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The Book Burning That Wasn't: Thousands of Works of Fiction Destroyed and No One Pays Attention

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While most of the world carries on unaware, the last couple week has seen trauma, in-fighting and mass exodus in the world of fanfiction authors and readers. The catalyst for the current outrage being voiced by this community of creators and consumers? Fanfiction.net enforcing a ratings policy that has been in place since 2002 by deleting thousands of stories.

For those who don't know, fanfiction stories are original works written using already existing characters and situations (think Harry and Hermione get jobs at Disneyland and fall in love. I just made that one up, anyone's welcome to use it). FF.net, as it is usually called, has been the go-to archive for fanfiction for the last few years, housing millions of stories inspired by everything from Buffy to the Bible. Just under two weeks ago users started to notice stories disappearing and some writers reported having their stories deleted and their accounts suspended. On 4 June FF.net published this statement on their front page:

"Please note we would like to clarify the content policy we have in place since 2002. FanFiction.Net follows the Fiction Rating system ranging from Fiction K to Fiction M. Although Fiction Ratings goes up to Fiction MA, FanFiction.Net since 2002 has not allowed Fiction MA rated content which can contain adult/explicit content on the site. FanFiction.Net only accepts content in the Fiction K through Fiction M range. Fiction M can contain adult language, themes and suggestions. Detailed descriptions of physical interaction of sexual or violent nature is considered Fiction MA and has not been allowed on the site since 2002."

The above statement references the fact that in 2002 FF.net removed its NC17 rating, hoping to discourage explicit material from the site. However, it had little effect and sexually explicit and violent fanfiction continued to be posted.

The enforcing of this rule is not what has most FF.net users up in arms, many online reactions agree that much of the content on the site was unsuitable for the M rating and was in violation of terms of service. What does have these people riled is the method by which this sudden enforcement took place. Many are calling the mass deletion a 'purge'. To give a sense of the numbers one user (http://ffdotnetrants.livejournal.com/134901.html) compiled data which showed that as of 4 June the top 20 most popular categories had lost 0.39% of their stories, or about 8,000 works. This number continues to grow. Stories were deleted without warning and with no opportunity for recourse; for many their work was lost for good. Communities began to rally around, anonymous people sharing copies of works they had secretly saved on their hard drives. Conspiracy theories abounded about them only targeting slash fiction (stories involving male homosexual relationships) or that a group of vindictive critics, going by the name Critics United, were to blame. None of this appears to be wholly true. Rather it seems that FF.net has decided that now is the time to have a clear out.

What is of real interest here is not what rules have or have not been broken, but rather a question about the nature of fanfiction. Its very existence is one on the edge of rule breaking, a barely legitimate form of copyright infringement. The characters and situations used by these authors are, for the most part, not owned by them. As authors they have very little right to their work. The real anger seems to come from the enforcement of ostensibly black and white rules in a world governed by grey areas.

These unpaid authors are at the mercy of the sites willing to house their work and as such must adhere to the lines drawn in the very murky sand of copyright law. Some of these authors spent months writing and editing novel length works to then have them deleted entirely, as if they were something with no artistic or cultural worth; artefacts that either follow the rules or don't.

In the wake of 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James, a current bestselling novel that started life as Twilight fanfiction, questions about the legitimacy of the format are being asked. If the only difference between a piece of fanfiction and a bestselling novel is the changing of character names and places, then is the mass deletion of thousands of stories without warning something that should be bigger news than a handful of Tumblr posts?

There is a cultural hierarchy of taste at play here, one which places fanfiction as lowbrow geek fodder undeserving of any real attention. Were a library filled with thousands of works of 'legitimate' fiction destroyed, it would make front-page news.

I don't know if the much publicised provenance of 50 Shades of Grey will change anything or if the 'purge' will receive any outside interest, but I think it's time that people other than fans and fan scholars were made aware of one of the most prolific literary sources in recent years. And I can make you one promise, if you can think of it, someone has written fanfiction about it.

NOTE: The figures regarding the number of works lost in this blog post have been amended. The initial research suggested that 3.09% of their stories, or around 62,000 works had been deleted, but the figures have now been revised to a loss of 0.39%, or about 8000 works. The blog has been changed to reflect the new more accurate figures.