Trigger warning: contains discussion of sexual violence
So, anybody got anything going on? Good, that means there’s room for my favorite bit of nonsense that the year 2020 has produced. Strap in folks, because you’re in for a ride through fan fiction, American copyright law, the YouTube video essay scene, and more EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: DICK WOLF joke opportunities than you can count. As every self-respecting comm major knows, there ain’t no drama like romance novel drama.
The story begins in the colorful, crowdsourced world of fan fiction on the Internet, the birthplace of a very specific genre known as “Omegaverse.” Omegaverse stories are hybrids of erotica and speculative fiction such as sci-fi or fantasy. In these settings, the characters are human/wolf hybrids (granted, most of their wolffish traits are lifted from outdated science, but that’s for another thinkpiece) and their societies are divided not only by gender but by three additional social groupings: aggressive, sexually active Alphas, gentle and submissive Omegas, and Betas, who more-or-less act like regular humans.
A lot of budding writers got their start in fanfic-land, and given the popularity of the genre, it was only a matter of time before Omegaverse made its way into published commercial fiction. One such writer who made the leap was Addison Cain (her pen name, not her real name), who made some edits to her erotic fan fiction based around Bane from The Dark Knight Rises to create Born to be Bound, a science fiction Omegaverse novel, in 2016. This book becomes the first in a series, Alpha’s Claim. But Cain is not alone in the wild world of commercial Omegaverse, and for our purposes, the name to know is Zoey Ellis (also a pseudonym) and her Omegaverse fantasy series, Myth of Omega, launched with Crave to Conquer in 2018. The two books both revolve around a young female Omega and an aggressive, brooding Alpha male as she tries to suppress her animal instincts in the name of protecting herself and her kind. They’re also both about heterosexual couplings and the “consent” aspect of sexual relationship between the two leads is, shall we say, dubious. But straight couples are a comparative rarity in Omegaverse fiction. Seeing the similarities between the two books, Cain smells plagiarism, or at least, a rival for her readership. So, along with her publisher, she takes legal action.
In April 2018, Cain’s publisher, Blushing Books, filed a number of takedowns in keeping with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) against Crave to Conquer. Their argument is that the book’s plot has been lifted directly from Cain’s book, and that “het Omegaverse” originated with Cain’s work, and is thus rightfully her intellectual property that Zoey Ellis has no right to monetize for herself. (Let’s set aside for a moment that the first commercially published Omegaverse book featuring a heterosexual couple was Taken by Nora Ash, published in 2016.)
Soon enough, Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and Google Books took Crave to Conquer down.
Ellis is not unique in this regard either. Cain has a pattern of using the DMCA against authors she wants to deplatform: Norah Ash, Eva Dresden, Lee Sevino (who apparently stole a single character from Cain instead of a plot, but that’s another whole thing that raises too many Batman-related questions), and someone under the alias “The Dragon’s Maiden” all have similar stories of Cain using the DMCA and her clout in the erotica community to damage them and their books.
I’ll just come out and say it: Cain is the party in the wrong here. True, Born to be Bound and Crave to Conquer have similarities, but no one can claim ownership of tropes that consumers expect from a genre. DC Comics can’t copyright the trope of a mild-mannered individual with a remarkable alter ego that fights evil because that’s too integral to the concept of the superhero. Born to be Bound and Crave to Conquer are as alike as Superman is to Ms. Marvel, or He-Man, or Miraculous Ladybug, or Perry the Platypus. And we can’t forget that Cain got her start in the gray area of copyright law, seeing as Born to be Bound is ultimately a Batman fanfic whereas Crave to Conquer just seems to be original fiction that happens to use Omegaverse tropes. But that didn’t matter to Cain. She wanted to remove a rival, used a flaw in the legal system to make it happen, and since giant corporations like Amazon or Google won’t take the time to make sure the claim is legitimate, she could get away with it. She herself admitted as much in an email exchange with her publisher:
If Amazon, iTunes, and B&N comply with the DMCA (which they should given the evidence) and a stink arises, I am prepared for the backlash. I went through it with Reborn, and I’m not afraid. To settle it down, I will deflect to Blushing and remain distant and naïve. “Readers sent in complaints. The publisher filed a DMCA based on evidence they uncovered of copyright infringement. Any issues should be raised with them. This is out of my hands.” And I will remain silent publicly, unless it gets to a point that a single, professional post of the topic (once again deflecting to the publisher) needs to be posted.
Some people will be reactive right out of the gate, but that’s why I have a publisher to hide behind. It will pass quickly. So long as I stay above the fray, we’re all good. I’m very good at not engaging with crazy.
Zoey Ellis filed two lawsuits: one against Cain as an individual based in Virginia, and the other in Oklahoma against Cain as well as Blushing Books. The issues on the table encompass not only the wrongful DMCA takedowns, but also a host of other issues that are just much harder to prove: negligence, defamation, malicious interference of contract, copyright misuse, et cetera. (Remember that; it’ll be a problem for Ellis farther down the road.)
Cain submitted an affidavit to remove herself from the Oklahoma case and swore under penalty of perjury that she had nothing to do with the DMCA takedowns; it was all her publisher’s doing. The charges against her in Oklahoma were dropped, but Blushing Books still had to face the claims. And when the time came for “discovery,” the lawyers for Ellis and her publisher Quill Ink Books found that aforementioned email exchange, in which it became clear that Cain committed perjury. Three days later, the plaintiff prevailed, the defendants admitted wrongdoing, and the Oklahoma case closed.
But as for the Virginia case, well, remember how I mentioned that Ellis had filed a lot of claims against Cain as a person? That ended up being her Achilles heel. Quill Ink Books and their legal team ran out of money. The case ended there, and Cain celebrated with a post on her website titled “A WIN FOR THE AUTHOR COMMUNITY!”
And this brings us to September 3, 2020, in which author, critic, and YouTube video essayist Lindsay Ellis (no relation to Zoey) publishes “Into the Omegaverse: How a Fanfic Trope Landed in Federal Court”, in which she offers up her own take on all of the above. Lindsay Ellis voiced annoyance that Cain faced “effectively no consequences” for her malice, abuse of the DMCA, and perjury.
This is less a cautionary tale of one vindictive author…. [H]ow can people without the resources of giants like YouTube protect themselves from bad faith DMCA claims?[…] [L]aws designed to protect giant corporations are written in presumed good faith and assume that everyone is going to play by the rules; well, as a fellow USA Today bestselling author … I cannot say I feel protected by this.
Had Cain won the case, Lindsay Ellis argues, it would have strengthened an already very flawed copyright system by setting a precedent for one creator to own a specific set of tropes. She gives a shout-out to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit defending digital privacy (and NOT a sponsor, because who in the name of God would sponsor a video about wolf kink erotica?!). Then she wraps it up with this snarky but eerily prescient remark: “Take care you beautiful people, and remember to wear a mask in public. And if this video mysteriously disappears for, I don’t know, some reason, I guess I’ll see you in court.”
So Addison Cain’s lawyer, Tynia Watson, sent an email to Lindsay Ellis the next day calling for her to either “remove or correct” the video, and that an accurate account of what went down in the lawsuits could be found on Addison Cain’s Facebook (and as we all know, a middle-aged Virginian’s Facebook feed is a great source of accurate information). Lindsay Ellis found this hilarious (as do I), and decided to, in her words, “milk it for some content” by posting it to Twitter.
The next day, Addison Cain sent, what else, a DMCA takedown notice to Patreon. But unlike the heartless giants she’s dealt with earlier, Patreon is not some faceless titan. It’s a crowdfunding website, and if one of their top creators is making trouble, they actually have the motivation to look into it. They agreed it was flimsy, but as a “just-in-case” move, they honored the takedown—by unlinking the YouTube URL from the Patreon post for ten days, then relinking it later.
Ellis additionally described a series of odd events with that video that kept it from seeing her usual numbers: someone kept reporting that the ads contained adult content and violence, the URL got clocked as “not safe” on Twitter, and it temporarily got age-restricted. Cain tried her usual strategy of DMCA takedown to get the video off of YouTube, but in a twist, YouTube actually did the right thing, reviewed the video, and concluded that two minutes of reading from Cain’s book and bunch of publicly available documents in funny voices did not constitute copyright infringement. Ellis was as surprised as anyone else, “As we discussed in the last video, that [siding with a creator facing a DMCA notice] puts YouTube possibly liable if Wolf Cock Karen decides to start suing people.”
Included in the “we do not plan to take down your video” email was a copy of the email Addison Cain sent to YouTube to argue that the video essay violated copyright law. First of all, it’s clear Cain has no idea what copyright law even is as she tries to argue that Ellis infringed on Born to be Bound’s copyright with this gem: “The poster significantly transformed my work, both by altering the work and by mocking it for the poster’s financial gain via YouTube and Patreon.” Secondly, in the original video, Lindsay Ellis included a picture that Cain posted to her GoFundMe that shows Cain with her baby, which Ellis blurred out for the kid’s sake. She voiced some frustration with this in a tweet in September: “The baby stuff is wild — she posts baby pics constantly, and WE had to blur a picture of her damn baby bc the baby was on the gofundme.”
Cain’s response: “I feel that Lindsay Ellis is a menace, a threat to my child, and is monetizing defamation for personal financial gain.” That is nonsense, but at least Ellis got a new Twitter heading out of it.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation defended Ellis against Watson, who sent perhaps the wildest reply yet: the EFF is a close partner with the Organization for Transformative Works (yes, the same OTW that owns Archive of Our Own), who, apparently, also colluded with Zoey Ellis to find that email I included earlier, adding the EFF and the OTW to the grand anti-Cain conspiracy who have used the “ignorant layman” Lindsay Ellis to defame her client and make money off of the video’s views. And now I wish HerCampus had looser copyright restrictions, because I really want to include that picture of Captain Picard facepalming. Anyway, they want a public apology from the EFF and Lindsay Ellis, and that they donate all the money they made to some anti-bullying charity, the Kind Campaign.
The EFF and the OTW had nothing to do with the production of that video, and she seemed especially baffled by the “moon logic” of linking the OTW to both of the Ellises, before having a good laugh about the “FANFICTION DEEP STATE” that Watson is implying is after Cain. And the fact that Cain, who’s primarily targeted other women, concludes this email by trying to get Ellis to donate to the Kind Campaign, which specifically deals with girls bullying other girls, offended Ellis as well. “It’s like trying to gaslight people that they are the bullies and they are the ones who have behavior that needs to be atoned for. I can’t be a bully; I am the one simply demanding that you be better… Have you ever noticed how the people who crow about victimhood the loudest tend to be bullies themselves?”
As a show of good faith, Lindsay Ellis donated the ad revenue from “Into the Omegaverse” to the Kind Campaign, has made a completely unmonetized follow-up video, “Addison Cain’s lawyer emailed me and it only got worse from there”, and is hoping that there’s no more legal drama. She’s adamant that she has no interest in turning her online life into the Addison Cain Drama Channel (after all, that’s what college kids ignoring their homework are for). She plugs the authors whose careers Cain has tried to damage, and runs through some merchandise in the image of this odd incident in a deeply odd year.
That’s it. That’s the single weirdest bit of drama this year has sent my way. And that’s all I can report from the Fanfiction Deep State.