Fan art or fanart are artworks created by fans of a work of fiction (generally visual media such as comics, movies, television shows or video games) and derived from a character or other aspect of that work.
You can draw anything you like... simple, right??? or is it?
There is a vast audience for Fan Art online and at conventions. Fan art is also an entry point for collectors. As comic conventions have become more popular with mainstream audiences... a whole new audience for Fan Art has grown along with the general public attendees at cons.
Fan art is where artists and collectors can see mash-ups of characters that would never occur in licensed art. The playground of fan art is vast.... and the demand is growing.
The grey zone of Fan Art merchandise has become a Pandora's box. Attendees snap up all sorts of prints, t-shirts, tote bags and other merchandise for sale ... mostly at tables in Artists Alley. Fans love the creative riffs on cherished characters... but the sale of Fan Art items is a minefield.
Fans and young artists see established artists selling art prints of their personal renditions of famous characters... BUT, they often aren't aware that these established artists have licensed the use of those characters for this commercial purpose from the copyright holders.
Strictly speaking, unlicensed Fan Art merchandise violates the rights of copyright and trademark holders (mostly large entertainment companies and studios). But these same companies are aware that fans love fan art.. and there's not much point in the companies bullying small vendors. However, lack of enforcement is not the same as endorsement. Tolerating fan art is a courtesy by the companies.. but it also encourages the false assumption that characters and art aren't protected. License holding companies can and do go after indie artists who generate too many sales with unauthorized images.
The fan art culture of tolerated unauthorized use of images may seem like fair use... but it's not. Fan art culture is use of licensed characters that is tolerated by license holders that are often large companies. Fan art culture also contributes to the myth that art is free for the taking. This culture erodes valuable rights for indie artists.
Many indie artists have suffered the unauthorized use of images they've posted online. Previous posts here on the blog document all sorts of case studies of Internet image theft:
If artists want fans to know their online art is NOT free.. then artists can't take liberties with images and characters that are owned by others.
Everyone benefits when artist rights are honored. Artists and fans are best served by better education about copyright.
Artist Manuel Carmona used his blog to tackle some of the Fan Art issues in his Feb 2016 post: "Artists: Stop Selling Unlicensed Prints". His post is on point. He encourages artists to strive for independent work AND gives great tips to help them get there. Take a look at the comments his measured look at Fan Art generated. The comments are a glimpse into the depth of turmoil and mis-information swirling about Fan Art practices.
Fan Art is a brilliant opportunity for real education and cooperation. Artists. Vendors. Convention Organizers. License holders. Imagine if instead of whistling in the dark, everyone agreed on guidelines that were fair and reasonable.
Convention organizers are starting to crack down on vendors. There have always been policies in place that prohibit the unauthorized use of licensed images. Now organizers are making those policies more public with specific email communications to exhibitors prior to events.
Personally... and this is just my take on the situation... I would like to see a provisional license for Fan Art. It would take some planning on the part of license holders and convention organizers, but I think a license for artist alley vendors... with a nominal fee, and renewable for a limited period of 3 to 5 years.. would help educate artists and fans about the entire licensing and copyright process. The license fee might even be used to help fund charities that benefit indie artists, like the Hero Initiative. http://heroinitiative.org/
Back to post...
Protecting artist rights starts with education for artists and fans.
(copyright graphic below by Mark Alison)
Article by Peter Decherney on Forbes website... ""In Copyright Lawsuit, Star Trek Fan Work Gets Its 'Easy Rider' Moment..."
There is summary here of long history of fan works and Star Trek.. as well as some insights into current situation with fan film project "Axanar"
Blog post by lawyer Seth Polansky "Intellectual Property II: The Wrath of Con(s)" from 6.10.16. He describes the "multiple, overlapping problems" of fan art... and "... in the discussions below, I've attempted to provide some suggestions intended to help artists, vendors and con-goers alike navigate their way through this..."
Article by Rich Johnston from 9.2.16 on Bleeding Cool website ... Comic Expo stressing original art and guidelines for artist-exhibitors...
"Ten Copyright Cases Every Fan Fiction Writer Should Know"
"Is Fan Art Illegal?" ... post by artidy and teacher Chris Oatley on Art and Sterf art reference tumblr blog.
This post includes the 2012 comic con panel by Josh Wattles --- clearly an important and popular source for clearing up the fog surrounding Fan Art.