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Should Comic Book Companies Bring Fanfic Writers Into the Fold?

Fanfiction is everywhere. It’s on independent websites. It’s on journal sites. You can probably find some in the comments of comics discussion boards. And there’s almost certainly more of it being produced than any of its source material. Even the smallest fandom has a mountain of it, and most comic book readers are familiar with fan-scripted stories about copyrighted characters, which range vastly in quality, continuity, and plausibility.

Some companies have taken legal, if mostly futile, action to shut down fan fiction in its various forms. The stance of most publishers, however, is determined ignorance. They don’t know about it. They don’t think about it. They don’t have an opinion about it. What people do on dreamwidth or LiveJournal is their own business, and they don’t seem to even bother looking at it. It’s a reasonable compromise, but with the shrinking comic book market and the growing journaling site population, it almost feels like a missed opportunity. Is it time for a DCwidth? Or a MarveLJ? Perhaps the current comic book companies can find a way to embrace and profit off fanfiction enthusiasm.The idea isn’t as crazy as it seems. With digital comics finally approaching the runway for take-off (or at least circling the runway), comic book companies are at least acknowledging their new, online overlords. And Diane Nelson, DC Entertainment President, has a history of sympathy for fanfic. When she was managing the sprawling Harry Potter properties, she allowed fan fiction — even adult fan fiction — to flourish online, as long as its poster stated clearly that it was not an official Harry Potter product. Talk to creators, or even executives, and you’re likely to find amused — if unofficial — acknowledgment of fan fiction and fan art.

Meanwhile, journal sites and fan fiction aggregation sites are selling ad space for people reading about DC and Marvel’s characters. The authors of the fiction aren’t making money, but someone is, and that someone could be the official companies.

There would be many advantages to bringing fan fiction writers into the fold. People are already producing an astonishing amount of work for no money at all. How much more work would they do if they got some acknowledgment from official creators? And how much work, on top of that, would they do if they had (likely delusional) hopes of having their talents or popularity get them an official job at a comic book company? There wouldn’t be any question about prosecuting the fans, either. Provided a strong enough user agreement were in place, users would be ‘working’ for the comic book company, just like current fans are ‘working’ for insanejournal or fanfiction.net.

There are also, of course, be many roadblocks in the way of such a step. When posting a piece of fan fiction in current journal sites, fans have no expectation of compensation or copyright. If they’re posting work done on the site of the official company, they’d expect something more. To manage those expectations, the companies would have to have fans to agree to give up any intellectual or financial claim to their own work the moment they sign up for an account. Although regular fan fiction writers implicitly do the same, an explicit agreement can breed ill will.

Although strict agreements like that may be problematic for public relations, managing a sprawling site filled with user-generated content would be even harder. Nelson favored allowing ‘adult’ Harry Potter fan fiction online, but having it at unofficial sites allowed the company to retain the ability to turn a blind eye to the more extreme stuff. DC, Marvel, and other publishers could do the same to their own sites, but no matter what they did, it would have the potential to turn into a stack of publicity problems. Firm censorship would allow outsiders to decry the kind of stuff the company allowed online. Throwing some out would invite comparisons between different kinds of fiction, and questions about why one kind was thrown out while another was left in.

If nothing else, the publisher would have to edit out crossovers with other copyrighted characters. Once the company starts culling the herd, in any way, the open internet becomes more attractive than the official version. A relative absence of restrictions is what the open internet had to offer in the first place, and any restrictions at all will send a good portion running back to it.

There’s no question that the prospect of bringing fan fiction writers in out of the cold will be a huge headache for the person unfortunate enough to be put in charge of the project. It combines technical and legal challenges with the wrangling of thousands of different writers who happen to be obsessive fans. But obsessive fans are also obsessive readers, and obsessive readers will keep coming back to the site to write for free and read for fun. If executed expertly, that might be worth the headache.

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