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Spend a few minutes perusing sites like DeviantArt or Behance and you’ll quickly come across art inspired by someone else’s original creations. In other words: fan art. Virtually every fandom out there has at least a few artists creating works based on their favorite characters and elements of a piece of media, whether it’s a TV show, book, comic book, or film. But, like virtually every other creative endeavor out there, there’s a lot of controversy that surrounds this “art”…like is it even art at all? And is it okay to create art based on the intellectual property of someone else?

Is Fan Art Really Art?

Some artists claim that because fan art isn’t original—because it’s based on the original creative vision of someone else—it’s not really art at all. They equate fan art as little better than tracing someone else’s work. But virtually every work of art out there is derivative of something. Artists take inspiration from all over the place, including the work of other artists. So at what point does art become original? Is there even any such thing?

Every artist out there takes inspiration from somewhere and creates their own interpretation of it to make it uniquely theirs. Fan artists are no different. The only difference is that their inspiration comes directly from other art.

Many fan artists create their own unique takes on the original material. And some have to create their images based on little more than a rough physical description of a character in a written work. To say that their work isn’t really art because it isn’t original isn’t really that much different than saying that a portrait or still life or landscape isn’t really art because it’s based on something they were looking at when they created it.

Every artist out there takes inspiration from somewhere and creates their own interpretation of it to make it uniquely theirs. Fan artists are no different. The only difference is that their inspiration comes directly from other art.

stranger things fan art
Don’t tell mom the babysitter’s Steve. Is this fan art by @lysergic44 legal? Many experts would say yes because this one is not just fan art but more to the point parody of existing work(s), which is protected as “fair use.” Although not strictly speaking a rule, the more a work is a mash-up or remix, the more likely it’s protected as fair use.

Okay, But Who Owns Fan Art?

In the U.S. at least, derivative works made by others are technically considered a violation of the original creator’s copyright. The original copyright owner is the only one who has the right to distribute derivative works.

That said, a lot of copyright holders either turn a blind eye to fan art or outright embrace it. One of the best ways to avoid running into legal issues is to make sure your fan art isn’t earning any money. That means you should avoid selling art that is based on someone else’s intellectual property.

It’s also a good idea to see if you can find out what a creator’s feelings are toward fan art before making your own work available publicly. While many creators are open to fan art based on their work, you can generally find out pretty quickly those creators who aren’t so crazy about it.

fair use copyright parody art
It may surprise you to learn that the National Security Agency sent Zazzle a cease-and-desist letter for this parody t-shirt being sold on their site. Although probably legal as fair use, Zazzle removed it immediately. All legality is theoretical unless the case ends up in court with a judgment for one party.

When Fan Art Crosses the Line

While some creators are fine with fan art, there have been some notable cases where fan art crossed the line and resulted in potential legal troubles for the fans.

One of the most notable examples is the so-called Jayne Cobb Hat from the short-lived Fox TV show Firefly (which has gone on to develop a cult-like following since it was canceled). On one episode that didn’t even air during the show’s original run, Jayne Cobb receives a very distinct knit hat in the mail from his mother. Fans went on to create their own versions of the hats (which weren’t available for sale anywhere) and sell them on sites like Etsy.

All was fine until Fox (who still owned all the rights to Firefly) officially licensed the hats to Ripple Junction, to be sold through online retailer ThinkGeek. At that point, because the unofficial hats could have potentially cut into sales of the official version, Fox sent cease and desist letters to many of the unofficial sellers.

Another place creators of fan art might run into issues is when trying to create products on sites like Zazzle. Even if they aren’t trying to sell their work and only want to create one-off versions for themselves or friends. That’s what happened to a Sarah Bucze when she tried to have a pair of shoes with her own artwork (inspired by Harry Potter) printed as a gift for a friend. Zazzle initially refused to print the shoes—until she changed the name from “Harry Potter Shoes” to “Generic Battle Shoes.” The actual design of the shoes didn’t change.

star wars fan art
Is this legal? This is a tough one drawn by fan artist extraordinaire @briankesinger that could conceivably be litigated by both Lucasfilms and Calvin and Hobbes’ creator Bill Watterson. But dang if it isn’t cute as all get out.

Keeping Your Fan Art on the Up-and-Up (Sort of)

There are a few ways that you can reduce the likelihood that the copyright holder of your favorite fandom will come after you for a violation, even though virtually all fan art is technically illegal.

First off, if a creator is publicly against fan art you’re best off to avoid creating it (or at least avoid ever sharing it publicly). Anne Rice, for example, is known to hate fan fiction based on any of her characters. J.K. Rowling, on the other hand, is fine with Harry Potter fan fiction and spinoffs as long as they aren’t sexually explicit.

Second, don’t try to sell your fan art. That’s a line that the vast majority of copyright and trademark holders aren’t happy with their fans crossing. If you attempt to profit off the work of another, you’re likely to find yourself the recipient of a cease and desist order at the very least.

Third, make sure that your work isn’t implied to be officially sanctioned or affiliated with the original creators. Include a disclaimer anywhere your fan art appears that it’s unofficial and fan-created.

Fourth, if a creator asks you to take down work, comply with their request. The same goes if they contact you and ask you to add a disclaimer or otherwise make modifications to the way your work is displayed.

If you can’t handle the fact that the work you’re creating and sharing is technically infringing on someone else’s rights and is only allowed to remain public because of their goodwill, then you’re better off either not sharing your fan art in the first place or creating original works not directly based on the work of another.

disney cease and desist
There’s nobody more litigious about fan art than Disney, who strenuously protect their IP, but even they have started letting some carefully sanctioned creators sell items made with fan art like these items from Cakeworthy.

Why Don’t Creators Like Fan Art?

There are a lot of theories as to why some creators aren’t crazy about fan art surrounding their projects. In some cases, artists have a strong emotional attachment to the characters and worlds they create. In those cases, they don’t want to see others create derivative work that isn’t true to their own vision.

Disney can crack down particularly hard on fan artists who create more sexually provocative or explicit versions of their intellectual property. And it’s understandable; the last thing they would want is for child and adolescent fans to come across mature art when looking for their favorite characters online.

Some creators are fine with others creating work that’s derived from their own as long as that work is appropriate for the same audience. For example, Disney can crack down particularly hard on fan artists who create more sexually provocative or explicit versions of their intellectual property. And it’s understandable; the last thing they would want is for child and adolescent fans to come across mature art when looking for their favorite characters online.

That said, many creators embrace derivative art and love to see the work their fans create. Some have even been known to highlight fan art and share it with the rest of their fans.

Successful Fan Art

There are some success stories in the world of fan art, though. Probably one of the most famous examples of fan art (in this case, fan fiction) that has gone on to be nearly as commercially successful as the original works it was based on is the 50 Shades of Grey series. While the origins are well hidden in the final works, the books originally started out as Twilight fan fiction.

The Star Trek franchise is popular source material for fan films and serialized shows. In fact, there are so many that a list of Star Trek “fan productions” has been created on Wikipedia to try to catalog all of the various iterations created by fans, from short films to features to ongoing web series.

Those two examples show that the most successful fandom creations are generally outside the realm of static artworks. The upside to this is that fan drawings, paintings, and sketches often fly well under the radar of most IP owners. The downside is that outside of recognition among others in the fandom, these kinds of works are unlikely to ever garner much success for the artists who make them.

The Verdict on Fan Art

Unless you’re selling the fan art you’ve created, you’re unlikely to run into legal troubles with IP owners. The exceptions, as already mentioned, would be art that is sexually explicit or paints the original work in a negative light. In most cases, the worst that might happen is you’ll receive a cease and desist order from the copyright holder asking you to take down any work you’ve posted online.

If creating fan art is something you love and something you find creatively fulfilling, then I’m 100% for it. It’s a great outlet and can be just as creative and “artistic” as creating your own work from scratch. You’re likely to find a vibrant online community for virtually every fandom out there where you can share your work with others who love your particular fandom just as much as you do.