As of a few minutes ago, I have received Chris Williams’ response to the questions we collected here. I promised him that I would run his answers in full and I have accordingly made no changes here except to format this in a way that will make it readable on the blog. I should warn people that I am tied up with a conference this afternoon and this evening. I will put through comments from readers as quickly as I am able to do so but I may be off line for extended periods of time, so please be patient. As always, if you get an error message, send your comments directly to me and I will post them myself.
Thank you for the opportunity to address the questions and share the unedited answers in full with your readers. I would like to apologize to the fan fiction community for creating confusion, being insensitive, sending some inappropriate communications, and acting in an unprofessional manner. I acknowledge that some of my answers below are repetitive but I wanted to make sure the answers are complete and in context for those readers that may only be interested in certain questions. Now to the answers…
What is your own background in fandom? Have you had a history of involvement in this community? More generally, are there people working for your company who come out of the fan fiction world and have an understanding of its traditions and practices?
I am a complete media junkie. I love stories and since 2003 I have involved over 100,000 people in online fan fiction events. Because of my involvement in these events I’ve definitely spent the most time with Harry Potter and L Word fan fiction. As you see from my response in the forums, I am not a great writer.
Several people in our small company come out of the fan fiction world. All of us are now involved in the community.
What led you to create this site? What first gave you the idea and why did you carry through with it? What are you hoping to achieve? What sold your investors that this was a good idea and that this was the right time to move forward?
I was deeply involved with the ongoing online revolution at Yahoo for a long time and I have always had a passion for film. In 2001, my friend and I had an idea, inspired by many people we knew with creative movie ideas, who didn’t have the means or access to realize them. So we tried to create a collaborative event for fans to write an original script and produce a feature film from it. It quickly became apparent to us that online storytelling was about more than script writing: entertainment fans were also looking for venues to showcase their talent, and media companies were wrestling with how to best operate in a changing world. So we started by testing the waters with fans by running special online storytelling events and found that many of the participants loved fan fiction. We went to the media companies, talked to them about how they wanted to work with online communities and found that many wanted to connect with fan fiction readers and writers. FanLib started running special events in partnership with media companies and publishers in a moderated, controlled environment. These events were so successful with both fans and the media companies that we decided to create a venue for online storytelling based upon fan fiction.
In this broadly changing landscape FanLib (the company, not the website) is meant to be a positive agent of change for fans, media companies, and rights holders. I want FanLib.com (the website) to become a venue for fans who want to showcase and share their work, discover great stories, get closer to the talent behind their favorite fandoms and participate in creative storytelling events.
Our investors recognize the tectonic shifts taking place in the digital/media/consumer/entertainment landscape. I won’t fill space here with the facts and research about media convergence, user generated content (UGC) and personal media consumption and I certainly recognize fan fiction is not your “vanilla” UGC. I know you and your readers are very well aware of these modern media phenomena and changes that are occurring everywhere. Our investors believe FanLib can play an important role.
What is the basic value proposition you are making? Who is making money here? Why are the fans not being compensated for the work they produce? In what other ways might fans receive benefit from their participation in your site?
The value proposition for fans is a free venue where they can pursue their passion by creating, showcasing, reading, reviewing, sharing, archiving, discovering stories, and by participating in fun events in a community with similar interests. For those that are interested, they can also get closer to the talent behind their favorite fandoms through official special events we create with media companies, like we just did with the TV show Ghost Whisperer.
The value proposition for media companies and publishers is to connect, engage, and entertain fans of their media properties in a new online storytelling environment.
Right now, in the early stages, no one is profiting. We are on the leading edge of the changes, and this is an evolving model. Media companies pay us to create the special events that I’ve described and advertisers pay to sponsor them. Like many sites on the web, users don’t pay us and we don’t pay them. We want to introduce fans to online storytelling, where fan fiction plays an important role and where they can share in a particular experience provided at the website.
What does FanLib offer a fanfic writer that other ad-free sites run by people from within the fanfic community do not?
FanLib offers four things:
First, we provide a venue for people who want to showcase and share their stories, discover great stories, get closer to the talent behind their favorite fandoms and participate in fun events.
Second, for people who want it, we provide the opportunity to be recognized and discovered by a wider audience and by our media partners. For example:
- FanLib has run two online storytelling events resulting in twelve winning authors being published in e-books distributed by HarperCollins.
- FanLib is currently running an event where authors have their parenting stories produced into short video episodes with major stars that are distributed on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and online. These videos have already been viewed over 2,800,000 times online, and we are only on the second episode with three more to go.
- FanLib launched the first ever collaboration between a television creator and their fans resulting in an original episode screenplay for The L Word. One of the winning authors secured literary representation as a result of the contest.
- FanLib has given away more than $50,000 in prizes to winning participants in our online storytelling events.
- FanLib has secured local and national press coverage for winning authors of FanLib events.
We have many more special fan events coming. You’ll see us shortly announce and launch: a fan event with a major media company around one of the most popular fandoms, a collaborative feature film screenplay and movie, a partnership with a major talent management company to identify star writers from the FanLib.com community and create opportunities for them.
Third, we have highly responsive customer support.
Lastly, no other site – whether they have ads or not – offers all of the features listed below. Our beta site also actively solicits member feature requests and implements them.
+ Massively scalable, reliable archiving platform (backed up daily)
+ Easy submission creation and editing, including:
o WYSIWYG editing
o Import from another website
o File Upload with support for .doc, .txt, and .rtf formats
o Auto-save (i.e., your work is safe if your connection drops or computer crashes)
o “Make Private” option (your fic will be completely hidden from all but you)
o Add chapters over time
o Easily assign up to three fandoms to each submission
+ Advanced searching and filtering tools: Easy to add multiple criteria and build a filtered query with simple clicks
+ Featured Fanfics and Members: They will appear on the site homepage as well as at the top of searches
+ Syndication and Sharing Tools: Including RSS feeds, invites, and the ability to easily embed customized promotional badges on other sites
+ Customizable Member Profiles: You can build your profile with your fanfics, favorites, descriptions and feedback, deciding which elements will be public
+ Story Views:
o Paginated with bookmarking
o Single-page (printer-friendly) and ad-free
+ QuickLists (save a fic for later viewing)
+ Subscriptions (see the latest from your favorite fandom or author)
+ Fandom FastFind: The ability to type a few characters from the name of a fandom, hit return and go directly to a page with only stories from that fandom
+ Tagging of fanfics
+ Customized Fanfic themes and images (with the ability to disable themes when browsing and searching)
+ Private messaging
+ Full Featured Message Boards
+ Content blocking based on age ratings (e.g., mature-rated submissions may be completely hidden)
+ Star Readers and Writers
+ Rate submissions (1-5 stars)
+ Leave multiple comments
+ Strong search engine optimizations
And, coming soon:
+ Email notifications
+ Multiple Author submissions
+ Banning individual members from leaving you comments
+ Ability to associate other media (e.g., video, more images)
+ Social networking tools
To our knowledge FanLib.com is the only site with ALL of these features. Our site is designed so that you don’t have to use all these features – in fact it’s also a great private archive.
Who is the target audience for the site? Did you do a market survey and identify who they wanted, and what is the demographic breakdown of that audience?
The site is for people who want to showcase and share stories, discover great stories, get closer to the talent behind their favorite fandoms and participate in fun online events. Let’s call that the “site mission”. Our market research showed that the site mission has great potential in a surprisingly broad demographic range. So the site design was not principally driven by a specific demographic, it was much broader than that and was designed for those people who like to use the new online tools and services. Obviously, anyone can use the site and we recognize that it is definitely not what the traditional fan fiction community is used to. Many of the features are a result of requests specifically from our ongoing beta test.
What rights is your site claiming over the fiction that gets posted there? What rights remain with the authors? Can fans post the same stories on other sites, for example, or are you claiming an exclusive right to the material? Fans note that the original terms of service implied you had the rights to edit the material or republish it in other places. Is this true?
FanLib.com members do not give up any ownership rights when they use the website. Neither do they acquire any additional ownership rights to characters and settings owned by someone else. FanLib does not own any rights to a member’s content; the members only authorize us to share it on our own website and allow other members to make use of it for their own noncommercial purposes. By submitting a story on FanLib.com, they do not give up any rights to post it on any other website. FanLib imposes no restrictions on what you do with your content outside our website. The old beta terms of service (TOS) did have the word “edit,” which caused a lot of confusion and has been removed. The new TOS has been posted at [http://www.fanlib.com/termsOfUse.do] and reflects many of the comments from the fan fiction community.
Fanfic remains in a legal gray area because there has yet to be a precedent set stating that it is or is not, legal. Many fans worry that FanLib changes the terms by which fan fiction is being produced and circulated by charging money and pushing it further into the public eye and that this increases the risk of legal action against it. A court battle could adversely impact the entire fan community by basing case law on the most commercial rather than the least commercial forms of the practice. How might you respond to this concern? What risk analysis have you done here?
We have done an extensive risk analysis and are comfortable with supporting fan fiction through our website. As some of our members have already acknowledged, the landscape is changing. Fan fiction is already on the radar of media companies and publishers. For example, Lucasfilm, which has traditionally been conservative about fan-generated content, has even added, this year for the first time, a fan fiction category to their annual “Official Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge,” and NBC has invited fans to submit their theories around the TV show Heroes.
We want to be positive agents in this change by working with fans, media companies and rights holders. We are going to do whatever is feasible to assure people that posting on FanLib.com does not somehow add to their liability. Our goal is build a great venue, open to everyone, that allows people to showcase their work, discover great stories, get closer to the talent behind their favorite fandoms and participate in fun events. We think that by building a collaborative model, we will positively impact the fan community and will avoid needless litigation. We believe that we will be seen as an online community that goes to great lengths to protect everyone’s rights in a positive, collaborative way. For those members or prospective members who are worried, I encourage them to look at our new TOS, which we feel are very fan-friendly. FanLib.com is a free service for users, and we do not charge fans to read or post fan fiction.
Statements in the original FAQ and comments from FanLib representatives that “we assume fanfiction is legal fair use” and “it’s not in the copyright holder’s interest to sue” have many fan authors concerned. In some cases, you are publishing stories in universes where there have been explicit statements made by creators that they do not consider fan fiction to be fair use. Have you researched the individual fandoms involved or are you treating them each the same?
First, I want to apologize for our poorly written FAQ and our old beta terms of service (TOS), all of which resulted in an understandable uproar in the fan fiction community. We have posted a new FAQ [http://www.fanlib.com/cms.do?page=faq.html] and new terms of service (TOS) [http://www.fanlib.com/termsOfUse.do]
Our policy is to not accept submissions in fandoms for which the right holders have explicitly stated they do not consider fan fiction to be fair use. Since we don’t actively police the site, as stated in our TOS, we will remove any such stories that come to our attention.
Yes, we have researched the individual fandoms, and no, we are not treating them all the same.
Your previous efforts around The L Word and The Ghostwhisperer involved working directly with production companies to authorize certain kinds of fan fiction. Why have you shifted strategies with this new initiative? And can you reconcile the two models?
The premise of this question is 100% false. We have not shifted strategies. As noted above, fan fiction is already on the radar of media companies and publishers and being pushed into the public eye. We want to be a positive agent in this changing environment by collaborating with fans, media companies and rights holders. We’ve already experienced significant success on this front through our series of special storytelling events, and we intend to build on that success with the FanLib.com venue where all the parties can participate in fan fiction. We believe we can help reconcile the two models, but changes are coming with or without us.
How is the site planning to deal with the (inevitable) first complaint from a copyright holder?
FanLib complies with the DMCA. Please see our
http://www.fanlib.com/cms.do?page=dmca.htm> for more details.
Your TOS requires writers to “defend, indemnify and hold harmless FanLib” in the case of legal action. What efforts do you plan to take to inform writers about the risks they are taking? Many fans are concerned that your company will make all of the money here while leaving fans to take all the risks. How would you respond to this criticism?
Again, our old beta terms of service (TOS) was not a good expression of our intent. The new TOS has been posted at [http://www.fanlib.com/termsOfUse.do] and reflects many of the comments from the fan fiction community, including this issue. Indemnification clauses are a standard part of most website TOS. For your convenience, here is the language from our new TOS:
“You agree to indemnify and hold harmless FanLib, its officers, directors, employees and agents, from and against any and all claims, damages, obligations, losses, liabilities, costs or debt, and expenses (including but not limited to attorney fees) arising from any violation of the Terms. This indemnification obligation will survive these Terms and your use of the website for 12 months.”
Our new FAQ also helps address some of these issues. [http://www.fanlib.com/cms.do?page=faq.html] This is an ongoing process, and we know there is more work to do.
So, how would I respond to this criticism? I would respond by asking if you truly think that the fans are the only ones taking the risks. To accomplish the mission I’ve described above and be positive agents of change for all parties involved requires enormous commitment, investment and substantial risk for us. To some extent we’ve tried to mitigate the risk for fans by being extremely flexible in our new TOS, but we’ll never be able to make everyone happy and there are always some risks.
FanLib allows adult content under an “ADULT” rating, but the Terms of Service say that the website must not be used to publish any material “obscene, vulgar, or indecent.” Isn’t there an inherent conflict there? What happens when a parent finds his-or-her child reading an ADULT-rated Harry Potter fic?
These words, which were included in our old beta TOS and caused understandable confusion, have now been removed. The new TOS has been posted at [http://www.fanlib.com/termsOfUse.do] and reflects the input of the fan fiction community, including this issue. Naturally, we will do whatever we must to abide by law.
First of all we know that in the past J.K. Rowling has expressed her disapproval for certain kinds of adult Harry Potter fan fiction. We don’t presume to know her boundaries about what may be acceptable or unacceptable in a Harry Potter fic, but if she notifies us we will take down the story. As it relates to the situation where a parent finds his-or-her child reading ADULT-rated Harry Potter fic, I can’t speak for the parent. What we’ve done on the site is completely hide all adult content so that the user must actively seek it out by changing filter settings with explicit warnings. This far exceeds what a lot of other sites do, and our process will continue to evolve.
In your marketing brochure –
http://www.my2centences.com/my2c_new/FanLib_info.pdf — you assure the copyright holders that FanLib is “managed and moderated to the max,” and that “as with a coloring book, all players must “stay within the lines.” Can you explain what you mean by that statement? One of the reasons so many fans write fanfic is so that they can deliberately step out of the “lines” and do their own creative thing without any interference from the copyright holders.
I’d like to clear up some confusion around the FanLib brochure you’re quoting from. First, it was produced three years ago – in 2004. Second, as a company, we have two distinct parts:
1. The beta site, FanLib.com (launched in March 2007); and
2. Official online storytelling events. In this second part, which we actually started years ago, we work with other companies and sponsors to create special online fan events. Each event is governed by its own clear rules and terms of service that are separate from those for the FanLib.com beta site referred to above. This is necessary because contests, sweepstakes, prizes etc. need their own rules and regulations. The brochure that people are referring to was written for potential companies and sponsors and relates only to these special events and not the FanLib.com beta site. At the time we published the brochure, our URL linked to a site that essentially described the events for companies and sponsors in more detail. These special events are managed and moderated and “missions” are provided so that players “stay within the lines.” This brochure has NOTHING to do with fan fiction submitted on the FanLib.com site, where we provide a venue for anyone to be as creative as they want as long as they don’t violate our policies. We totally understand that general fan fiction doesn’t fit in the process described in the brochure, which is ONLY for certain special events we create.
I hope that addresses the confusion.
COMMUNITY RELATIONS ISSUES
Fans note that someone named “Naomi” was used to send out the original invitation letters to fan writers, but fans have been unable to find out who this person is. Is it a real person or a sock puppet? Why was a female name used for this purpose, when the board of directors for the company seems to be all male? Why has the initial advertising with its play on the Charles Atlas bodybuilding campaign adopted such a masculine metaphor for what has been and remains an overwhelmingly feminine cultural practice?
I acknowledge the way we sent out certain invitations was flawed. Our objective was to invite fan fiction authors to participate in our beta test and, if they chose to, join our beta team testing the site and providing feedback. As I hope you can appreciate, I am not going to publicly discuss personal details about our employees. We do not use sock puppets, no gender criteria were taken into account during the process and nobody at FanLib is pretending to be of a different gender.
The advertisement you mentioned was one of four that we tested during the beta, and we ran it on a site targeting a younger audience where it performed very well. We also put the ad in a general rotation on our beta site as a “house ad.” In my considerable experience in online advertising unless you do some profile related targeting you’re going to expose an ad to people for whom it isn’t suitable. Because this ad was in a general rotation unfortunately this is what happened. We pulled the ad in order to be sensitive to some of the complaints. We are acutely aware that fandom is predominantly female, just like the users of the FanLib.com beta site, who seem to like its design and features.
Many fans feel that the company has done a poor job so far in community relations. What steps are you taking to turn this around? Are you rewriting the terms of service and FAQ based on the feedback you’ve received? Are you planning to develop an advisory board composed of members of the fanwriting community?
I’ll be the first to admit we’ve done an awful job with community relations. I think the good news for us is that we have lots of feedback from the beta site and community, far more than we expected. As a result we have rewritten our terms of service and FAQ. We’ve taken some extraordinary steps to make our policies more fan-friendly and we are currently putting together final plans for a fan advisory board, which will be published on our beta site shortly.
What, if anything, do you think you can do to enhance the credability and responsiveness of FanLib to the people who have invested their energy into fan fiction in some cases for several decades?
First, I want to apologize for my own idiotic post across multiple blogs and for my offer to open a dialogue that I was unable to follow through on due to overwhelming community response. As a first step, based on the feedback from our current beta test, we have rewritten our terms of service and FAQ, revised some of our policies, and are creating a fan advisory board. We are in this for the long term to make FanLib.com a venue where anyone who wants to, can showcase and share their work, discover great stories, get closer to the talent behind their favorite fandoms and participate in fun storytelling events,
This last question is a bit awkward for both of us but it has come up a number of times and so I feel I need to ask it: Isn’t it somewhat symptiomatic of FanLib’s problems that the spokespeople are more willing to talk to a man with credentials rather than some of the female fan writers who have approached you?
I do think your question is a bit unfair, but I’ll answer anyway. I am here because you hold dual citizenship in fandom and academia, you maintain credibility and integrity in both worlds, and you told me I you would get a fair hearing and you would share the unedited results of our interview in its entirety with those interested in the matter. Meanwhile, we’ve been listening to the many comments we’ve received from the community and taking action. For proof check out our new TOS and FAQ on our website.
We intend to continue the conversation with the fan fiction community through our developing fan advisory board and, as time permits, by responding to other inquiries, comments and requests that we receive from interested individuals – obviously, regardless of gender.
Thanks again for your willingness to be interviewed.
Thank you for the opportunity.