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Inside The World Of Fan Art

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Examples of Fan Art.
As Films, Paintings, Drawings T-Shirts And More That Depict Copyrighted Elements Of Comics And Films Gain In Popularity, Is It Only A Matter Of Time Before Fan-Art Enters The Cross Hairs Of Major License Holders?

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By Ryan Scott
Modern Times Magazine

Oct. 21, 2015 — Anyone who is a fan of virtually anything in the modern age has almost definitely come in contact with some form of fan representation of said thing.

Take Star Wars: There are countless stories, videos, comics, illustrations, shirts and anything else one can think of that are made by fans using the characters and imagery from Star Wars.

This is known as fan art and as much as people love it, strictly speaking, it is 100 percent illegal. For those that may not be totally clear on the idea, fan art is defined by Word Sense as Artwork created unofficially by fans of a book, film, etc. and based on it. The problem is that these works are being derived from copyrighted material.

“Copyright gives the exclusive right to copy, distribute by any means or create any derivative of the character in any medium,” said copyright expert Josh Wattles during a panel at San Diego Comic-Con in 2012. “The law is a really sort of complex thing and the core of the law that applies to fan art is intellectual property law (IP Law).”

Copyrights last for the life of the author plus 70 years, or for corporate works 120 years from creation. So basically, almost every time someone creates a piece of fan art without the permission of the copyright holder, they are in direct violation of the law.

But the issue of fan art is not nearly that simple. In fact, it is bafflingly complex and poses big questions moving forward for owners of copyrights and those who create fan art.

Anyone who has attended any sort of comic book convention, or even participated in a city artwalk, has seen artists who are selling art prints that feature various characters from pop culture and their particular take on them.

This is almost always done without permission of the copyright holder. That begs the question, why is this allowed to happen?

There is no clear answer.

“The owners and authors want to be in control of the work, and most specifically they want to control the flow of money from the work. That's important to them. On the other hand, fans are perfect customers, so that works out too,” Wattles said, acknowledging the delicate balance that currently exists for the copyright owners.

Fan art is largely a representation of just how much these consumers can care about a property and they are the ones who will very likely keep the properties profitable in the long run.

So, even though it is technically illegal, copyright holders likely don’t want to run the risk of alienating their own fan base by cracking down on fan art and suing those who do it (much like the music industry did when record companies were suing Napster users in the early 2000’s).

Even though fan artists are certainly given some rope to play with in the way of unwritten rules and courtesies from copyright holders, there are lines in the sand that are occasionally drawn. However, depending on who owns the particular copyright in question, these lines are drawn in different places and dealt with in different ways.

20th Century Fox recently stepped in and shut down production on a fam film, Alien Identity, that was being made as a sequel to Aliens which would have taken place in an alternate timeline than the studio-made sequels.

The film had even cast Carrie Henn — who played “Newt” in the 1986 blockbuster — to star in it, although she hasn’t taken on an acting role since her appearance in Aliens. Fox is currently in the process of making several films in the Alien franchise, so they clearly didn’t want others handling the material.

On the other end of the spectrum, CBS and Paramount are currently in a bit of an awkward spot with a Star Trek fan film that is being made.

The producers of Star Trek: Axanar, the fan film in question, wound up raising more than $1 million through various crowdfunding endeavors in order to make the film. There have been many fan films made in the Star Trek universe prior to this, but the budget puts it in an entirely different ballpark.

Certain low-budget studio films are made for less money than Axanar, which raises questions about where fan art begins and actionable copyright infringement begins.

“CBS has not authorized, sanctioned or licensed this project in any way, and this has been communicated to those involved,” a representative from the network said in a statement. “We continue to object to professional commercial ventures trading off our property rights and are considering further options to protect these rights.”

The key word in that statement is commercial. In this particular case, the producers of Axanar aren’t going to make any money off of the project, so CBS and Paramount will likely be keeping the dogs at bay unless that somehow changes. In any case, these high-budget fan films really blur the line and further complicate the grey area that exists between rights holders and fan artists.

“If you own the patent or copyright, you own it,” said Travis Moody, creator of the nerd culture and fan site God Hates Geeks.

“You have the right to say whether it can be used or not. That is the law. I'm all for fan art, but I would honestly rather see something original than a "rip-off" of something that will arguably look better with a bigger budget.”

Moody also remarked that he is a big proponent of fan art, but also doesn’t want it to impede on the canonized versions of the properties. He acknowledged that it is a complex issue.

In the case of these fan films, it is easy to right the issue off because there is a bit of an unwritten rule in the world of fan art. If the art someone is making isn’t generating a profit, it is generally considered to be fair game. Granted, that isn’t legally the case, but more of a generally accepted rule. So what of fan art that turns a profit?

Take the company TeeFury, for example. TeeFury sells T-shirts featuring designs submitted by artists. The company then sells the shirt for a limited time and splits the profit with the artist who submitted the design. The company has sold shirts that feature pop culture figures that range from Oscar the Grouch to Iron Man. None of these shirts are approved by the copyright holder.

“...I can't comment on fan art in regards to TeeFury, specifically, because we print transformative and parody work,” said TeeFury art director Tom Kurzanski in an email exchange. The razor thin line between parody and copyright infringement is how TeeFury is allowed to operate.

Parody of any copyrighted material is generally protected by the law under the umbrella of what is known as fair use. This is another very grey area, but artists in all forms have used parody to their advantage for a long time.

Weird Al Yankovic, for instance, is free to write and perform comedic remakes of pop songs without much of an issue because of the same parody protection.

No matter how complex or how right or wrong it is, fan art isn’t going anywhere. If anything, it is going to spike even more in popularity, give the popularity of massive properties like the Marvel Studios films, Star Wars and others of the sort.

That and there are more opportunities than ever for fan artists with the Internet and countless conventions around the country.

Taffeta Darling, a cosplayer and from Texas, attends conventions all over and has cosplayed as Velma from Scooby Doo, Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and more. She sees cosplay and fan art as a way to pay tribute to the things she loves more than anything else.

“In regards to cosplay and fandom fan art, I look at cosplay as a way to pay tribute to the incredible artists and writers that have worked hard to give these fictional characters life, and since I'm terrible at drawing and have no pen to paper artistic skills, cosplay gives me the opportunity to pay homage to movies, books, music and games that have meant so much to me,” Darling said.

People are going to continue to do fan representations of copyrighted material, either for profit or for love, no matter what. Copyright holders seem to understand that they need to maintain a positive relationship with their fans, but fans also need to understand that these rights holders have a legal right to have their properties represented in a way that fits their vision.

It is a delicate balance that is ever evolving and very much still being worked out.

Ryan Scott is a contributor to Modern Times Magazine.
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