New York Times
September 21, 2000
Fans Go Interactive,
and Popular Culture Feels the Tremors
Eric Greene has a lot to do right now. He's home in Medina, Ohio, an hour south of Cleveland, after a summer stint at a barbershop music harmony camp in Columbus. The 16-year-old is starting his junior year in high school, and it's not easy to juggle a job at a fast-food restaurant with his quest for a 3.8 grade-point average. At home, he has many unanswered e-mail messages from his America Online buddies filed away on his computer. Then there is Eric's other preoccupation: fostering a consumer rebellion.
Like thousands of popular culture buffs, Eric has created an online shrine to his particular passion, in his case the television show The Simpsons. His involvement in an online community devoted to the show demonstrates how the Internet has changed the relationship between the entertainment industry and its audience. Fandom has always pumped the heart of popular culture, but never before has it come so close to its motor functions.
Fans online do much more than absorb and express enthusiasm. Some become artists, designing elegant and innovative Web sites. Others write "fanfic," fictional accounts elaborating upon and sometimes transforming the shows or personalities they follow. Fans also forge contacts with the artists they admire, occasionally finding them on message boards, and keep in touch with the artists' management teams. With more opportunities for such inside contact, and a strong network among themselves, fans can become their own media outlets, acting as reporters whose news sections are often far better than official sites, and distributing music and images as boutique owners who offer their goods at no cost.
If these new possibilities have made being a fan more exciting than ever, they have also threatened to obliterate the space between fans as consumers and the industry that profits from their interest. This can lead to trouble, as Eric Greene discovered. His site contained video clips, sounds and images copyrighted by 20th Century Fox Television, which Eric had obtained from other Simpsons Web sites and from the show itself. He received a cease-and-desist notice from Fox, asking that he remove the copyrighted material. He did, but his Web server shut his site down just the same.
That placed Eric in a group that includes fans of Star Trek, Star Wars, The Brady Bunch, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, most recently, the cult cooking program Iron Chef. Along with Web parodists who have violated trademarks belonging to companies like Kmart, Toys "R" Us and Etch-a-Sketch, these fans have received threats of legal action, and often lost their sites, for offering what looks to them a lot like free publicity.
Steven Melnick, a spokesman for Fox, said most fans resolved disputes with the company by adding trademark disclaimers to their pages and removing the disputed content. The few who are shut down, and the fewer who protest the actions of Fox and other entertainment companies, have little effect, he said.
Fans, however, are starting to unite against what they consider a corporate slap in the face. The agitation is still small -- a recent gathering in front of Fox's headquarters in Los Angeles attracted fewer than 10 people. Yet protest Web sites are signing up "members" by the hundreds. That is nothing to a company like Fox -- "We deal in the millions," Mr. Melnick said -- but online, where lone hackers can make a significant mark, it is creating a ripple effect.
F fan Webmasters are such small potatoes, why are companies like Fox (which is owned by the News Corporation), Viacom, Time Warner and Paramount monitoring them? One reason is that contracts with creative guilds and licensors have pay-per-use provisions and restrict the use of shows like The Simpsons and Buffy. Leonard Chassman, the executive director of the Screen Actors Guild, has said that studios will be held liable if the work of guild members appears on fan Web sites. Such lawsuits could prove costly to the studios.
Furthermore, entertainment companies have their own Web sites and want fans to flock there, where they can also buy merchandise. (Fan sites are overwhelmingly nonprofit and noncommercial.) Finally, owners fear that fans will distort the images they appropriate, turning them parodic or even pornographic.
"It's protecting a trademark," Mr. Melnick said. "The fans love this stuff and they want to own it and do whatever they can with it. However, it may not be legal."
The fans responding to legal threats, like Eric Greene, are vehement. His reconstructed Simpsons site, Comic Relief, uses trademarked material prudently and with disclaimers, and offers amusements like reviews by his 10-year-old brother, Adam, and a place where fans can post alternate endings to episodes. But his other Web site, Webmaster War III, reveals Eric as part of the trend toward involvement and independence repositioning artists, fans and the companies that connect them.
Webmaster War III, built with help from Mike Scullin, a Web designer in Philadelphia, chronicles the history of Web sites shut down by Fox for using trademarked material, offers legal tips on fighting cease-and-desist notices and coordinates a letter-writing campaign to persuade Fox to loosen its grip on the material, including fan-generated fiction, whose characters the studios say they own.
Eric can be quite emotional on these issues. "To truly support the show you love is a wonderful thing," he said. "Having a fan page is like being a bat boy. You don't play the game, but you feel a part of it."
Such team spirit is understandable, said Philip Corwin, a partner in the law firm of Butera & Andrews in Washington, who has served as counsel for digital culture stars like MP3.com.
"These fans set up these pages out of affection for these shows and want to share their warm feelings with similarly minded individuals," Mr. Corwin said. "I would think that such activities would perpetuate interest in these shows and stimulate continued sales of copyrighted works that provide revenues to the copyright holders."
At the same time, Mr. Corwin said, corporations do have legal grounds for pursuing fan sites that use extensive copyrighted materials. "A free 'Star Trek' site with limited use of copyrighted content offering learned criticism on the show's dramatic and literary merit and space travel generally might pass muster," he said. "But one offering digital downloads of entire episodes and deriving revenues from other fans probably would not."
The most famous cause of discord between fans and the culture industry, of course, is Napster, the software that allows computer users to trade compressed music files. The company that owns Napster has been sued for copyright infringement by a coalition led by the Recording Industry Association of America. Daily developments in the case will almost certainly restrict Napster's use, but the code is out of the bag -- several similar exchange programs, including Gnutella and Scour, are in full force, and music lovers show no signs that they will stop trading files.
The Napster dispute has stimulated discussions of copyright law among people who had never seen a legal brief. Its outcome crucially effects the future of intellectual property. The conflicts over fan Web sites are minor compared with the court decisions concerning Napster, culture digerati agree.
Online fans feel this power. "I've gotten so much more involved in 'Buffy' as a program because of the Web," an 18-year-old fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer who goes only by solo84, to protect her online anonymity, wrote in an e-mail interview. "After every episode I used to go online and download video clips to play over and over on my computer all the rest of the time, until I started making my own for my own site."
Fans like solo84 create their own Buffy worlds, as do music fans building shrines to the Backstreet Boys or Korn. But these worlds collide with those made for consumption by the entertainment industry. Entire alternate seasons of Buffy exist online, as do archives of trademarked material extending from promotional bits to complete episodes. Fans feel that by exchanging these elements, they enhance the show's life.
Fox has been particularly active in sending cease-and-desist letters to Buffy sites, perhaps because their Webmasters are so avid. Fans have not taken the legal threats lightly. Solo84 has organized a group known as the Buffy Bringers that has mounted peaceful protests, mostly online and through letter-writing campaigns.
Solo84 insists that fan sites comply with the legal guidelines for fair use of material and contends that Fox is overzealous. Such sentiments are common across the Internet. Even many fans trading music through Napster see their activity as a form of sharing and say they doubt that it harms the artists they admire.
Brian Scates, a 19-year-old music fan from Dallas, started an anti-Metallica site after the heavy-metal group began its highly publicized campaign against Napster. The site, which will soon change its name to exitanalog.org, has evolved into a center for learning about the legal fight over digital music distribution. Mr. Scates was never much of a Metallica fan, but he feels strongly about the integrity of Napster users and acts upon it by listing pro-Napster artists he thinks fans should support and anti-Napster artists he thinks fans should boycott.
Artists are stuck on the third edge of this overheated triangle. They want to reach fans, but many are contractually obligated, and personally inclined, to let the companies that distribute their works determine how that happens.
Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy, once avidly supported fan sites, but he has retreated on the subject, having been satisfied by Fox's explanations of its actions, Mr. Melnick said. Lars Ulrich, the much-criticized Metallica drummer, has made several well-publicized attempts to get fans to see his point. As artists slowly line up for or against the downloading of music and images, many are still holding their tongues.
With both artists and the entertainment industry exerting less consistent influence, fans have come to rule the Internet. There they have turned the old-fashioned world of clubs, self-published magazines, artwork and home memorabilia displays into an expanding galaxy.
Online fans aren't limited to screaming in a crowd or even sharing opinions in a limited-distribution fanzine or small club. Nor are their expressions filtered, as they are even on fan-friendly programs like Total Request Live, the immensely popular MTV countdown featuring orchestrated audience participation. Fans online can say what they want -- and often do. Sites critical of artists ranging from the Backstreet Boys to the entire hip-hop community are legion, though many of them don't last much longer than the average temper tantrum.
The most established way fans leap beyond passivity online is through fan fiction. Fanfic sidesteps the culture industry altogether by posing scenarios that exist only within its borders. Stories posted on the anthology site www.fanfiction.net pair the casts of Star Wars and Pokémon; imagine J. C. Chasez of 'N Sync confined to a wheelchair; and rewrite Titanic so that Leonardo lives.
"The continuation of a favored show, the ability to right a wrong or resurrect a favored character that was killed off -- there are so many different ways to get that personal satisfaction," said Michelle Savage, who maintains the mailing list at Fanfiction.net. Sometimes fan fiction's flights of fancy even turn into protest. Writing new episodes for canceled shows or eliminated characters leads to organized efforts to persuade their favorite shows' producers to bring their pop dreams back to life.
Some studios and management companies are listening. By empathizing with enthusiasts instead of antagonizing them, savvy online capitalists have found they can benefit from the energy that fans generate. New Line Cinema, for example, has teamed up with fan sites in distributing promotional material for its coming film adaptation of Lord of the Rings, a fantasy novel series that inspires exactly the kind of devotion the Web serves so well.
Mr. Geiger of ArtistDirect sees similar partnerships developing between musicians and their audiences. Fans can publicize events, share information and even help distribute merchandise through their Web sites. Artists can work directly with certain fans and keep in touch with many others through online chat rooms and bulletin boards. "The artists are still learning about the power of letting the consumers into their lives," he said.
In some ways, the Web has made the mainstream more like a nation of cultural undergrounds -- more participatory, less monolithic. Writing your own episode of Buffy isn't that different from picking up a guitar and joining a punk band. Underground culture's openness to networking and fan participation offers hints at what might happen on a grand scale if legal regulation fails to stop technology.
Sites like Insound, an online exchange where fanzine writers link to independent bands and underground filmmakers, all hawking their wares, point to one version of the future. There, fans and artists communicate as peers, and a Webmaster might be as admired as a member of a hot band.
"Fan-to-fan empowerment is still in its infancy," Christian Anthony, the co-founder of Insound, said. "I always thought the Internet would allow fans to define their own experiences. It hasn't happened as quickly as I thought, but there's a tremendous change in consumer behavior. We're still scratching the surface."