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Fanworks aren’t only protected in the U.S.—they’re a vibrant part of modern-day creative culture.
Fanwork has almost certainly made your life better—whether you realize it or not. Now the Harry Potter Alliance has taken a break from its usual social and political campaigns to promote a cause closer to home: celebrating fanfiction and other fanworks created in fandom communities.
Fanworks can be thought of broadly as creative works produced by fans to honor their favorite stories. They’re a huge part of modern-day life on the Internet: On any given day you might puzzle over the latest Harry Potter fan theory, laugh at the latest Marvel or Star Wars fan trailer or fan film, enjoy gorgeous Disney fanart or cosplay, send a geeky meme to your Doctor Who-loving friend, and read a fanfic or two before bed.
But much of these creative practices exist in a nebulous legal environment due to copyright laws and understanding of how fan creativity allows popular franchises to flourish. In the United States, fanwork is protected under the same fair use clause of copyright law that allows parodies to be produced and sold commercially. The idea is that if a fan’s work is “transformative”—if it somehow elevates, expands, or adds to the original work rather than simply reproducing it—then it is a “fair” use of that original copyright.
Remix culture has led to a growing understanding of “transformative works” and a growing movement of fans who promote fanwork, like the fandom-created Organization for Transformative Works (OTW). Yet despite growing support for fan work, remixes and other fanmade works are frequently removed from YouTube and other places through DMCA takedown notices, cease-and-desist orders, and other aggressive acts by copyright holders.
Fan Works Are Fair Use aims to support changes to US copyright law that protect original content creators as well as fan creators who produce beloved parodies, homages, and works of art honoring the source material. The HPA believes that fan works add value to the source materials on which they’re based. While fan works obviously do not alter the original works, they do help shape and energize the culture that surrounds popular narratives. That energy helps to perpetuate the presence of the original work in the cultural zeitgeist, ultimately leading to more enthusiasm, passion, and (of course) sales. After all, who wouldn’t agree that the world is a better place with a video like Dark Lord Funk in it?
The organization also hopes to “eliminate negative stigmas about” fanworks and the people who make them. Speaking to the Daily Dot by email, HPA Communications Director Jackson Bird explained, “Remixing popular stories is nothing new, but in recent decades it’s gotten a bad reputation as something done by geeks that’s both embarrassing and potentially illegal.”
“We want fan creators to be educated on their rights within Fair Use and to take pride in the art form. We believe that fan works only add to a story, not endanger it, and we believe that Fair Use language needs to evolve with the way that art and media have so it can fulfill its original role of protecting creators.”
The group’s goal is to generate at least 5,000 signatures for the campaign. Sleepy Hollow star and outspoken fandom proponent Orlando Jones has signed on as spokesman. They’ve also been using the hashtag #FanworksTaughtMe, and have collected many of the most moving responses from fans in a Storify for the campaign.
“Creating, sharing and reccing fanworks—fic, art, vids, cosplay, all of it—is enjoyable and entertaining for its own sake,” campaign sponsor Heidi Tandy told the Dot. Tandy is a fair use advocate and member of the legal committee of the OTW.
“But so many of us have become part of communities, helped and supported others, learned information and skills, and expanded our world view because of fanworks. And that’s magical.”
Fans can visit fanworksarefairuse.org to join the campaign and learn more about copyright and how it impacts fan communities.
Photo via Ibrahim Husain Meraj/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 3.0)
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.