Why Fanfic, Open Source, and Creative Commons Belong Together

In my head this post had the newspaper-style title: **Fan archive must use GPL, Creative Commons, says Skud.** Please feel free to mentally substitute it, if you prefer.

Anyway, I’ve been letting this tumble around in my brain since Astolat‘s request for volunteers the other day. First, I’d better explain some of the background for those who haven’t been following it all.

Fanlib, and why everyone hates the idea

A couple of weeks ago — right before “Strikethrough ’07”, meaning there were two fannish upsets in such quick succession that we all got whiplash — a corporate endeavour called “Fanlib” was launched. The idea was that it would be “the home for fan fiction”, but — as eny fule no — you can’t just set yourself up as such and expect fandom to be impressed. Turns out this mob had seen the dollar signs connected to any kind of user-generated content in this web2.0 world, and had rushed in without really having the faintest idea what they were doing.

Anyway, Teresa over at Making Light posted a good roundup that will provide background better than I can, and Henry Jenkin’s post is also highly informative reading. But the important point is that a bunch of fandom’s highly respected members said “Right, that’s it, obviously we need to create our own archive so that this sort of nonsense needn’t happen again.”

The result is variously known as “fanarchive” or “An Archive Of Our Own”, and it has a LiveJournal community where the organisers are posting regular updates. If you’re interested, you should read:

* Astolat’s call to arms
* Summary of original discussion
* Organisational structure
* Call for volunteers

I volunteered. I have a suspicion that it’ll lead to craziness, but in any case, I’ve put my name down for the website development. And that’s where we get back to the original topic.

Why fanarchive must be open source and use creative commons

I said this in my volunteer email, but I’ll reiterate it here: I strongly believe that the only way to make this archive work is to design it in such a way that, in the case of emergency, anyone can pick it up and keep it going.

We need to keep in mind that while the fanarchive won’t go looking for legal trouble, there’s a good chance that it’ll occur. Currently the fanarchive is being set up in the United States of America, but contributors will be from all over the world, and — a fact easily forgotten in US-centric fan communities — the world does not have a consistent legal environment. If, for some reason, the fanarchive gets shut down in the US, we want to be able to keep it running elsewhere.

We need to decentralise.

We need to be able to replicate the archive, anywhere in the world, at short notice.

We need to be able to copy the entire archive to our hard drives for personal use or backup.

We need people to be able to do this *even if the fanarchive non-profit disappears*.

We also want create the best possible archive we can, and bring in contributions from the most talented people we can get hold of. We want the archive — both the collection of fiction and the archive itself — to grow and improve over time, rather than stagnating. We want to build the archive in a way that encourages input from the whole community. We want to create a website — and an infrastructure under that website — that stimulates creativity and encourages innovation in all directions. (At least, I assume we do.)

The current best way I know of to achieve this is to ensure that both the software and the content of the archive are distributed under licenses that allow people to use it in all kinds of ways, but not to make it commercial. The current best licenses for this, to my knowledge, are:

1. The GNU General Public License for software, and
2. The Creative Commons license for written works.


The GPL is the license that’s used by Linux and heaps of other free software projects. You should read the license through for yourself, but in short, here’s how it works:

1. You write some software
2. You include with that software a file called “LICENSE.TXT” or similar, containing the GPL in full.
3. You make your software available for download, distribute it on disk, or use whatever form of distribution you like.
4. When someone downloads and uses your software, they agree to the GPL license. If they don’t agree to it, they’re not allowed to use your software.
5. The GPL allows them to use the software at no cost. The “use” of the software might include:
* using it on their own computer, for their own private use
* running a website using that software (including a commercial website — but more on that later, because the content license protects us from this)
* modifying the software to suit their specific needs
* redistributing the software, including any modifications
6. However, if they redistribute, they must:
* leave the GPL license intact
* make the source code available at no cost so anyone down the line can do all the same things with it
* license their modifications under the same terms

(I’m probably slightly off, there, as I’m working from memory. Read the license. I’m not a lawyer.)

Anyway, you can see that this could be used for the underlying website software, allowing anyone to set up a fan archive of their own. For a parallel situation, consider Wikipedia, whose underlying software, MediaWiki, is licensed under the GPL. You can download MediaWiki and set up your own wiki for whatever purpose you like, up to and including a Wikipedia competitor.

Note that there are other “open source” licenses that have many things in common with the GPL. You can find a list of them via the Open Source Initiative. However, of all these licenses the GPL is renowned for being the most concerned with *freedom*: or, to put it another way, the GPL is the long-haired hippie of the open source license crowd. Other licenses tend to offer more rights to companies to make and distribute commercial or proprietary versions of the code, for example. For a community endeavour with a distinct anti-corporate ethos, GPL is definitely the way to go.

Creative Commons

The Creative Commons license is sort of like a GPL for stuff that’s not software. Yeah, enormous generalisation, but anyway.
Here’s how it works:

1. You create some creative work: writing, art, video, whatever
2. You go to the Creative Commons website and choose a license. There are various options you can choose:
* I waive all my rights! This work is in the public domain. Do anything you like with it.
* Or more commonly: You can use this, but you have to attribute me, aka the “BY” clause.
* And/or: You can use this, but not for commercial purposes, aka the “NC” (non-commercial) clause.
* And/or: You can use this, but if you do, you have to retain this same CC license, with the same terms, aka the “SA” (share-alike) clause.
* Any combination of the above: eg: BY-SA (attribution, share-alike) or BY-NC (attribution, non-commercial).
3. You say somewhere in, or near, your work: “This is licenced under Creative Commons” and the additional clauses. The CC website gives you some handy HTML to paste. (See the bottom of this post, for example: if you’re reading it on Infotropism, it should have a CC-BY-SA logo and link in the footer, and if you’re reading it elsewhere, they should have the same license visible somewhere because of the “share-alike” clause.)
4. Anyone can use your work under the terms of the CC license you choose, and because the CC licenses are so well known, they can just see “CC-BY-SA” and know what it means, rather than having to grovel through a new legal document each time.

The Wikimedia foundation (who run Wikipedia) license much of their content under a CC license, and more under other open documentation licenses. This is what allows people to copy the entire site and slap ads all over it (you’ve probably seen some via google, but I won’t link them), but it’s also what makes it possible for people to make CDs of Wikipedia for schools in developing countries and, for that matter, what allows Wikipedia to work at all, with people constantly contributing and modifying each others’ contributions. Without a suitable license allowing people to re-use each contributor’s work, Wikipedia wouldn’t be possible. (Aside: You’ll notice that WP is the the ninth most popular website in the world and none of the spammy ad sites are even in the running, so I don’t imagine the ad sites bother WP too much.)

Flickr, the popular photography website, also encourages contributors to use a CC license, resulting in heaps of images which people can use for their own web designs, documents, or any of a bunch of other uses. There are even search engines for creative commons images. DeviantART, a website used by many fan artists, has also recently introduced CC licensing.

In the case of fan fiction, I’m certain that almost all authors would want to be acknowledged for their work. It’s not as if we haven’t seen enough fanwank when people have plagiarised fanfic and claimed it as their own. A Creative Commons license with a “BY” clause clearly visible alongside the fiction would help people understand their rights and responsibilities with regard to re-use and attribution.

Fanfic writers who are open to the idea of their fic being remixed or for “fanficfic” of their stories to be written could use the “SA” (share-alike) clause to explicitly say that they’re happy for people to modify their work as long as the resulting work is published under the same terms.

As for the “NC” clause, well, it’s a bit unclear exactly what it means (see here and here for example), but while nobody quite seems to know whether reposting on a site with Google Adsense is commercial use, it’s *very* clear that commercial concerns such as Fanlib — or whatever corporate sleazeballs are the next to try to profit from fans’ efforts — would be unable to legally use our fic without permission.

(In an earlier draft, the previous paragraph said that a CC-NC license would “prevent” a for-profit corporation from using our fic. Marna, reviewing the draft, pointed out that the license doesn’t prevent anything, as such: it just means that you can take legal action against them if they break the license. She’s quite right: if some asshole did use our stuff in contravention of the CC-NC license, we’d still have to get lawyers to fight it out. However, unlike a customised license that we invent for ourselves, Creative Commons has the benefits of: a) having been written by some of the best intellectual property lawyers in the world, b) having name recognition, and c) having already been upheld in court. Any of these points will strengthen fanarchive’s position when trying to protect our works from inappropriate use. You might also want to read related parts of the Creative Commons FAQ.)

(S J Kasabi also pointed out that I was working from another assumption that I hadn’t mentioned. Creative Commons presumes that you hold the rights to the work you are licensing. I know I’m not alone in believing that fan fiction is legal, and not copyright violation, and that any fanfic author therefore has the legal right to license her work as she sees fit. The previous link goes to Speranza’s LJ, and if you’ve been following along, you’ll know she’s one of the core group who are setting up the fanarchive. I think we can reasonably assume that the archive’s going to work on that basis, and proceed from that point.)

Fitting it all together

So, if I were in charge of all this (which I’m not), here’s what I’d do:

1. Start out with Drupal or some other GPL’d community/content management system. (Bonus points for Drupal: strong female contingent among developers; likely to offer good support to a mostly-female fandom effort.)
2. Set up Trac or some other system — also GPL’d — to manage the software development project. We’d need a version control system, bug/task tracking, and so forth.
3. Customise and extend the CMS to make the software for fanarchive website.
4. Make our fanarchive software available for download in various forms. Document it well so that people can install and use it with ease. Create a community for users of the software, and encourage them to use it for their own archives or whatever purposes they like. Accept suggestions or improvements to the code that these people bring back to the core project.
5. For each registered user of the fan archive, let them choose a default CC license for their stories. It might be anything from “None” (aka “I retain all rights, and you can’t even copy this to your PC without my permission”) through to any of the CC options mentioned above; the CC-BY license would probably be a sensible site-wide default.
6. Also let them specify a license when uploading each fic, if they want to deviate from their personal default.
7. Display the license clearly alongside each story on the website, ideally in the fic’s header information. Also permit searching based on license (perhaps in an “advanced search” form).
8. **Create regular database dumps and distribute them.** This is vital! Only export those fics which are CC-licensed, of course; it should be easy to build a database query for that. Perhaps do something like a full dump on the first of every month, and daily diffs each day until the end of the month. (Note: do not export private or identifying information without contributors’ consent.)
9. Make the database dumps available via the fanarchive website and also over bittorrent. Bittorrent is important because, while individual websites can be shut down and prevented from distributing the database dumps, bittorrent’s peer-to-peer nature makes it very resistant to such efforts. (This is exactly why torrents are the safest way to distribute movies and TV episodes.)

And… reboot!

Let’s imagine that something occurs to bring down the fanarchive. It might be legal problems in one particular country, or it might be some kind of enormous hardware/power/networking failure (heaven forbid), or internal strife, or it might just be lack of funding.

Here’s what you — any random fan who’s been playing along from home — do to bring fanarchive back:

1. Register a domain and get web hosting (preferably in a different legal jurisdiction).
2. Install the fanarchive software, legally and easily, because it’s well documented and you’ve been using it for ages for your own personal archive.
3. Grab the latest fanarchive dumps off the torrents, and install them into your own database.


Other interesting side-effects

In no particular order.

* People might use the fanarchive software for purposes we never foresaw. They might extend it and improve it and mutate it beyond recognition, but I bet whatever they do, it’ll be cool and interesting.
* Researchers could download the whole fanarchive and use it in all kinds of interesting ways. Want to see trends in which fandoms have the most stories posted over time? Demographics of fanfic authors based on their public userinfo? You could query the database easily and learn all kinds of fascinating stuff. Currently, academics studying fandom either solicit help from fans for their research, or (presumably) work with what’s publicly available on the web. I hear that LiveJournal provides certain kinds of aggregated data to researchers for similar purposes; it’d be interesting to see how that had been used, and consider how similar data might be used to study fandom.
* Remix-o-rama! Grab all the CC-SA fics and remix them in ways you never imagined. Build a bot that creates its own Harry Potter fic based on linguistic analysis of real stories. Mash them up with lolcats. Show who’s posting what worldwide, like FlickrVision for fanfic. I can’t even begin to imagine the scope of it, but again: cool and interesting.
* A side issue, but, if the fanarchive software were released under GPL and the development team had anything like the same demographic make-up of the community of fans who have expressed interest in fanarchive to date, then this would probably be the biggest *mostly-female* open source software project ever. (While there are many women involved in open source software, in any given project they tend to be outnumbered by men.) I find that fascinating (and slightly terrifying) for all kinds of reasons.

3 thoughts on “Why Fanfic, Open Source, and Creative Commons Belong Together

  • Philip Newton

    (See the bottom of this post, for example: if you’re reading it on Infotropism, it should have a CC-BY-SA logo and link in the footer, and if you’re reading it elsewhere, they should have the same license visible somewhere because of the “share-alike” clause.)

    Not so on the LiveJournal syndicated account, presumably because the CC-BY-SA logo and link is in the footer but not actually (mechanically) connected to the post itself but to the template into which any given post is inserted _when viewed through your blog_.

    Perhaps you would like to include the info in each post, or otherwise arrange for it to be included in syndicated feed items?

  • Skud Post author

    Philip: Hrm, yeah, might look into that. Not quite sure how, but I’m sure WP has a plugin for it; WP seems to have a plugin for just about everything.

  • Phairest

    Excuse my late comment, but I just stumbled across this via googling the legality of reposting others’ fanfics, which you (inadvertantly I think) touch on in your ‘Reboot’ section.

    I find myself in a position nearly identical to that of your ‘random fan’- in a nutshell, when fanfiction.net announced they were going to purge all their NC-17 content, I coordinated an effort to save as many doomed fics from my preferred fandom as possible, and when the axe finally dropped my comrades and I had managed several hundred. Several years later now, AFAIK I’m the only one still active in said fandom and still holding the master archive (the vast majority of which apparently exist nowhere online anymore).

    It was always my intent, and I still feel compelled, to restore these fics online somehow as you suggest, and I’m capable of doing so, but since then I’ve held off for various reasons. One ever-present concern of mine has been and is- do I have a leg to stand on legally in republishing others’ fanfic, considering they may or may not have specified their prerogative on the matter?

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