When Fans Billed A Studio

Allegra Rosenberg for Garbage Day looks at attempts to monetize fandom and how it threatens to subsume leisure into just so much more labor, and I thought I’d take a moment to blog a piece of my own fandom history.

Once upon a time, in the wake of the box office failure of the unpromoted film Serenity, a number of fan-run merch outlets suddenly began receiving cease-and-desist orders or bills for licensing fees.

And so, enter The Browncoat Invoice.

As I wrote on the site at the time, Firefly fans promoted the movie followup “with the tacit agreement of Universal Pictures, if not their outright official encouragement”. It was something of an open secret that the studio was hoping to rely upon fan promotion rather than invest any real resources in traditional marketing. (If you somehow remember a television spot for the movie, you’re in some very exclusive company.)

Rather than responding in a manner which might antagonize Universal, we thought that asking fans to tally those hours and publishing the totals for all to see would be a gentler way to make both the specific point about Browncoat marketing for Serenity and the more general point about the relationship between producers of entertainment and their increasing (and knowing) reliance in the 21st century on fanbases to help promote that entertainment.

We never received any response from Universal, of course, but that was never the point. The invoice gag did, however, end up in a number of theses and dissertations.


Historically, fans have tended not to think of the (very real) work they do as labor; they conceive of it as leisure. It’s a hobby, it’s a passion, it’s how they spend their time outside of work, or instead of it. Fandom is fun!!!!!!!!! Dammit!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And they are of course having fun while simultaneously understanding their position as commodified subject within a consumer relationship. They aren’t stupid.

The threatened sites that prompted the invoice, of course, were not fandom somehow untainted by commerce.

Items such as Blue Sun t-shirts and Ma Cobb hats (which at that point never had been officially licensed or made available) long had been staples of Firefly fandom. This wasn’t, then, a case of leisure threatening to turn into labor: it was labor, and the owners of the intellectual property knowingly benefitted from it and only started trying to rein things in when the movie flopped.

It’s true that I later went on to hound efforts such as a company raising money to make an unlicensed Firefly video game (those blog posts eventually will be migrated here as part of my blog restoration project), but I don’t see these things as contradictions.