from the think-fan-fiction-is-just-about-teenage-girls? dept
Tell people that fan fiction is an important form of political speech that deserves protection, and they'll roll their eyes. The stereotypical fanfic writer is a teenage girl who writes misspelled stories about vampire love—is that kind of work really worth anything? Maybe there used to be folks like Shakespeare, Dante and Virgil who wrote stories about characters someone else invented, and yes, those stories changed the world, but let's face it: Vampire love. There's just no living that down.
Which makes it all the more mind-bending to learn that a man we respect, James Madison, Father of the Constitution and fourth President of the United States, wrote a story about a character he didn't create. Yes, the same man who wrote the Bill of Rights also wrote a fanfic. Vampires.
John Bull, the character Madison appropriated for his story, was created in 1712 by John Arbuthnot. Though forgotten today, Arbuthnot's satirical allegory about the War of the Spanish Succession, The Law is a Bottomless Pit, was very popular in its time. John Bull represented England, while other characters represented the rest of the nations involved in the war.
There was no fanfiction.net in Arbuthnot's time, but that didn't stop his readers from spinning off their own stories and comics which also used John Bull as a characterization of England. Over the course of a century, John Bull transcended his origins and became Britain's version of Uncle Sam. To the British he was a hero; to the American colonists, a villain.
Enter James Madison. The retired president was concerned over the growing rift between the North and the South. To give voice to his opinions on how the matter could be resolved peacefully, he wrote a short allegorical story, Jonathan Bull and Mary Bull, wherein a character named "Old Bull" represents England, and his descendants "Jonathan Bull" and "Mary Bull" represent the North and South respectively.
From a modern perspective the story is nothing much to read, but it does raise a rather intriguing question. Why fanfic? What made Madison decide to use existing characters to make his point rather than inventing his own characters like John Arbuthnot did for his own political allegory? And isn't using other people's characters without permission copyright infringement?
The easiest way to tackle these questions is to tell you an allegorical story. There once was a comic artist, "Jim M.," who wanted to comment upon the important issue of CIA torture. To make his point, he drew a three panel comic strip. In the first panel, Captain America is taking down a fanatical Nazi commander who tortured prisoners of war for the good of the Fatherland. "You will be tried for your crimes," he promises. In the second panel, Jim M. draws Captain America standing next to President Obama, who is casually observing that although the CIA did "torture some folks," the lapse can be excused because the torturers were patriots who loved their country. In the third panel we see Captain America's shadowed face as he walks away from a burning American flag.
Suppose Jim M. had created a new character, "Bob the freedom-loving American G.I." to use in place of the copyright and trademark-protected Captain America? It wouldn't have had half the impact, would it? Captain America's strong connection to American patiotrism and historic stand against the oppressive Nazi regime makes him an ideal character for Jim M.'s purposes. As for Bob the American G.I., the audience knows nothing about him. Even if Jim M. did try to provide Bob with a heroic backstory, readers would have to wade through 200 pages of unrelated material before they even got to the part about the CIA torture. Without the use of Captain America, Jim M. wouldn't be able to get his point across.
For Jim M., effective political speech requires the use of a popular icon, not an unknown character. Unfortunately, Jim M. has now opened himself up to a potential copyright lawsuit. If he chooses to defend his fair use rights, it will cost thousands of dollars in legal fees. If he loses, the damages could be even more grave.
James Madison didn't have to worry about the legality of his political speech because a) John Arbuthnot was Scottish and the U.S. didn't recognize international copyright laws at the time; b) John Bull had already entered the public domain; c) the creation of derivative works (such as fanfiction) had not yet been criminalized. It's that last point that concerns Jim M., because it means that he can no longer be sure that the law will protect his freedom of speech. It may, or it may not; either way, it will cost him thousands of dollars in court to find out. Compare that to the situation in Madison's day: If Madison had wanted to write an allegory where Captain America tries to make peace between the North and South, he could have done so without any fear of repercussions. Before derivative works became illegal, creators had the freedom to make use of the most appropriate character for their commentary without facing any consequences.
So what about Janice, who writes a five page long fanfic in which Edward and Bella visit the 9/11 site and wonder about the direction America is heading between passionate vampire kisses? Being born in 1901, Edward lived through WWII, and it turns out that he has some surprisingly insightful thoughts about the state of America today. The story concludes with Edward, who is telepathic, overhearing the hateful thoughts of his fellow visitors toward a man in a turban standing nearby. But Edward reads the man's thoughts, and learns that he is praying for the families of the victims.
Could Janice provide the same insightful opinions without using copyright-and trademark-protected Edward as her mouthpiece? Yes, but not as easily. It would be a tough challenge to develop Edward and Bella as rounded characters, then show Edward's unique powers and lifespan, all without shifting the emphasis away from the issues she wants to explore. Instead of writing a story about the impact of 9/11, Janice would end up writing a story about why her character has supernatural abilities.
Someone skeptical is saying, "Yeah, but do fanfic writers actually write stories like that?" Yes, absolutely! Fan creators make use of their favorite characters to propound their opinions on issues from racial equality to stopping SOPA. In the introductions to such stories, you will often hear the writer explain, "I thought such-and-such a character would be perfect for dealing with issue X because..." These writers have an innate understanding that the use of popular icons allows for powerful forms of expression that would be difficult to achieve by other means. Yet these same writers would have a very hard time proving that their creations are fair use before a judge.
Not that it matters, because such cases almost never go to court. Fair use is too fickle to be relied upon as a defense, and the expense of proving a point is too costly for the average person to bear. What we are left with is a situation where rights holders can basically censor political speech at will. Just imagine if John Arbuthnot had been able to order Madison to take down his story because he disagreed with Madison's political views. The President was deeply in debt at the end of his life, and like most of us, he could hardly afford an expensive loss in court.
Of course, some would argue that the ability to censor speech is a good thing. After all, suppose that an anti-Semitic fan wrote a story set in WWII where Edward joins the Hitler Youth? If it weren't for the laws against derivative works, the argument goes, Stephenie Meyer wouldn't have the right to take down the fan writer's objectionable ideas.
But it would be a mistake to assume that such censorship powers will always be used for good. Take for example the popular book, "The Education of Little Tree," written by Asa Earl Carter, a now-deceased member of the Klu Klux Klan. Suppose that a fanfic writer decided to have Carter's main character, Little Tree, befriend an African American boy as a way to express support for the idea that all men are brothers? The same power that gives Meyer the right to take down anti-Semitic speech also grants racists like Carter the ability to discriminate against the minorities they despise.
Most of us support freedom of speech, but for copyright holders, the right to censor views they disagree with has been all but enshrined as a legal right. What would happen, I wonder, if Jim M.'s Captain America cartoon went viral? Would his work be praised by Marvel, or would they send him a cease and desist letter? Would he crumple quietly, or fight it out in court for years?
"Yes," the critics say, "but we could avoid this whole problem if people just wouldn't write fanfics in the first place. Do your social commentary without using other people's IP!" You hear that, James Madison? You'll have to find another way to stop the Civil War. We have lawyers and they don't like how you're expressing your "creativity."
Madison cautiously approved of copyright, but I doubt that he suspected it would be used to chill free speech like his story 200 years later. The President clearly knew that derivative works can provide a compelling way to make a point, and as the author of the First Amendment, I'd like to think that he believed that fanfiction should be a protected form of expression. It's a shame that such a valuable means of public discourse has been almost criminalized today.