Fanfiction may have gone mainstream, but as the latest backlash over a fanfic-writing contest proves, the mainstream still doesn’t understand fanfiction.
With the release of The Force Awakens and the subsequent outburst of Star Wars fandom shipping, fanfiction culture has gotten more attention in recent weeks than ever before. Predictably, media outlets like Entertainment Weekly are rushing to embrace the craze. On Monday, EWannounced a fanfic contest open to submitted works from any and all fandoms, written by anyone 18 or older.
The contest is a part of EW’s “Fanuary” event, which so far includes articles on fandom and a fan tribute contest in addition to the competition. One winner will have their work published in the magazine and on the website.
But instead of lining up to submit, fanfiction writers on Tumblr and in the comments of the EW article roundly rejected the contest. Actual fanfiction writers urged each other to warn fellow writers away from the contest. By Monday afternoon, the original Tumblr announcement from EW had racked up over 30,000 notes—the majority of them overwhelmingly negative.
Fanfic writers have been around this block before. Though the contest is meant to be a positive way of embracing a fun fandom practice, writers have plenty of reason to be wary of these contests.
Fandom history has seen plenty of corporations inviting fans to submit their work to a third-party publishing contest, and in many of these cases, the terms of the agreement mean that the original author, the fan, loses their copyright over the fanwork they created. Experienced fanfic writers know to scrutinize the terms of such contests. In this case, the contest’s official rules contained a telltale phrase that raised fans’ eyebrows.
Entries become sole property of Sponsor.
Most fans are very wary of giving up the copyright over their works. Because of fanfiction’s nebulous legal state, it’s a common mistake to assume that fans don’t own the copyright. But like any other writers, fans do own the copyright to any transformative work they create—”transformative” being a legal description that places fanfiction within the realm of Fair Use under U.S. copyright law.
This “sole property of Sponsor” phrase, which appears in the opening paragraph of the rules, contradicts another, later clause which clarifies that, in fact, fans do retain their copyright and will simply be licensing it out to EW for publication.
Entrant grants to Sponsor a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free license to edit, publish, promote, republish at any time in the future and otherwise use Entrant’s submitted fan fiction, along with Entrant’s name, likeness, biographical information, and any other information provided by Entrant, in any and all media for possible editorial, promotional or advertising purposes, without further permission, notice or compensation (except where prohibited by law).
Because this jargon follows the “sole property” clause and doesn’t appear to override it, many fans assumed that the EW contest was exploitative.
EW did not respond to a request for comment.
Additionally, the clause that allows the magazine to publish the fanfiction writer’s real name and likeness might make many fans nervous. Though fanfiction is seen as an increasingly normal hobby, many fans practice it freely only cover of anonymity and don’t want their Internet handles or their fannish activities to be associated with their IRL identity.
Some fans also raised eyebrows about the vagueness of the selection criteria—judges will rate the fics they receive on passion, creativity, and appropriateness to theme. Since the entry form just asks for “fanfiction”—which could be anything from RPF (Real Person Fanfic) about real people to Fifty Shades of Grey stories, i.e. fanfic of fanfic of fanfic—the “theme” is virtually limitless.
This isn’t the first time an EW contest attempting to embrace fandom culture has sparked a fandom backlash. A 2012 attempt to do a shipping poll excluded slash (queer male) pairings because the EW staff didn’t see them as likely to happen. The backlash from fans was so intense that it produced an extremely popular follow-up slash fandom poll from queer media outlet AfterElton (now The Backlot).
But the EW contest is also an indication of just how popular fanfiction is becoming. Despite the Tumblr backlash, plenty of fans will jump at the chance to have their fanwork published in a mainstream magazine—even if the contest rules aren’t necessarily ideal.
Update 7:56am CT, Jan. 5: Entertainment Weekly has responded to the backlash, saying, “We’ve listened to your feedback and have updated the Terms & Conditions for our Fanuary Fan Fiction contest.”
Our Terms & Conditions no longer read “Entries become sole property of Sponsor and none will be acknowledged or returned”. They now read “Entries will not be acknowledged or returned.”
We don’t want to own the pieces you have worked hard on and submitted. We do want to give the winner a platform to showcase their innovative and amazing work!
Aja Romano is a geek culture reporter and fandom expert. Their reporting at the Daily Dot covered everything from Harry Potter and anime to Tumblr and Gamergate. Romano joined Vox as a staff reporter in 2016.