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OK...fine. I didn't want to do this. But I'm going to have to.

The AO3/Hugo Award/"Hugo Award Winning Fanfiction Author" thing isn't just fun and games, it's a potential problem, and the two sides aren't listening to each other. Maybe I can bridge the gap. I have to try anyway.

First, some credentials:

  • I was Vice-Administrator of the 2016 Hugo Awards. I am Administrator of the 2021 Hugo Awards. So I'm a member of what you might call the "Worldcon-running community." (Another way to say that would be that I’m a member of the World Science Fiction Society, WSFS. The thing is...there is no freestanding group that is WSFS; that's just the effective title given to any Worldcon's membership in its year. I'm going with the term that means I'm on the inside of this mess; hence, Worldcon-running community.)
  • I am a fanfiction writer on AO3. I mean, of course I am, I posted this. But I’ve also written some other fanfic, and comments on others, and allathat. So I'm a member of the AO3 community.
  • Also, I'm a trademark attorney. And that matters, for reasons we'll get into in a couple of minutes.

First and foremost: congratulations to everybody who's a part of the AO3 community, the Organization for Transformative Works, and fanfiction/fanwork communities in general. AO3's win is well-deserved, and unquestionably is a validation of fanfiction as an art form and a major element of fannish culture. You all--we all--deserve to be proud.

There's currently a fight brewing online, though, about whether members of AO3 can or should call themselves "Hugo Award Winners." Members of the Worldcon-running community (one in particular) have been emphasizing that the Hugo was awarded to AO3, not to the writers. The AO3 itself even made a post about it.

Members of the AO3 community have called that response sour grapes and "WSFS just hates fun," complete with “stop having fun guy” references. But--as is usually the case--it's not that simple.

Why?

U.S. Trademark Reg. No. 1,287,322. (Also, to a lesser extent, Reg. Nos. 4,320,959 and 4,620,505, but let's focus on '322 here.)

That's the registration for the phrase THE HUGO AWARD, owned by the unincorporated association known as the World Science Fiction Society (a legal entity only, as described above).

The phrase "Hugo Award," in connection with the designation and recognition of achievement in the fields of science fiction and fantasy through the presentation of awards, is a registered service mark (a service mark is like a trademark, but applying to services, not goods). Only the owner gets to use it or authorize/license its use.

This is the mechanism by which all sorts of awards are protected. If a producer announced that his film was an Oscar winner, despite not being one, he wouldn't only be lying, he would be infringing on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences's trademark on OSCAR (and/or ACADEMY AWARD, depending what he said).

For that matter, if you took, say, the DVD for Mazes and Monsters and slapped a giant Oscar statue image on the front--because it stars Oscar winner Tom Hanks--you'd be infringing the trademark as well.

(The Worldcon-running community has already struggled with a different angle of this: in the past few years we have been working on shifting the term "Hugo nominee" to "Hugo finalist" in official contexts. See, thanks to the way nominations work, almost anyone can nominate themselves and then validly claim to be a "Hugo nominee." After all, they were nominated. But a Hugo finalist is one of the top six, the ones on the final ballot.)

And here's the real kicker: Trademarks must be protected.

Now is where I put my other hat on: I am a trademark attorney for a very large organization, which I won't name, but which I guarantee you've heard of. Part of my job description is sending out cease and desist letters for trademark infringement. And one common response I get is "what I'm doing is small potatoes, why are you picking on me?" And the answer is that as a matter of law, we have to.

I even have a stock phrase I use:

"However, trademark rights owners, as a matter of law, must be diligent in protecting their brands from infringement or other misuse lest they risk weakening or losing certain legal rights to those marks."

Now, when it's just people talking, sure, maybe that's less of an issue. Sort of like how you can ask "are you going to the Super Bowl?" on Twitter without the NFL getting up in arms.

But once, for example. a bar owner starts marketing their establishment's Super Bowl Watch Party...or a 3D printing company makes Super Bowl memorabilia...or a T-shirt printer puts the phrase "Super Bowl XLIV Winner" on a T-shirt...trust me, you will get a letter.

And that's what we're starting to see here. Enamel pins saying "Hugo Award Winning Fanfiction Author" are being offered as Kickstarter stretch rewards, for example. Do the people doing that mean it seriously? Maybe, maybe not. (Personally, I suspect some mean it more seriously now, once they were told "hey, you can't say that.")

A valid point has been raised that the rallying cry of "I'm a Hugo winner for my fanfiction" is meant in jest, as a way of pushing back against decades of gatekeeping by the Worldcon-running community against fanwork. (Another valid point has been raised that that gatekeeping is highest-order hypocrisy given the number of celebrated, Hugo-winning authors who started out in fanfic.) I get that.

But the law, in the words of Dickens, is an ass.

If the Worldcon-running community doesn't police use of the phrase, someone else--someone with less humorous, less celebratory, less free-spirited intent--might be able to plausibly argue that he can call his self-published book a Hugo Award Winner just because it was fanfic, or he has an AO3 account, because the term has lost all of its significance by not being protected.

Is that likely? Who the hell knows. Is it something the Worldcon-running community wants to risk, especially so soon after a concerted effort to undermine the award, not by fanfiction authors in celebration of their validation but by a group of politically-motivated writers with an axe to grind? Definitely not.

(I've also seen some people saying that there isn't any prestige in a Hugo Award given some of the historical winners, and...well, get in line behind the Oscars and the Grammys and the others, I guess. The fact is that "Hugo Award" on the cover of a book does indeed help sales. It matters. There is still cachet in being a Hugo Award winner. Or even a finalist!)

So, no, the Worldcon-running community is not saying "Hey, don't have fun." It is saying, "please, don't undermine our ability to stop people with malicious intent from poisoning the term Hugo Award."

I'm not even telling you that you have to think I'm right. But at least, please know that this isn't just a matter of "don't have fun." It's a plea for your help.