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Is drawing fan art at conventions violating copyright?

Lora Innes writes for Paperwings:

Easily half the artists exhibiting at any mainstream Comic Con or Anime Show make and sell fan art. And by ?fan art? I mean merchandise featuring characters the artist does not own: prints, buttons, tee shirts, key chains, hats, tote bags?I even saw Captain American mittens at the last show I attended.

And if you count the amount of artists who offer one-of-a-kind, original commission sketches of copyrighted characters, the percentage shoots way higher.

The question whether an artist can legally draw a character they didn’t create at conventions for a paying fan has baffled me. It seemed to violate my understanding of copyright, but also everyone seems to be doing it. Seems like if you’re heading to a Con this year to draw for fans, this video (however dry) is an important hour of you day.

Community Comments

#1 Matthew Hansel
@ 5:15 am

Technically it is a violation, however, for DECADES there has been a “gentleman’s agreement” between the comic book companies and the artists that these convention sketches and original art drawings are “free advertising” for the company and characters and thus they allow the one-offs.

With prints, I think that’s more dangerous territory (but I’ve had representatives from both Marvel and DC say that it is fine as long as the characters are portrayed in a positive light). And, I know two people who got jobs at Marvel because of the prints they did that Marvel reps saw at a convention.

Twice that I can recall both Marvel and DC attempted to reign it in, but the backlash was such that they quickly backed down.

We’ll see what the future brings…


#2 Terry LaBan
@ 8:29 am

Copyright violation or not, cracking down on fan art and merchandise created by individuals to be sold at conventions would be an incredibly stupid thing for comic companies to attempt. They gain far more from the vitality of fan culture than they could ever lose in licensing fees they wouldn’t be able to collect anyhow.

#3 Tom Kane
@ 8:53 am

I suspect that is exactly the case. There is likely a group in those companies seething over the issue and would love to rein it in, but they also realize it would backfire horribly. As said they would never get the fees for it (so zero monetary gain) and the bad publicity would haunt them at conventions for years.

Of course it also requires those doing it to wonder each year if this is the year someone may go too far and force the hand of the copyright owners – it only takes one or two people to cross a line and then they may feel obligated to say something.

#4 Michael Cannon
@ 4:06 pm

I did a convention for the first time this year and this was obviously a concern. I sold only original art and commission. Like many, I think that’s a safer territory than selling and kind of mass produced product or print.

Keeping the characters in character is important to me as well. I’ll refuse commissions that ask for something disrespectful to the character or parent company.

I also try very hard to remember to put a copyright notice on the art owing back to the actual copyright holder to reduce the likelihood of someone mass producing a piece of original art purchased from me.

I’m constantly amazed at the balls some artists have in selling mass produced items, and often in bad taste.

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