The Organization for Transformative Works was founded six years ago, because fans realized that owning the means of circulating and distributing fanworks—the servers, the interface, the code, the terms of service—would be essential to the long-term health of fan creativity, and so we created the nonprofit, donor-supported Archive of Our Own. Today, when I talk about the importance of fan writing, I don’t just mean fiction and nonfiction: I mean contracts and code. In the old days, fans self-published their fiction (and put it under copyright, asserting their ownership in their words), they distributed their own VHS cassettes and digital downloads, and they coded and built their own websites and created their own terms of service. Today, enormous commercial entities—YouTube, Amazon, LiveJournal, Wattpad, Tumblr—own much of this infrastructure.
This is a very mixed bag. On the one hand, these companies’ products and interfaces have made it infinitely easier for the average fan to connect with other fans and distribute fanworks. Now you only need a username and a password to get started, where before you needed access to server space, a knowledge of HTML, how to use FTP, and so on. However, there are also various dangers, including not only capricious or exploitative terms of service but simple market failure. None of the companies I just listed has anything like the track record of the average fandom or fannish institution; consider how much younger they are than Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, or even Supernatural fandom. In the best case, these companies may fail and become a disruptive force in relatively stable and long-term communities; in the worst case, they may exploit and betray their users.
In the past few years, the nature of the arguments I have been having as a fandom advocate has changed: In the past, I found myself arguing for the legitimacy of our works; now, I find myself arguing against their exploitation. The commercial ownership of the infrastructure means that money has now complicated fandom’s gift culture, and, like it or not, we now have to think about who should benefit. Here, too, there is a spectrum: Some grassroots creators don’t want to engage with the commercial world on any terms (and they should have the right not to); others feel that if someone is profiting from their works, it should be them, and it should be a fair compensation. If the relationship between fans and the commercial world is being renegotiated, we’re going to have to apply some of our creative energies to writing contracts as well as fanfiction, rather than let unfavorable or disrespectful terms of authorship be handed down to us by corporate owners.