Only one week after promising to Blog every Monday morning, I’ve already failed! That didn’t take long. So here’s a Thursday afternoon blog instead, and Thursday afternoons are superior to Monday mornings. It is known.
So anyways, up there is a convention sketch that I just got round to colouring! It’s a piece drawn in the quiet moments of the convention to use as an example when people asked about what finished sketches might look like. Convention sketches touch on an uncomfortable topic that I’ve been meaning to blog about, so this is as good an opportunity as any! A lot of people (probably the majority of sketch collectors) ask artists to draw licensed characters. On some occasions I’ve accepted fan-art commissions, and on some occasions I haven’t, knowing at all times that it’s technically illegal to do so.
In the relaxed, personal, cash-in-hand environment of a convention it’s easy to forget that fact, and judging by the full sketch-books, there aren’t many artists who refuse to draw licensed characters. I’ve even known convention organisers who have sketchbooks full of a particular character from various different artists, and it’s obvious that companies affected rarely take issue or legal action. This means that if I’m approached at a convention it’s always an awkward decision: I feel bad refusing people when I know that other artists wouldn’t turn them down, but I feel equally bad for accepting when I know that it’s treading on someone else’s copyright!
I’ve noticed other cases in which copyright laws are ignored without any repercussions, like the sale of merchandise made out of fan-art, which is popular amongst anime/manga fans. It seems like the common factor in selling fan-art sketches and merchandise is a franchise with a level of popularity that gives a sense of ownership to the fans, and a sense of distance from the owners. For example, I’ve never had someone asking me to draw a character from a creator-owned comic, and I’ve only ever seen fan-art from extremely popular franchises being sold as prints.
I’ve had some pretty big debates with Kate about the morals behind taking money for fan-art, and each time we talk about it, it makes me feel more uneasy about the situation. I know that morally speaking I wouldn’t want to do to someone what I’d be unhappy to have done to me. I also know I’d be unhappy if someone made money from a character I owned.
Ownership is a very complicated issue however, and the personal feelings and financial situations that surround it often aren’t simple. Take Freakangels for example – I don’t own it, Warren does, and Avatar Press have been granted the rights to publish. Technically it’s illegal for me to make money selling Freakangels sketches, or any other type of Freakangels commission that doesn’t go through my publisher. Thankfully in this case, I know that the publisher doesn’t mind me doing con-sketches, since I’ve asked him myself, but he owns his company personally and can make decisions like that. However, there must be many cases in which a creator can’t approach the large company that owns characters that they’ve worked on or created in that way.
So, does that make it okay to take money for characters owned by companies and not individuals?
When the property involved is big enough, the argument can be made that even if you take unauthorised money for it, by fuelling the fandom, you support it. This isn’t a situation like casual piracy where downloading something means you don’t need to buy it as well – these are fanatical collectors spending huge amounts on their fandoms that we’re talking about. In many cases creators might even be seen as justified in making money from characters that they’ve been professionally involved with. In these cases, it doesn’t seem like the law clearly protects individuals or companies from physical or financial harm. At the same time though, I count on the principles of ownership that underpin the law to protect my own work, and I feel like I should respect this in all cases, not just the clear-cut ones, or the ones I fully understand.
Because of this, and because I can only guess at what the attitude of an owner is towards their Intellectual Property, it seems like the best path is to err on the side of caution. I wonder how many creators would actually contact the owner, and ask them if it was okay to make money from their property? And how many owners would grant that permission if they were asked?
Being honest, I’m worried that by saying this, I’ll come off all high-and-mighty. Selling fan-art is such a common practise that many creators (myself included) have done it, and since it’s something that I’ve thought about at length, I can’t assume that other people involved are just unaware of or disrespectful of the law. That doesn’t stop it from preying on my mind though, and perhaps because it is so common, because even though the issue is legally clear-cut it’s not always morally clear-cut, some open discussion about it would would be a good thing.
So to wrap this up, say something definite, and avoid awkward decisions at conventions, I want to make a public statement that I won’t take money for sketching fan-art, but I’m happy to sketch something original like the image above!