We Need to Talk About That AO3 App

Recently, I've found myself frustrated by the reaction people have had to an app that was put on the Apple and Google Play marketplaces. The app was marketed as a way for users to unofficially read AO3 (Archive Of Our Own) fics from mobile devices. Not the first of its kind, but it garnered a lot of attention.

I'm of the opinion that the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) should consider development of such a thing, if they manage enough funding. Mobile browsers are highly limited in what they can offer users for device compatibility, stabilized performance, and accessibility features that are necessary for certain devices. In the end, even a dynamic, mobile site is still designed from its desktop counterpart. It will never be the experience that is best for mobile users. Assuming that because a thing can exist on there that it's fine in that form is a misunderstanding of how user's navigate between devices. I do understand there are ways to offline read and download content for e-readers. Still, having an app on my phone would be so quick and dirty as a user. (Even Wattpad has that, for crying out loud!)

Tumblr Went Wild, and API Use

Tumblr—unsurprising to pretty much anyone—has a funny way of over-exaggerating at every turn. Collectively, the site jumped to conclusions and eviscerated someone who was trying to make it easier for users to read fanfics from AO3.

The claims were a mixture of:

  1. The app has in-app purchases, which means they're making illegal money off of our content

  2. They're rehosting our content without our permission

  3. They didn't even get OTW's permission

  4. This puts writers at risk for legal trouble

  5. The creator is a grown man claiming to be a teenager

Completely removing the fifth claim, because that came out of nowhere... This lack of research and understanding led to the app being taken down and everyone feeling completely justified in their witch hunt. But it's not that simple.

This app wasn't claiming to or actively hosting any of the content. The app used OTW's public API (application programming interface) to populate the content. This is done all the time. Goodreads uses the Google Books API for its library. TrueAchievements uses Xbox's API for Achievement and Gamertag information. It's a common practice. It allows app developers to display content without having to manually push and pull levers to republish something to their site. An API does all of the populating for the developer. Otherwise, there would be one sad developer literally downloading content and rehosting it on their service every single time. When you consider Archive Of Our Own had over 5 million works published in 2019, that's not feasible.

When everyone saw their content was available in the app, they freaked out and claimed that this app was rehosting their content—despite the fact that everything pointed back to the original source. (We'll talk about author consent in a moment.) This wasn't plagiarism or rehosting—issues the community had seen a myriad of times. The content never strayed. It's about as offensive as Google's SEO snippets that show two-sentence excerpts of stories if you were to Google the title of one of your fics. It's displaying, not stealing.

Use of an API is not a sin, especially if it's publicly available for developers. Even more so, a third party pulling from a public API available to developers, doesn't inherently put the user, whose information is pulled, at risk for legal trouble. And it would be a hard sell in court, when court systems deal with IP (intellectual property), API, and digital privacy statements all the time. They know the difference and wouldn't take a 14-year-old writing Supernatural fanfiction to court just because some app displayed their stories.

The other claims of purchases and OTW permission are another concern, of course.

Fanfiction and Monetary Gain

There are certain laws that protect source material that generates derivative works, also known as "fanfiction". For media in the public domain (creative work where no intellectual property rights exist), we see careers built off of transformed works. The Looking Glass Wars is one of my favorites among them. Anything not in the public domain has trickier legalities.

With copyright, fair use (permitted, limited use of copyrighted materials ) plays a major part in determining how culpable a creator is for what copyrighted content they use in their own works. For writing, this means we may be able to write in-universe, even about canonical events, characters, and settings. But the words have to be our own. And even moreso, since it's not in the public domain, we typically can't make money off of the creation.

Fanfiction is a labor of love. Sometimes we write it because we're so in love with the world the original authors gave us, or we're trying to do it our way! No matter the reason, it's labor-intensive, completely valid as a form of media, and we do it for nothing.

This app, indicating in-app purchases with a potential subscription service, threatened writers who lose money (time, free labor) by publishing these works to the website. But without seeing the app for myself, it's hard to say how these purchases manifested. Unfortunately, most everyone was speaking about it secondhand, so I only know the bit I could gleam.

What the Developer Said

When I saw the post first circulate, I went to the unofficial app's Tumblr. By that point, the app had already been taken down. There was a note left on the Tumblr that the in-app purchases were for donations to help the app survive on the marketplace, including purchases for app-specific (not fic-specific) features. This is tricky, because it still seemed to many that this developer was profiting where writers couldn't.

Even still, it makes sense that without crowdfunding the app would have a hard time sustaining on the marketplace in the first place. And for all I know it offered a premium so people could do dumb things like highlight if they wanted.

Even more still, the developer claimed that OTW did give them permission to use the API and knew how it would manifest (one user I spoke to said they saw proof of conversations back in 2017). Which means, even if people felt uneasy about it... The app's takedown might have actually been unjustified. And it was a major blow for a developer trying to help a community and give more exposure to the phenomenal works across the site. But less so for this developer, should any developer want to make an app for users, this is a highly discouraging tale of how misinformation can damage a community's trust and someone's desire to build and program for the communities they love.

OTW's Response

I don't have much to say, but you can read it here.

What Could Help Future Development

Save for OTW doing the work for us, this isn't the first time a witch hunt has destroyed a creator. Rather than say "this has to stop," I want to stress that it's important to educate yourselves.

One person with little understanding of app development and data curation spurred an entire hellfire discourse against an independent developer who—regardless if the methods were flawed or not—wanted to give back to a community it valued.

We've had sneak attacks before in ficlandia. Not that long ago there was a Russian site that plagiarized multiple stories, so it's possible this felt like that. But the truth of the matter is: It's not.

If you really want to learn from this developer, be transparent and generate significant interest in the app pre-development. Crowdsource. Crowdfund. Get major headway and consent. Then build the app that does more—links accounts and let authors consent to their content being hosted there. Exposure is never a bad thing, but it seems in this case, fic writers don't trust easy and just want to know it's where they expect it to be.