What Can WSFS Do?

Rumbling aftershocks from this year’s Worldcon continue to surface occasionally, and there was a very interesting blog post recently on a Canadian website about future venues for Worldcon. This is all good. I like to see people discussion the future of the convention. But I also see a lot of misunderstanding out there as to what WSFS is and what it can do. Much of this comes in the way of inquiries to the various WSFS websites, and it comes from outside the community, but there is still a lot of misinformation in fannish circles as well so I thought it would be useful to see what WSFS can actually do.

Much of the problem is in the name. If something is called the World Science Fiction Society then people assume that it must be a rich, multi-national organisation with posh offices in New York or Los Angeles, a board of directors, a large full-time staff, and of course an army of lawyers at its disposal. Nothing could be further from the truth.

WSFS bills itself as an “unincorporated literary society”. The “unincorporated” is the important bit. It might have a constitution, but it has no paid staff, and the bare minimum in terms of legal existence. Indeed, one of the reasons why the Hugo trademarks are not registered in Canada is that Canadian law cannot understand how an organisation like WSFS can exist.

But, I hear you say, WSFS must at least be rich. Look at the huge profits that Worldcon makes! Well, no, actually. The rules of Worldcon financial management are very clear. Any surplus cannot be kept, either by the organisation that ran the event, or by WSFS. Money can be donated to the successor Worldcons, and this is invaluable in keeping the convention afloat. It may also be donated to fannish good causes provided that they are not too closely associated with the organisation that ran the convention.

The only income that WSFS has is a levy of $1 per member. It is a suggested donation that Worldcons are asked to make, but and not required. If a Worldcon is in financial difficulties it will be one of the first things dropped. The money goes to the Mark Protection Committee, and it is spent mostly on attempting to register the trademarks in new parts of the World, on occasional bits of legal advice, and on paying a lawyer to exchange letters with people like Hugo Boss, and anyone trying to call their convention “Worldcon”, or present a “Hugo Award”.

This brings me to an important point. WSFS cannot sue anyone, because it has no money to do so. The most that it can do is write letters asking people to cease and desist misusing its trademarks.

Because WSFS has no permanent staff, it cannot do anything that involves the running of Worldcon. It cannot decide where Worldcon is to be held, no matter how much of a subsidy your local tourism authorities are prepared to offer. It cannot revoke a site selection decision, no matter how angry you are with the current committee. It cannot force a Worldcon committee to do something, either before during or after the event.

The most that WSFS can actually do, aside from grant the right to run a Worldcon to the group that wins a Site Selection ballot, is pass a motion at the Business Meeting condemning something that a Worldcon has done, and which people disapproved of.

Of course WSFS could change the Constitution to require future Worldcons to do specific things. But those have to be things that Worldcons are likely to be happy to do anyway. It would be foolish of WSFS to require future Worldcons to do something that they would probably not want to do, because that would encourage them to disobey that rule. And frankly, if they do, there’s nothing that WSFS can do to prevent it.

It is also the case that, beyond changes to the Constitution voted on at two successive Worldcons, there is nothing that WSFS can do to affect the Hugo Awards. WSFS cannot introduce a new category just because you petition them to, nor change the rules because you think they ought to. WSFS cannot remove someone from the ballot, prevent someone from winning, or change the results after they have been announced.

So the answer to the question, “What can WSFS do?” is, “Almost nothing.” The next obvious question is, “Why is it like that?”

In the early days of WSFS there were people who thought that the organisation should have an official structure, complete with officers, and maybe offices and staff. That concept is known in fannish history as “WSFS Inc.”, and there are few phrases more likely to get old time fans to flock to the Business Meeting to vote something down than mention of this shibboleth.

That too requires explanation, and the reason is that back in the day fans did not trust other fans to be in charge. British and Australian fans did not want the organisation to end up being run by Americans. East Coast US fans did not want the organisation being run by people from the West Coast and vice versa. No one wanted WSFS being run by people who wanted to run WSFS, because people who desire power have probably got ulterior motives. And of course no one wanted anyone making a profit out of running a fannish organisation.

Yes, I know that there are people out there who think that there are “upper class fans” who have made a fortune out of Worldcon. I laugh.

So WSFS is the way it is primarily because no one wanted the Wrong People to be in charge. However, these days there is an increasing pressure for there to be Someone in charge. The modern world driven by social media moves very quickly, and if an organisation cannot respond in good time then it will be seen to have failed.

Furthermore there is actually Someone in charge. To that the extent that there is any control, it is in the hands of people who attend Worldcon regularly and have the time and patience to attend the Business Meeting. If you happen to live in Melbourne and can only afford to attend Worldcon once every 10 years when it is in your part of the world, you have little say in the governance of WSFS. If you are a Dealer who attends Worldcon every year, but are stuck behind a table all five days, you have little say in the governance of WSFS. If you are part of a minority group and find that the regular attendants of the Business Meeting have views that rarely line up with your own interests, you have little say in the governance of WSFS.

So the question is, can anything be done to change the way in which WSFS works, so as to make it more responsive to challenges, and to make it more representative of all of the people who wish to be part of the Worldcon community, without significantly increasing the risk that the Wrong People will get to be in charge?

That isn’t an easy question to answer. Kevin and I spent some time thrashing through possibilities at our Kaffeklatsch at Titancon this year. When we get time (or more accurately when Kevin gets time) we’ll present some ideas for discussion.

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