The Intellectual Property and Political Economy of Fan Works and other forms of user-generated content

By Keidra Chaney and Raizel Liebler

Recently there has been considerable corporate media content owners’ backlash against “user generated content” on the Internet – content created primarily by Internet users rather than media production companies. In the past few years, social networking websites such as YouTube and My Space have made it easier for regular individuals to create and distribute their own entertainment media. A notable example of this is based in fan communities, where individuals create fan videos and other media content to share with fellow fans. As a result, media owners have retaliated by sending cease-and-desist orders to fan websites and ordering websites such as YouTube, that host such content.

By altering and policing fans’ interaction and use of media, media owners are protecting copyrights and trademarks at the expense of the fan communities that support their media products. Media owners and fan communities are involved in a symbiotic relationship — both relying on each other for their survival. In addition, media consumers are becoming more aware of the issues and consequences surrounding user generated content and ownership. As a result, it is imperative for media scholars to equally consider two now intertwined and until recently schools of media studies together (John Fiske’s cultural studies approach and McChesney’s political economy approach) with the study of intellectual property to best understand our complex relationship with media.

On the cable television program, The Colbert Report, actor Stephen Colbert plays “Stephen Colbert,” a pompous and self-important conservative pundit. Imitating conservative pundits such as Colbert deliberately attempts to foster and rally his fanbase, calling them the “Colbert Nation” repeatedly on the show.

Colbert has gone so far as to call upon the Colbert Nation to actively interact and engage with the media, by changing entries on Wikipedia based on the Colbert-created terms of truthiness (belief in something determined by emotion, devoid of evidence or fact) and wikiality (truth by consensus). Colbert told his audience to change Wikipedia’s elephants page to add the untrue statement that the number of elephants has tripled in the last six months, leading to multiple Wikipedia sites being changed within hours of the show’s airing.

Colbert showed a video of himself fighting with a lightsaber in front of a green screen and then challenged amateur filmmakers to edit and add to it, later showing their results on his show, including the second place finisher of the Green Screen challenge, George Lucas, creator of Star Wars (and the lightsaber). Based on the success of the first competition, Colbert launched a second Green Screen challenge.

However, the most effective campaign launched to date by Colbert and the Colbert Nation was winning a online poll regarding naming a Hungarian bridge after Stephen Colbert, Colbert told his fans over August 2006 to vote by going to a website completely in Hungarian. On September 14, 2006, the Hungarian ambassador to the United States, András Simonyi even appeared on the Colbert Report. In spite of the fact that the real Colbert is not fluent in Hungarian or dead, essential requirements, the bridge would have been named after Colbert, due to the actions of fans.

Members of the “Colbert Nation” have posted many clips of the Colbert Report, and their own entries in the Greenscreen Challenge to YouTube. In response, YouTube and fans received takedown notices claiming the clips violate copyright sent by Viacom, the Colbert Report’s corporate owner, thereby removing an unknown number of clips. Fans were outraged – and even “Colbert” said “I was pretty worried about the removal of our clips; I was worried that it was going to hurt you, the heroes.”

In a similar example, after the Firefly television show was canceled, to promote the sequel movie, Serenity, the corporate owners courted fans to promote the venture, leading fans to create websites and merchandise expressing their support – then turned their backs abruptly on fans. After the television show Firefly was cancelled, its fans rallied to support efforts by its creator, Joss Whedon, to turn the show into a movie, Serenity. According to Henry Jenkins, the Firefly/Serenity fanbase is extraordinarily strong – “it had one of the most committed fan bases in media history and they would have followed Whedon anywhere.”). (For a timeline for Firefly/Serenity see here.)

Universal, the corporate owner, used viral marketing techniques to market the television DVD and movie release, “consolidat[ing] and mobiliz[ing] … [the] relatively large cult following existing relatively untapped across several fan sites, according to Affinitive, the word-of-mouth marketers hired by Universal. Affinitive states that “Universal was able to create a community around the release of Serenity that harnessed the power of a large member base that exceeded the most optimistic of expectations” – primarily through a website and messageboard (now dead – was at

Fans, acting as fans often do, had created websites, and fanworks – including fanart and merchandise, but in this case, these efforts were not tacitly accepted, their efforts were directly encouraged by the corporate owners. Fans “were encouraged to form regional groups to promote the film and perform activities that would help generate word of mouth, like creating bumper stickers and gift cards to accompany the DVD release.”

After creating the grassroots/ viral campaign around Serenity with official approval, fans were sent cease and desist letters claiming they have violated corporate copyrights and trademarks.

One of the fans receiving a letter, 11th hour, was faced with threats to close down her site and pay an $8,500 retroactive licensing fee within 72 hours, subsequently pulled. Finding the requirement from the cease and desist letter that she “permanently cease and desist from the advertising, promoting, marketing, sale or distribution of any products bearing or referring to Universal Property’” ironic, she says that

“Guess that could be seen as Universal telling me to stop guerilla marketing too. Good job Universal, can’t be having a loose cannon [sic] like me running around promoting Serenity. Think of the damage that could do.”

In response, many Browncoats [Firefly/Serenity fans] got to thinking about just how many hours they spent on helping to market and promote Serenity, in essence with the tacit agreement of Universal Pictures, if not their outright official encouragement and created an invoice response for “Billable Fan-hours: 28,030” with an “Amount Due: $2,102,250.”

The creators of the invoice see this as a “way to make both the specific point about Browncoat marketing for Serenity and the more general point about the relationship between producers of entertainment and their increasing (and knowing) reliance in the 21st century on fanbases to help promote that entertainment.”

Another open letter to Universal stated “When Serenity was being marketed there was constant encouragement from Universal for innovative viral marketing by fans, and that sort of interactivity drove us to new heights of resourcefulness and dedication. … We understand your position, we really do. But it appears obvious that you don’t understand us, and that makes a difference. A large part of why this property and its licenses remain valuable is due to the efforts of the fans. Just talk to us. We’ll listen. You don’t have to yell.”

In response to Universal’s actions, Firefly/Serenity fans have not stopped being part of the fandom – but they are finding more unique ways to market their items or have stopped selling their fan-made items entirely.

However, the Universal/Firefly/Serenity situation is far from the only example of a corporate owner sending mixed signals to fans recently. According to Molly Chase, Executive Producer of New Media Department, Cartoon Network, though her department decided to place information on YouTube to help fans create their own commercials, the legal department sent out cease and desist letters. In an important moment of honesty, Chase said, “Putting the content out there consciously is something we want to do, but we have to communicate that very well internally.” If corporations can’t even figure out what their position is on fan use, why should fans or the public be the ones that pay?

As mass media rapidly becomes more democratic, the role of consumer and producer are rapidly conflating and the issues that once were the sole concern of media professionals have now become the issue of non-professional media creators as well.

While communications theories of political economy and cultural studies both tend to lean toward the one-way model of communication theory, with media corporations as primary producers of media. Therefore, it becomes imperative to study the cultural and well as the public policy implications of this new hybrid of consumer and fan.

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This post was cited in the Creative Collaboration Online newsletter about Fan Fiction.

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