By Enobong Ukpong, July 29 2022—
On June 23, 2022, a tweet was posted that shocked and outraged many in the online Persona 5 fandom community — the creative team behind a highly-anticipated fanzine titled Showtime announced that its head moderator, nicknamed “Ree,” had stolen $27,600 of the zine’s funds.
Fanzines turning out to be scams, while not common, are not a new phenomenon. The shocking part was that no one had seen this level of theft in a fandom space before. Many were shocked that a fanzine had enough customers to acquire $27,600 in the first place. But what was most shocking, and especially disheartening for the Showtime zine, was that none of the money could be recovered. According to the moderators, Ree allegedly returned only $3,000 while spending most of it on Genshin Impact, a popular mobile gacha game. The money was gone.
Even though the artistic contributions to fandom culture steadily increases in quantity and quality, it has always been an informal space. It is overwhelmingly populated by teenagers and young adults, and it is where many artists get their start — think of Cassandra Clare, author of The Mortal Instruments, who started out writing Harry Potter fanfiction. That culture is reflected in the way the team was set up. Despite the vast amounts of money they were dealing with, all transactions went through one person’s personal account. No legal contracts had been signed, and the thief was able to deceive through fake screenshots of their financial accounts. None of this is to imply that any of the moderator team should have seen this coming, of course. Ree had successfully moderated five other fanzine projects without issue.
There is sort of a question in the air of if fanzines should be implementing legal contracts, but the likelihood of that is quite low. Fanmade content has always existed in a sort of grey legal area. Older internet users might remember fanfictions being preceded by “Please don’t sue me!” because being sued by creators was a real threat for a while. A notorious example would be The Vampire Chronicles, when in 2001 its author Anne Rice tried to remove fanfiction of her work from popular sites like fanfiction.net, leading to a panic and mass deletion of content as thousands of fanfiction writers thought they would be individually sued.
Nowadays it’s less common because it’s simply bad PR for a company to sue a teenager for thousands of dollars but also because fanworks can become a way for new fans to find and enjoy your work, making it counterproductive to sue. Fan projects that create profit, like fanzines or creating unofficial merchandise, is still a bit nebulous. A common example would be companies claiming videos on YouTube, seizing any potential ad revenue it might have from its creators. So then how do you enforce legal obligations when your entire project only exists by the grace of a multi-billion dollar company?
In the end, projects like these in fanspaces are built on trust — trust that the media companies will look away, trust that the creators of the zine you’re buying know what they’re doing and trust that your teammates have integrity. And it’s clear the trust is still there. The zine was able to reach its fundraising goals to recover the money lost only two days after the theft was announced — no doubt thanks to the flood of sympathy and outrage the social media storm brought in, and many are sympathetic towards the creators for still trying to fulfill its orders. We will likely be seeing an increase in financial accountability in fandom zines, but these passion projects are still here to stay.