Organization for Transformative Works: defend fandom!

Ethan Zuckerman says,
The Organization for Transformative Works has just launched.

It's a fascinating new proto-nonprofit determined to defend media fandom from the excesses of copyright and to help fanfic writers and vidders maintain control of their remixed works. A few especially interesting things about the org:

- the board chair is Naomi Novik, bestselling author who's been vocal about her support for the fanfic community

- the organization explicitly recognizes the role of women in the fandom community, and has launched with respect for that history as part of their values statement (not to mention an all-female board)

- the word "transformative" looks like they're throwing down the gauntlet in copyright battles, insisting that fic is fair use as a transformative work

Ethan's post on the org launch is here: Link.


  1. Bravo! I’d dearly love to see an end to the two-tier world we’ve been maintaining, where a book that’s clearly fanfic about the March girls’ father from Little Women can win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (March, by Geraldine Brooks), but transformative reworkings of movies, television shows, video games, commercials, and uncountable other sources are afforded neither respect, nor access to commerce, nor the protection of the law.

    It’s the exact equivalent of the system whereby high-end “literary” publishers can publish books in which underage characters have sex, but cheap paperback publishers who do so risk prosecution.

    The functional status of fanfic right now is that it can be written, and posted to the internet, as long as the author is willing to give up all rights to her (or occasionally his) own work, and accepts that this irregular legal tolerance may be withdrawn in the future. This just isn’t fair.

    Fanfic is a natural human impulse. As long as people care about literature, they’ll write fanfic about it.

  2. This is such a good idea. When Naomi described it at the WorldCon at a panel that we were on together, I wrote her a check on the spot for $500 to fund the org. I hope she cashes it now that they’ve formally announced.

  3. “Boo, we have lawyers and don’t approve of your fan project anymore. Make it go away or we will continue to threaten you with slow torture by the legal system”

    That summarizes the letter that ended a 3 year not-for-profit fan project I was part of. We were “foxed” as they say in gaming.

    It felt like being punished for loving something too much.

  4. I may be in the minority, but I have to disagree with allowing fanfic writers greater degrees of flexibility to twist other writers’ works around for their own profit.

    Maybe I should add a couple of characters and write a new version of ‘2001’…

    I have always considered fanfic a poor cousin to REAL writing anyway. The authors cannot think up their own characters or plots, so they simply jump on the coattails of another author’s hard work. Let the fanfic folks stay where they belong…down in the parking garage of the Writers Convention.

  5. Naomi – since you’re reading these comments – are you focussing on all transformative works, or purely on fanfic? I’m specifically interested in Machinima, including non-fannish Machinima, here.

    Obviously, we have our own small, underfunded organisation (the Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences), but having someone else fighting for our rights as transformative creators would be great!

  6. Kmoser, that’s not the logo, actually – the umbrella graphic is just a way to underline that it’s an organization with a lot of projects underway. The logo can be found at the top of the page at

    Hugh, we’re focusing on a wide range of fannish transformative works, although we’re doing more with vidding at this point than machinima. But you should get in touch – we’re interested in building bridges to other people working in the field!

    Misha Tepper (OTW board member)

  7. re: I have always considered fanfic a poor cousin to REAL writing anyway.

    So… you don’t like movies made from historical events, or classic literature.

    I take it you don’t approve of songs like “I Don’t Like Mondays” or “The Ballad of Jesse James” or “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” After all, if those writers were really creative, they’d’ve come up with their own plotlines to write about instead of stealing something from the evening news.

    Of course you have boycotted books like Wicked, The Wind Done Gone, and My Jim. And you did not watch the Dune movie or mini-series, nor the new Tin Man series on the sci-fi channel.

    Or is it only unauthorized fanworks that aren’t “real” writing to you–is it the author’s stamp of approval, and not writing quality, that matters?

    I am *thrilled* that an organization is willing to stand up legal rights to practice the innate human creativity of retelling our favorite stories, sometimes with new twists.

  8. Have writers ever gotten in trouble for deliberately or accidentally using an idea that was written by a fanfic writer about their own work?

    Given that this is a touchy subject, please understand I’m not posing a loaded or sophistical question. I really want to know. If this isn’t the place for an answer, could someone could supply a reference and I’ll gladly hop over to it.

  9. Re: writers in trouble:
    Yes, in 1992, MZ Bradley was sued by a fan who insisted on royalties for one of Bradley’s works which used elements first created in fanfiction.

    The end result: an MZB book that was never published, and end to authorized Darkover fanfic, and an anti-fanfic policy by several authors who were aware of it.


  10. I have read the comments. To a degree, I have no problem with derivative work. What I abhor are writers who take characters invented by another writer and simply churn out new stories using those same characters.

    Unless the fanfic clone/author has a license to do so, I am definitely against it. ‘Tin Man’ is a poor example of true fanfic, and Baum’s writings are likely in the public domain, anyway. I haven’t checked on that, though. Writing about historical events is not fanfic, either.

    Here’s an example of fanfic I don’t agree with:

    When a writer takes the complete characters from the original Star Trek series and starts writing new scripts or books. To me, this is wrong.

  11. Adventure Books, are you objecting to licensed tie-ins, like Alan Dean Foster’s Star Trek Logs or Little Cindy Lu Who’s story about the awesome adventures she had on the Starship Enterprise and how all the crew came to her birthday party to thank her for saving the planet?

    Because they’re obviously of differing quality and occupy a different economic and perhaps legal niche, but I don’t believe they’re morally different as your term ‘wrong’ would suggest.

  12. haha, you guys are a) so cute and b) don’t get it. it’s not about just ripping off other people’s shit. it’s about loving something so much and NEEDING to write about it and tell other people who love the same thing all about how much you love it. it’s about participating in this amazing community of like-minded amazingly talented folks. it’s about being creative. it’s about having fun. it’s about that very human need to tell stories.

    i obviously don’t speak for anyone involved, but one of the best-beloved ‘rules’ of fandom is that of the ‘gift-economy’ as it is so often called. we don’t want to make money off it, we just want people to stop looking at us like we’re dirty sicko freaks and threatening to sue us.

    the thing is, i can’t think of a single writer i know who would charge money for her work without permission from the copyright holder.

    the flip side is, i can’t think of a single writer who would stop writing because the copyright holder said to. that’s like telling a musician to stop making music, or a painter to stop painting, or a writer to stop writing.

    OH WAIT. that’s what ficers are. writers. who write for love, not money.

  13. Adventure Books, I’m having trouble figuring out exactly what it is that you’re objecting to. You say that you have no problem with derivative works, but are against writers who use other writers’ characters to create new stories. Does this mean that you are against Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as Ovid simply churned out a bunch of stories based on a bunch of gods someone else invented? Or would you be more likely to object to the work Neil Gaiman, whose writings like The Sandman, American Gods, and Eternals are basically nothing much more than characters plundered from other authors? And then there’s that Shakespeare fellow, who really wasn’t all that inventive, all things considered: Romeo and Juliet, for example, was just a reworking of a play that had been around for ages by the time he’d started in theatre. And god forbid we even look at hack writers like Jorge Borges and Italo Calvino!

    So what, exactly, is your objection? I see no reason (as you may have noticed from my above examples) why derivative works would ever need to be sub-par or otherwise unnecessary. Even a writer who ‘merely,’ as you say, starts writing new scripts for Star Trek can create fascinating works that use established characters (which come with the bonus of having well-established identities and characteristics–a fact exploited by all derivative writers) to explore new issues and scenarios not covered by the original series. Let’s not forget that Gaiman himself has written unauthorised scripts for shows (at least one of which wound up becoming a part of the series).

    I think that what’s going on here is that you’ve come down with a case of Romanticitus. The Romantics are the only literary era to so disproportionately value originality in writing, and this has haunted us since. Most of our current notions of the writer are based in this absurd time of Byron and Coleridge and present us with nothing more than unrealistic ideals. If we were to go back to earlier eras, we would see no such ideals, and would, in fact, find that any proscription against using another authors characters or plots would be seen as absolutely absurd.

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