excellent job parsing out the way polygamy (or, as he points out, more accurately polygyny) was the “flashpoint” for British colonial anxieties about their capacity to control “the natives” in 19th century South Africa and the potential for Zulu practices to “contaminate” British “modern” sexuality; he expertly demonstrates the ways this nonnormative (to the settler colonists) practice was seen as dangerous and disruptive (and therefore was queer) (p. 168). (Yay for using “queer” to mean disruptive the way I like!)

I’d had a quote on polygamy on my list of possible blog topics for quite some time (since November, based on the date of the original source). It came from a news article about the Women’s League of the African National Congress party in South Africa; the larger point of the piece was that the league refuted the label of “feminist” (which was what caught my eye in the headline).

Responding to and deploying a tired definition of feminism, the Women’s League also denied hostility toward men, instead identifying its mission as the advancement of women; this commitment led to an exchange in which, “asked about whether [South African President Jacob Zuma’s] polygamy was not against the advancement of women, [Women’s League president Angie] Motshekga said practising his culture was a ‘personal choice’. She said the women Zuma married were consenting adults, and he was not harming anyone.”

I found that framing of consenting adults really interesting at the time (hence saving it for later), and now I find that I want to return to it in conversation with T. J.’s work, in part because I have been trying to work through ideas of consent for my work on fandom and labor and the sexual consent frame has been particularly useful as one that accounts for both constraint and choice.

To do this, I turn to Martha Nussbaum’s 1998 piece “Whether from Reason or Prejudice”: Taking Money for Bodily Services about sex work. Nussbaum points out that many of the problems people identify with sex work are common to all sorts of other activities, yet we don’t think of them in the same way—factory work requires use of one’s body in ways one can’t control, therapy is emotionally intimate, being a model who works to train gynecologists involves extensive contact, etc.

Nussbaum contends that we therefore need to figure out what specifically is bothersome about sex work—and whether this is “from reason or prejudice”—rational or just indefensible cultural bias. I’d like to apply this form of reasoning to the polygamy question in order to get at questions of consent.

The most typical mainstream objection polygamy (which, as in the historical Zulu case, seemingly always takes the form of polygyny) is that it is oppressive to women. As in the case Tallie describes, there is generally no regard for how the women involved might see the practice, but rather monogamists declare that such women are “oppressed under the barbarism of their men” (p. 173).

Now, when only men get to have multiple wives, it does participate in a logic of male access to and control of women and is therefore problematic. But this logic of access is prevalent in all kinds of cultural practices and institutions. As just one example, the high school boys CJ Pascoe studied for Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (something else I’ve read recently as part of catching up) worked to solidify their masculinity through extravagant claims to sexual control over girls’ bodies, and the girls were often uncomfortable about this but went along with it because that was how high school culture worked. It is therefore unreasonable to condemn polygamy as uniquely problematic.

A corollary to men having a right of access is the discourse of male hypersexuality. Certainly, in the context Tallie describes it was convenient for the British to argue that polygyny was about Zulu men’s hypersexuality in contrast to restrained British masculinity since this fit right in with their beliefs about the need to “civilize” the natives. But this logic is also not specific to that time and place; the idea that men want more sex than women is of course a tired trope of both comedy and drama.

Indeed, I’d argue that the horror-fascination with polygamy—which I’ve mostly encountered in the US-specific context of Mormonism, but Tallie’s discussion of how Zuma was treated in the British press a few years back seems similar—has something to do with men having unlimited sexual access, something both desired and disavowed within normative masculinity.

However, as the examples of Pascoe’s work and the “frustrated husband and wife with a headache” scenario already begin to suggest, polygamy, though indisputably based in gender inequality, is not uniquely coercive.  This raises a couple of issues around what consent means in such a situation.

Nussbaum points out that “poor working women” are “heavily constrained by poor options” in general, saying that “I think that this should bother us and that the fact that a woman with plenty of choices becomes a prostitute should not bother us, provided that there are sufficient safeguards against abuse and disease, safeguards of a type that legalization would make possible” (p. 696).

Applying this to marriage (of whatever number of people) as an economic institution, we can ask about who is in a position to consent in terms of what that person’s choices are and, as I have argued in the fan-labor case, the awareness of those choices. In the case of Zuma’s wives, then—given the likelihood of class endogamy—they are likely to be educated and financially secure, making their choice of this form of relationship meaningfully consensual rather than coerced by circumstance.

Though clearly there’s always some inequality impinging on consent, asking about what the options are both relocates agency with the less-powerful person and doesn’t deny constraint, a useful antidote to the freak-show quality of contemporary visions of polygamy and the tendency to discount people’s own meanings for their practices demonstrated both by British colonists in the 19th century and discussions of fundamentalist Mormons today.

Of course, there’s still that small but persistent manner in which gender is the axis of inequality in these formations. As a way around this, while polyamory is clearly not the Ultimate Radical Thing™ it is sometimes made out to be by its proponents, the idea of nonbinary relationships that are negotiated to everybody’s specifications—where each participant potentially has the option of multiple partners if they so desire—does get around the imbalance of polygyny.

And it does so without a normalizing defense of heterosexuality or monogamy, such that it seems likely to open up more sexual possibilities in a way that is supple with regard to the particularities of the situation, which is really what I think we ought to look for in a theory of sexual consent.