For years, there have been rumors of Marvel and Dc shutting down the countless unauthorized prints, t-shirts and sketchbooks sold at conventions featuring licensed characters. While a few people have been shut down for doing something egregious, it’s mostly been a “look the other way” thing, as The Big Two don’t want to be seen as horrible corporations stealing food from the mouths of poor artists. Even Star Wars, now owned by Disney, has been pretty lax about enforcing these obvious copyright infractions. Word on the street is that eventually the crack down will come, and I know some artists have been more circumspect about how they sell their work. And don’t get me started on places like Teepublic that sell merchandise with copyrighted characters.

The entire movement is an outgrowth of designer toys, indie t-shirts and Tumblr and you can’t go two social media links without seeing, for instance, some variation on the Disney Princesses, such as Anoosha Syed’s Disney Princesses as Modern Girls, above (which are actually gorgeous; check out more of her work here.) Appropriation is the fuel that keeps the cars of pop culture running. And while spreading awareness of characters is an argument for allowing the fan art, it does seem to be a glaring exception to the corporatization of art.

I ran across a couple of links about this of late. Artist Manuel A. Carmona just says stop doing it:

Today I’m going to talk about something I’ve been saying for a while but has come to the forefront in a big way in the last few years, and that is; artists selling unlicensed prints at conventions of properties they down’t own. As an artist myself, I’m all for artists making money doing what they love to do; but when my colleagues decide to use properties that don’t belong to them and make money off of it… I have a problem with that. Now I know this is a tricky situation because artists have a hard time catching the attention of fans at conventions, mostly because these fans are mostly looking for established properties and/or visit the cons to Cosplay; but that’s no excuse to steal. Yes you read that right, if you sell prints of characters that don’t belong to you regardless of haw many you sell; you’re stealing. Btw, I’m not here to judge anyone; I’m just stating the facts

Carmona suggests developing original characters, sharing costs and doing other things to just bring down costs and live without that sweet unauthorized loot. The comments are filled with arguments for and against with no clear cut winners.

The other thing that jogged my mind on this was a story in the Toy Fair issue of The Licensing Book, a trade magazine for the licensing industry. I can’t quote it but I tried to embed the story here, an interview with two execs from Choice Collectibles, an authorized Disney license. This may be a bit hard to read, but basically, Choice Collectibles’ Ari Goldman and Ben Berman are highly annoyed by all the unlicensed artwork out there, but have no choice but to go along with Marvel/Disney’s “compassion” for artists:

I don’t think Goldman and Berman come off too well here, but it’s interesting that Marvel hear complaints from official licensers and continues to look the other way. It’s obvious that everyone involved knows the horse is out of the barn and running free and strong with a herd of beautiful wild mustangs; corralling these mustangs into a dusty barnyard presents problems of its own, not least of all optics that go against today’s view of art and artists. And so the battle rages.

The Licensing Book

Source: The Licensing Book


  1. Wow, this is indeed a sticky situation.

    I have to admit, I would love to see LESS selling of prints for established characters and more original art, but that’s a personal quibble. The fact is many artists do not own the work they do for the corporate level characters, thus selling the prints (sometimes of their own work!) is the only way to make something happen from it (beyond the work-for-hire money they already get).

    But what is a guy like Greg Horn, an exceptional colorists and artist himself, supposed to do? It is HIS work, and his colors, and his art. His files are often 100% digital, thus they only exist in a form off a printer. I like Greg and I want him to find his fans that seek out his work. However, that invites the slippery slope of the less established artists — especially the ones who never actually worked on the properties they sell.

    I dunno… it’s a tough place to be in because it’s an actual legal action and also a moral & ethical action. Yet… there is a side of compassion for the community that invented the wheel we all need just to make this wagon roll along. Go figure.

  2. Copyright, as it currently exists, doesn’t work. Corporations contradict themselves, arguing for longer terms on the one hand and then ignoring copyright violations on the other. Arbitrarily going after some and not others just creates confusion as to what is allowed and what isn’t.

    Only corporations can solve this, but they prefer to let the situation stand. Offering some kind of license online for a fee for items costing less than a certain amount or print runs of less than a certain amount would benefit the corporations and make the work legal. Those licensees with exclusive rights would no doubt complain about the low cost competition, but they’re complaining now and being ignored.

  3. How difficult was it to get a license from Lucasfilm pre-Disney?

    There are two possible solutions:
    The Boom! Studios model, and the authenticated model.

    Boom’s convention booth includes a section for artists.
    Boom will sell a sketch cover variant, usually for about $10, which includes a sketch from the artist/cartoonist working on that title.
    The receipts are split between Boom and the artists.
    This allows an artist to attend the convention without needing to buy a table.
    Boom gets an extra draw (ha!) to their booth.

    The second option is licensing/certifying artists.
    An artist can apply for certification/authentication.
    For a print, a quick authorization service can approve artwork.
    The artist can then print copies as they like. Perhaps there is a limited edition with CoA on heavy stock, or framed. Maybe it’s a simple laserprint. Or a t-shirt. Or button.
    Disney/Marvel could even market the images directly, like they did with J. Scott Campbell’s “Princess and Villain” series, just as they commission artwork from established artists.

    Question… these gallery shows, where people reinterpret popculture icons as fancy prints… are those licensed?

  4. Torsten asks: “Question… these gallery shows, where people reinterpret popculture icons as fancy prints… are those licensed?”
    Torsten, that’s a good question. I had recently looked into doing just that; doing new original work with images of classic 50’s movie stars. You see them everywhere; how tough can it be?

    Answer: The rights to their images belong to their estate. You can’t (really CAN’T) use their image without permission.

  5. I am an artist. I work for a company creating art using Licensed characters. I do not make or sell prints of my interpretations of those characters.
    We are given a Style guide containing approved art of the characters that we can use. We can interpret the art to an extent. Any art we create has to be submitted to the licensor for approval before we can make any product using that art.
    I know from experience that creating your own interpretation a licensors characters and asking them to approve them seldom ever works out in your favor.
    The licensor will always ask you to match the style guide.,
    Plus a a licensee you have to guarantee a certain amount of sales each year as a part of your contract. Like I said I’m an artist, not one of the number crunchers so I don’t know the legal/$$ specifics of being a licensee, but I’m sure a illustrator attending a Con selling prints could never sell enough prints to make it worth while for a Licensor to “approve” the artist to create original versions of their characters.
    And as an artist who works on licensed properties I don’t believe any of the con artists would like to go through the multiple steps of getting art approved, including multiple changes to the art that can kill the originality of a piece of art.
    Honestly I don’t believe that the frustration of getting and keeping a license would be worth it to a con artist,The time and money that the licensor would spend trying to keep up with the multitude of con artists would cost more money that it would make.

    All that being said, I like to see artists interpretations of my favorite characters.
    Would I want those same artists to be making money off of characters that I own, therefore taking money out of my pocket? I’d have to say no.
    I think if an artist does an original drawing and sell it. That’s fine.
    Making multiple prints and selling them. That’s not ok.

  6. I’ve found that legit artists never sell prints or other unlicensed merchandise but will happily sell their one-of-a-kind originals or do a one-of- a-kind commission on the spot. It’s a distinction with a difference: a print is engaging in the unlicensed manufacture of a product while a commission is just a moment in time, like autographing a book. I know I’m biased because I work for licensors (and have, without a break, for 12 years) so I’m basically “The Man,” but selling unlicensed product is disrespectful to the countless hours of hard work that goes into the licensed ones by dozens of people to deliver something the property owner can be proud of and lives up to their brand promise.

    I think part of it is justified in people’s minds by this sense that the corporations don’t need that money anyway, or aren’t taking their character steward reposnsibility seriously (which I can say is NOT true), but just imagine this same thing happening with a smaller property. Would we be OK with ten different artists selling hundreds of prints of the characters from Chew or Invader Zim without compensating the creators? Or even Saga?

  7. As I understand it (and I am not a lawyer) under US copyright, you can make and sell original one-of-a-kind works of art, like a sketch or painting. But, you cannot reproduce that art and sell posters of it using mechanical means. Yeah, it sucks if you’re a digital artist, but that’s why old laws should be updated.

    From what I’ve seen, I doubt you could convince a judge that most fan art and cosplay kits fall under fair use as a commentary or criticism. Possibly parody, but even it’d have to painfully obvious and you still might loose.

    Now, copyright and trademarks are different. Companies have a legal obligation to protect their trademarks from infringement or risk losing them. Trademarks are the words and images associated with a brand, like the Superman “S” or the word Marvel in their special logo font.

  8. Artists selling prints of their artwork depicting trademarked characters I don’t see as being much of a problem as it’s not taking money out of the pockets of the companies that own them. I don’t see DC or Marvel pumping out prints outside of what us consumers already buy, which is the comics themselves or variants.

    I am curious about artists creating artwork depicting characters in less than favourable scenarios and turning that into a profitable side job. You’d think these companies would focus on branding and protecting their properties, particularly when if it applies to artists they already have in their employ drawing said characters.

    Just a side thought with lots of ignorance attached as I have no idea how these things work.

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