Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Nebula Kerfuffle

This past Friday (Feb. 22nd) the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (abbreviated SFWA) released the final ballot for their annual Nebula awards. The most recent Star Trek: New Voyages* episode "World Enough and Time" made the final ballot in the Script category, which is to say the script Marc Scott Zicree** and Michael Reeves wrote for "World Enough and Time" made the final cut rather than the episode itself. This has caused quite the stir in some areas which I thought was worthy of comment.

Before going any further you should go and read this post from author Keith R.A. DeCandido. His professional credits include several Star Trek novels*** as well as a host of other media tie-in work. I mention this so that we all understand that DeCandido is not one of those authors who loathes media tie-ins in general or Star Trek in particular, a point which I believe he makes quite clear in his rant however I wanted to drive it home.

I would also like to make it clear right now that I am a fan of Star Trek: New Voyages in general and "World Enough and Time" in particular, so I am biased for them. Also I am not a member of the SFWA. I just wanted all that out in the open before we delve in to things.

Here are the issues I have with what is going on:

First - What is professional? (Or as I like to think of it the "What is the meaning of 'is'" Argument)
While the words fanfic and fan fiction get thrown around quite a bit this distracts from the core rules argument which is about the definition of professionally produced. The Nebula award rules define the script as, "a professionally produced audio, radio, television, motion picture, multimedia, or theatrical script." Does this strictly mean work for which one was paid or does it expand to include work which was done by professionals?

I took a look at the membership requirements for the SFWA hoping to get some help. While the rules are quite explicit in what sort of sales qualify for prose fiction, even delving into what are considered proper markets and venues, the qualifying event for a screenwriter is, "One professionally produced full length dramatic script, with credits acceptable to the Membership Committee." Well this did not help one bit in refining the definition of "professionally produced."

This lack of information does not help us resolve the argument one way or the other and returns us to the question: What does "professionally produced" mean in this context?

Personally I believe it means produced by professionals, regardless of whether anyone got paid for it or not. If you scan the list of people involved with WEaT you will see the overwhelming number of them are professionals in their field and therefore I would say WEaT qualifys.

Second - Barracks Lawyers
I am getting sick of the discussions around fandom about the legality of fan fiction and fan films. Well, that is not strictly true, I am tired of people playing at being lawyers and making sweeping statements about whether something is legal or not or more to the point throwing around the word illegal. Ultimately copyright and trademark law are VERY complex and nuanced fields and very smart people can make convincing arguments on both sides of the issue. I prefer to take the stance that until a court tells someone they are doing something illegal then they are not doing something illegal. In the case of New Voyages this complex question becomes even more complex as there is some sort of agreement in place with CBS that allows New Voyages to continue producing episodes as long as no money is made from the episodes. Therefore while the New Voyages episodes are not licensed by CBS they are acknowledged and approved after a fashion.****

Third - If You Can't Keep It In Your Pants
At least keep it in the family. In posting this rant on his blog rather than addressing this issue internally I think DeCandido and others did both the SFWA and fandom a major disservice. The SFWA is a professional organization and as such certainly has internal mechanisms for handling complaints of this nature. This issue should never have come out of the private SFWA forums. Everyone who went running to the blogosphere with their complaints about WEaT being on the ballot, and this is ignoring whether I feel the complaints were valid or not, were behaving in a manner which I find unprofessional and reprehensible. Sweet monkey Jesus people, science fiction fandom already has enough splits and cliques in it to make South Africa circa 1980 look unified we do not need to go adding to the fire. Particularly if the award in question is, as DeCandido says, "...quite possibly the most useless award in the history of award-giving."

The manner in which many of these writers talk about the SFWA could damage the institution in the eyes of younger writers, something that is already an issue in the wake of the DCMA debacle and webscabs comments of the last year. While I do not believe in censorship and thus certainly acknowledge the right to post these things and bring them into the public eye, I think it is wrong and unprofessional behavior. Having said that I do love me a good blow up on the internet and would be eating popcorn right now if I could.

Fourth - Fighting the Good Fight
I saved this one for last because I did not want what may devolve into an ad hominem attack on DeCandido to distract from my other points. I want to say that I think the core question in DeCandido's argument is a good question and certainly needs to be debated, particularly in the SFWA which seems to have a generational gap issue amongst the membership, and is a question which has come up in other venues (such as are bloggers journalists?). I find his construction of his argument objectionable. To begin with he spends too much time making the argument that WEaT is fan fiction which is a point I would think any rational adult would be willing to concede. If not at first then on the technical grounds that it is not licensed by CBS/Paramount. The repeated invocation of "but it is fan fiction" argument distracted me at first and, in my more uncharitable moments, made me wonder whether this had more to do with what was right or whether DeCandido was pissed that none of his fan fiction, and lets face it that is what tie-in novels are regardless of their status as authorized or not, had made it that far. (Here is the list I was working from when I said that. If I was wrong let me know in the comments and I will eat the appropriate amount of crow for trusting Wikiality.) Or I might be completely off base here and DeCandido might be making the argument that fan fiction does not deserve to be on the ballot and hiding it beneath the veneer of rules lawyering. Finally at one point DeCandido says, "I swear, if anybody trots out the, 'Well, yeah, it's a fan film, but it's soooooo well-written and -produced that it may as well be professionally produced argument...I will personally go to their house and show them what I can do with my brown belt." Seriously? Are you really going to undermine what could have been a decent discussion about the rules and some rather ambiguous statements within the rules that may need to be corrected by whipping out your karate-cock? As the kids say, WTF man? If you are THAT pissed about all this then you are welcome to swing by my house and take a shot at me. I think we can all agree as long as there are no pay phones handy and I am not in my hockey gear you should be pretty safe as you assert your manliness and thus the righteousness of your cause on me.

Guess what? None of this matters as WEaT will stay on the Nebula ballot. (Of course in the big picture none of this really matters anyways but being fans it is more fun to be fighting mad about this than the suffering in Darfur, for example.)

* On the subject of Star Trek New Voyages I have a couple of pieces of information. First the decision has been made to rebrand Star Trek: New Voyages as Star Trek: Phase II. You can read more about it here in the news release from the Star Trek: Phase II website. According to an email I received from one of the P2 people I am still in the running for the production assistant job for the shoot in June however there are still a couple of hurdles to clear. Keep on sending those positive vibes.

** Marc Scott Zicree and David Simkins recently began the Zicree/Simkins Podcast which you should check out. Each week they talk with a person or persons in the entertainment industry. Usually their guests are writers or writer/producers with one or two exceptions so far. The discussions are fascinating and wide-ranging and should be required listening for anyone seriously considering writing in Hollywood. Go check them out.

*** This includes the recent Next Generation novel Q & A which has created some buzz in the Trek world as being one of the best Star Trek novels published last year.

**** I am not privy to the details of this arrangement however James Cawley, the brains behind New Voyages, has repeatedly stated that he would like to get a more formal licensing agreement in place with CBS at some point.


Drakkenfyre said...

You are 100% right and raise some very important points.

As someone who is not an SFWA member, I really shouldn't have to see another instance of SFWA in-fighting (which is how I, as an outsider, will interpret their discussion).

What gets me is how many people say that they'll just throw in their SFWA memberships or that they'll run for SFWA president, but who never do.

And as someone who used to work with copyright every day, I at least understand how much I don't understand about copyright law. So all the barracks-lawyering is getting to me, too.

And threatening violence against people who use an argument that they consider invalid is not a good thing to do, and I take it seriously. Even if it is just karate-foo. :)

Mr.SFTV said...

I've been following the discussion about "World Enough an Time" in regards to the Nebulas and the Hugos and got permission from Marc Scott Zicree to make available his statement about it on my blog (the SFTV Blog). You can read it in full at this direct link: