Between 1869 and 1930, some 200 writers imitated, revised or parodied Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Some sent Carroll’s plucky protagonist into other imaginary lands others sent different protagonists to encounter the Mad Hatter or the Cheshire Cat. Some promoted conservative agendas, others advocated feminism or socialism. Among Carroll’s imitators were literary figures such as Christina Rossetti, Frances Hodgson Burnett and E. Nesbit. Literary critic Carolyn Sigler argues that Alice parodies contributed considerably to Carroll’s subsequent reputation. Today, after Shakespeare’s work and the Bible, Lewis Carroll’s writings are the most often cited in the English-speaking world.
Now try a thought experiment. Imagine that the Wonderland stories were first appearing in 2000 as products of Disney or Viacom, and Rossetti, Burnett and Nesbit were publishing their parodies on the Internet. How long would it be before they were shut down by “cease-and-desist” letters? How many people would download “A New Alice in the Old Wonderland” before a studio flack asserted Disney’s exclusive control over Humpty Dumpty, The Cheshire Cat or The Red Queen?
Rossetti’s descendants, now called “fans,” borrow characters, situations and themes from pre-existing works (more often television series than novels) and use them as resources for their own stories. Sometimes, such stories offer ideological critiques. Other times, fans recenter the plots around secondary characters or simply provide back story. These modern-day “scribblers” are housewives, secretaries, librarians, students, average citizens; their parodies are labors of love, paying public tribute to popular narratives that capture their imagination.
These fans are also shock troops in a struggle that will define the digital age. On the one hand, the past several decades have seen the introduction of new media technologies (from the VCR to MP3) that empower consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate and recirculate cultural materials. On the other, the emergence of new economic and legal structures makes tight control over intellectual property the basis for the cross-media exploitation of “branded” materials. We can already see bloody skirmishes over intellectual property as these two trends collide. Not long ago, Fox’s lawyers took down dozens of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fan sites, and nobody even blinked because such saber rattling has become a regular occurrence.
A year or so ago, J. Michael Straczynski, executive producer of the cult television series “Babylon 5,” was speaking to the students in my science fiction class at MIT. One student asked him what he thought about “fans,” and after a pause, he replied, “You mean, copyright infringers.” The remark was met with nervous laughter and mutual misunderstanding.
So far, most discussions of intellectual property in cyberspace are preoccupied with calming corporate anxieties about controlling the flow of images and information. Technologists have touted new automated enforcement mechanisms that allow owners to ferret out infringements, and digital watermarks for tracing the precise origins of appropriated images. Yet we rarely ask whether such tight regulation of intellectual property is in the public interest. Who speaks for the fans? No one.