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Posts Tagged ‘comics’

In our society, signing ones names wields great power; but with great power...

The question “should I sign?” is one of the most pressing faced by artists. Our legal system allows people to form contracts that bind them to do just about anything, making signing scary, as the wrong contract can cost an artist money or control over their work. This post will explain the fundamental issues of what happens when one signs an agreement to transfer some or all rights in an artistic work.

Copyright, like all intellectual property, can be in more than one place at a time, leading to long and complicated agreements about who owns what. Further complicating the matter is the fact that copyright is a bundle of rights (right to make copies, right to make derivative work, right to distribute, right to perform, right to display, right to transmit) and each right can be transferred independent of the others. The two most common agreements involving copyright are assignments and licenses.

An assignment is like a sale, the copyright no longer belongs to the artist. During the life of the assignment, the owner may do whatever she wishes with the work. Assignments may be granted for all rights or just for some. A rapper could assign performance rights to a piece of music to a single act, while retaining the right to copy and distribute the underlying music and lyrics for himself. Assignments may also be for limited periods of time, limited uses, or conditioned on anything the two sides agree to.

Serious Hip Hop Album or Kia Car Peddler? Truly, the Choice is Yours.

A license is more like renting, it gives permission to use a copyrighted work for specific purposes for a certain period of time. Licenses may be exclusive to one user or non-exclusive, allowing the copyright holder to give permission to as many people as they choose. Returning to our rapper from before, instead of assigning the performance right to a single act, he could license the non-exclusive right of performance to ten. While retaining the underlying rights to the background music track, he could license the right to create piano sheet music adaptations. The rapper could even license his most memorable song to a car company so hamsters could jam to it, all the while retaining his right to sell the original album on iTunes. Doo-Da-Dippity!

Art by Jack Kirby, for whatever that's worth.

The combinations of what can be accomplished through assignments and licenses is limited only by the possible uses of a particular field of art and a few protections written into the copyright code. One protection is the right of the original artist to reclaim the copyright 35 years after assignment. This is done to give successful artists the chance to reclaim their early work that may have been signed away in the haste of youth. The children of deceased comic artist Jack Kirby are currently trying to reclaim the rights to characters he created while working for Marvel comics in the 1960s and 1970s. The outcome will turn on what the nature of Kirby’s “while working” was. If Kirby was a freelancer or he created the characters and them brought them to Marvel, he may reclaim the copyright. If he was employed by Marvel in a work-for-hire capacity, as I noted in my previous post, then everything he thought up for Marvel belongs to Marvel.

Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov (right) with Henk Rogers, one of the men who secured distribution rights to the game for Nintendo.

At one point in the late 1980s, the video game Tetris was subject to at least five assignment or license agreements. Nintendo brought the game to it’s Gameboy handheld system because it negotiated with the proper people, the Communist Soviet Government, rather that the man who invented the game, or his department head, as other tried to do. Because of messes like this, companies will require an artist guarantee they are the true owner of the copyright and the deal won’t go sour later because the person signing the deal didn’t have the right to.

The idea of “optioning” a script or book is often misunderstood. An option contact is an agreement by an author to keep their work “off the market” for a period of time to allow the producer time to put together financing or work out other details around a project. A screenplay or book may be optioned for as little as one dollar and guarantee only that the author won’t sell the work to anyone else for the next six months. That’s it. Unless a script is later bought by assignment or licensed for use, the option is worth only the original payment and the buyer holds no right to use the work.

None of this answers the critical question “should I sign?” because the answer to that depends on an artist’s goal for his or her work and career. The basic thing to remember when signing an agreement is that you will be balancing money and control. The more control you give, the more you should be paid. The more control you retain, the less money you will receive. Young artists often have to give control of their art and careers away for the financial backing studios and labels provide. The money people aren’t necessarily being greedy by retaining most of the profits; they are the ones who took the initial financial risk and bear the losses if money isn’t made.

Lawyers can be very useful in understanding what specifically you’re being asked to sign away and what you’ll be getting in return. Lawyers often know of different ways for you to achieve your goals and different industry standards.

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The greatest cause of copyright disputes is the end of a partnership. Roughly analogous to the disruption to family and finances wrought by a divorce, the end of a creative partnerships finds the art itself “choosing sides.”

For human rights, Molly is correct. But for copyright, 1907 was a much simpler time.

100 years ago the issue of joint authorship was less important as most copyrighted works were books, compositions, and paintings, all respectively considered the achievements of solitary individuals. Not so after the 20th Century, which introduced film & television, video games,comic books, and sound recordings.

The clearly marked roles of a comic book credits section

A joint work is created when two or more persons intend to create a unified work of art. The intent is very easy to spot for works with defined roles. The writer, penciler, inker, colorist roles of comic books are a great example, each role is defined and none of them are intended to stand-alone. The intent can travel over time and space, however. Imagine a person writes song lyrics, but no music. Years later, the lyricist gives the work to a guitarist, who years after that collaborates with a pianist to set the words to music. Who is the author? All three, as each intended for his or her contribution to become part of a joint work.

Any creative contribution can qualify for joint authorship. Generally, technical roles like sound engineer or editor do not qualify. Many a sound engineer or editor may take issue with what I’ve written, as those roles involve creative input. True, but authorship (like all laws) involves drawing an artificial line somewhere.

Rights of the joint authors. Copyright is actually a bundle of rights, giving authors the exclusive right make reproductions or derivative works, distribute, perform, display, or transmit a work. In the United States, each joint author enjoys all rights over the entire work. No matter how small the contribution, if someone qualifies as an author, he or she may use the work how they please or enter into an agreement with a third-party to give away some or all of those rights (Not so in many other countries, which require all authors agree to transfer ownership of a work). Consider the example of a music duo like the Broken Bells (Danger Mouse and James Mercer).

Mercer is free to sign an agreement with Coca-Cola to use one of Broken Bells songs in an ad campaign. He doesn’t need Danger Mouse’s approval, but he would have to split the profits. However, Danger Mouse can still give Pepsi permission to use the same song in a rival campaign, again splitting the profits with Mercer.

Careful contracting can alleviate problems like this. A contract may exist between Mercer and Danger Mouse stating that neither may use or transfer rights to the music without the consent of the other. Coke may also have an out-clause if a work is licensed to a competitor.

Work for hire is a form of contract that transfers the rights of authorship as the creative work is being made. In the film setting, Everyone from the director on down has in their employment agreements a clause stating that is work for hire and all creative contributions are the sole property of the film company. Video game designers, session musicians, and most comic book artists all operate under similar terms.

Work for hire can get scary

How do I protect myself if I’m a part of a creative collaboration? It depends on the field you’re in and how “corporate” you want to be. Much of the time, you’ll be in situations where work-for-hire is the norm. Even then, read your contract carefully to ensure you understand what you’re signing away. Recently, the maker of the Bratz doll got in trouble with Barbie-maker Mattel when it was alleged that the inventor of Bratz had been working for Mattel when he conceived of Bratz and that all his doll ideas belonged to Mattel.

If you’re not work-for-hire, you have freedom to create agreements doing whatever your conscience and pocketbook can bear. Talk to peers about what they’ve done. Talk to an attorney about your options. Just remember that the law assumes you want to share control over the joint work with every other author on the project. If nothing else, choose your partners carefully, what they do will have a profound impact on your art.

Spousal “Authorship” in Washington and California. In Washington state, where I practice law, and California, where much of US entertainment is created, the law is that all property, including intellectual property, is considered shared property when it is acquired or created during marriage. During the divorce of Larry Wachowski, his wife claimed that the idea for the Matrix had been “thought up” during the marriage, meaning she was entitled to half of Larry’s profits from the series. Prenuptial agreements attempt to resolve issues of ownership before they arise. I don’t practice family law, so I’m not going to touch this one, I only mean to let people know it’s out there.

Kisune (above) and Momohime, the protagonists of Muramasa

I wanted to end on a happy note, encouraging people to keep creating joint works of art. I recently finished Muramasa for the Nintendo Wii. The game was a fine example of the legal complexities and artistic beauties of a joint authorship. Based on centuries old kabuki theatre plots (legally in the public domain), drawn and programmed by in-house artists (work for hire) and scored by freelance musicians (who retained the distribution rights to the music separate from the game), the final product combined all the contributions into one experience. The youtube clip (only the first two minutes are necessary to see what I’m talking about) demonstrates what I loved about the game: The artwork and music fuse to create atmosphere while the controls and music engage the player in the intensity of 1 vs. 100. None of the respective artists could have achieved this effect on their own. I became an arts & entertainment lawyer because I wanted to contribute my legal skills to making deals like this happen so the public may continue to enjoy the fruits of joint labors.

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Equity aids the vigilant

My last two posts have explored the question of artists taking elements of DC comics Batman character and using it in their own art. The issue was originally posed to me by a comic artist at a convention who wanted to know if DC could come down on him for incorporating DC characters into his work. Anyone who has ever attended a comic convention knows that the practice is common. Artists unaffiliated with the copyright holder will sell their “fanart” creations within full sight of the rights holders, sometimes even a few booths down. My first pass at explaining how a “fan-artist” could defend themselves was to explore fair use in the copyright realm. Fair use is a close call, and courts could go either way, so my main advice to artists was to keep it small. I wanted to explore one other theory that could protect artists: by doing nothing with the full knowledge of what artists are doing, DC triggers the ancient-yet-still-good doctrines of laches and equitable estoppel.

Laches acts to prevent a rights holder from bringing a claim if they have delayed for an unreasonable period of time and the delay makes it hard (or impossible) for the second person to defend themselves or change their ways. The theory behind laches is good old-fashioned unfairness and common sense.

About ten years ago one of the original screenwriters for the James Bond film series brought a suit against the movie company producing Bond claiming that he had created the film persona for Bond and that every Bond movie infringed his copyright. Like my exploration of Batman, the issue was over the copyright of the character, rather than a specific story. Kevin McClory had collaborated with Bond novelist Ian Fleming to create the script for Thunderball. McClory claimed the Bond character of his script was a new creation from the books and that he was therefore the author of “Bond” in film.

Promotional poster for Thunderball. Notice that McCrory is given a producer and "story by" credit.

 

The court never reached the question of whether or not McClory’s Bond had been infringed, he had simply waited too long. Laches asks three questions: did you delay? did you have a good reason to delay? did your delay make it harder on the person you’re going after. There are no hard rules to laches, no set time timetables, it’s up to the court’s common sense and past precedent. In McClory’s case, he had known about each Bond film for the past 30 years and said nothing. Over the course of time, key witnesses (like novelist Ian Flemming and screenwriter Richard Maibaum) had died and could not be called on to testify. Additionally, the movie studios producing Bond films had invested one billion dollars in creating and promoting the Bond franchise.

McClory had asked the court to give him some of the money from previous Bond film and prevent any more films from being made without his permission.  The court denied both. Ordinarily, laches doesn’t speak into the future, but it did that time.

Looking at comic fanart and laches, it is possible to see a court barring DC from coming after someone for drawing their own Batman. The analysis would turn on the specific facts of that artist. Imagine an artist who had worked his or her own table at the last ten San Diego comic cons, displaying, drawing, and selling their own Batman at each. A court could find that since DC representatives were also in attendance, and said nothing, they had unreasonable delayed bringing suit against the artist. The artist would then have to show that the delay had either cost them witnesses or caused them to create a business model dependant on the sale of Batman drawings. If one of those could be met, Laches would trigger and DC could not collect money from the artist. DC may still be able to prevent the artist from ever drawing Batman again, however. Even though the court in the Bond case extended laches protection into the future, they had specific reasons on those facts which would not be present in all cases (namely, the death of Flemming and Maibaum made it impossible to sort out who had truly “invented” Bond).

Equitable estoppel prevents a rights holder who has indicated to another that certain behavior is okay from then coming back and suing after the second person has invested time/money/etc. Trivia: estoppel is a legal term meaning “to prevent or stop.” I don’t know why they can’t just say “stop.” I wondered the same thing in law school 😛

Also about ten years ago, Dan DeCarlo, creator of Josie and the Pussycats, sued Archie Comics, claiming that they had stolen control of Josie (the character) from him. Equitable estoppel asks four questions: did the rights holder know of the second person’s use? did the rights holder’s action or inaction indicate to second person that use was okay? was the second person ignorant of rights holder’s objections? did second person suffer financial harm in reliance on rights holder’s action or inaction?

The credits (down and right from the

 For Josie, the analysis was: yes, DeCarlo knew of Archie Comics use of “his” characters in continuing comics, merchandising, and television shows. Yes, his inaction signaled to Archie Comics that it was okay for them to do so. Yes, Archie Comics was unaware that DeCarlo still considered the characters his. And yes, Archie Comics had relied on DeCarlo’s inaction in their marketing of the Josie brand.

Turning again to comics and fanart: Yes, DC knows of many artists who regularly draw Batman and other characters without paying fees or giving credit to DC. Yes, DC’s inaction has created an environment where people actually think it’s okay. Maybe, depending on the facts, the artist is unaware that DC disapproves of the fanart. And yes, many artists rely on DC’s inaction in forming their business model to draw and sell Batman sketches. Specific facts in a given case could change the analysis.

DC’s lack of response to unaffiliated artists may have created protection for those artists they would not otherwise have had. Their conduct, and the cases I’ve noted, also serves as a warning to up-and-coming artists. Both McClory and DeCarlo were freelance artists who contributed to the creation of what became a successful franchise. Neither enjoyed the rewards of that success because they waited too long. Most likely, the release of the Bond DVDs and the release of the Josie movie inspired the men to act. They sensed new money from their old ideas, and sought to get in on the pie. This is a cautionary tale to all other freelancers out there. Be vigilant about what you create. Even for a property you’ve licensed or contributed a portion to, keep on top of the uses. If you don’t like what’s happening, speak up, send emails, get a lawyer to write a cease and desist letter. Don’t wait for it to make money. You don’t have to sue to keep your rights alive, but you do have to demonstrate vigilance.

Last thought. Both DeCarlo and McClory were co-authors in the respective franchises. Co-authorship is the starting point for nearly all forms of copyright disputes. My next post will focus directly on co-authorship and what the individual artists can do to protect themselves.

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At the recent Stumptown Comic Convention in Portland, I had the chance to chat with comic artists about what basic questions of law they have. One artist asked if he created any liability for himself by drawing fan art sketches.

Fan art is a drawing based on a character, costume, or location that is made without permission by the original creator. A professional artist may consider it insulting to have their art referred to as “fan art.” I mean no offense, copyright law does not distinguish the work or professionals from amateurs and for the purpose of this blog, neither will I. The ability to create fan art is vital to comic artists both as a means of practicing to improve skill, but also to make money at conventions by drawing commissions for fans.

The practice is common, but is it legal? The short answer is a qualified maybe, which is about as good as you can get from a lawyer without specific facts. I think most artists are safe, but each situation will be different.

Batman with all his basic goodies: cape, cowl, insignia, utility belt, ennui (ennui not protected by copyright). Art by Jim Lee. I am using this copyrighted work under the fair use/educational purpose doctrine.

For the sake of discussion, I’ll use Batman as an example because he is well-known to any reader who would care about the answer and has very recognizable attributes to copy.

Before you can violate someone’s copyright, they must have one in the first place. A copyright is a set of rights available to authors of an original work in a fixed form. Each Batman comic book qualifies for copyright protection.  Each line of dialogue and panel of action are a part of that copyrighted work. Fictional characters can be copyrighted separately if they have substantially distinctive features. “Batman” qualifies for protection as a stand-alone character, but “thug #3” does not.

Batman is copyrighted, which means that only the author/rights holder (in this case, DC Comics), has the right to copy, display, distribute, and create derivative works. Fan art can be considered a derivative work, therefore most fan art is an infringement of DC’s copyright.

BUT, copyright law has a doctrine called “fair use” that (in the name of free speech) protects certain uses that would otherwise be an infringement. To find protection in fair use, a second work must be an artistically transformative use of the first, not have a great economic impact on the first, and not take too much of the first. A good piece of fan art is very transformative, giving us a new vision of a familiar character, so that factor could benefit the artist. The amount taken would probably not favor the artist, because one of the considerations is if the “core” elements are copied, which most fan art does. Economic impact would also not favor the artist, as DC could argue that the $60 the fan put down on the fan art could have instead gone towards the purchase of a licensed poster. The factors are not merely added up, however, so artist’s don’t lose 2-1. A truly transformative work may be protected. Fair use is a vague doctrine, giving courts great freedom in application. A good lawyer can make or break a free speech argument.

Mad magazine parody of Batman around the time of the 1989 movie release, used without permission.

Due to the U.S. love affair with free speech, Parody enjoys great protection. Well executed parody will steal just the right elements from the target to make the identity clear, then let the roast begin. Even if the “core” elements are copied and the economic value of the original is harmed, a parody is still protected. The irony is that fan art which seeks to honor the original work enjoys less protection than a work that insults it.

Fan art could also potentially violate the Batman trademark. Protection in the trademark realm covers the right to claim you are the rightful source of a good. Trademarks are violated when a second party markets goods in such a way that the consuming public could believe they are buying from the first party. Trademarks usually protect words or phrases and company logos, but can also extend to packaging (called trade dress). Fan art shouldn’t ordinarily violate trademark if the artist makes no claim to be associated with DC and isn’t marketing his or her own “Batman” comic. An artist can say that they once drew Batman for DC (so long as it’s true). I could see an artist getting in trouble if they tried to publish a collection of original Batman sketches in a bound volume with the words “Batman” on the cover. Such a collection would look more like a sanctioned publication.

An entirely different (and non-legal) reason for why DC doesn’t bring the pain on independent artists is that they have decided it’s in their best business interest to let it go. Comic book fans are a dedicated, if not rabid, bunch. They want to live in the world they read about. While that will never happen, getting a one-of-a-kind drawing from a favorite artist gives them a unique piece of that world. That fan, rather than cease purchasing Batman merchandise, will be drawn even further into the brand, buying all the comics and other merchandise, then seeing the Dark Knight five times, and then buying the DVD. Comic artists, freelancers that they are, also benefit from being allowed to make some side cash when DC doesn’t have a commission for them.

I can’t speak for DC, perhaps some of the reasoning I’ve outlined, plus the headaches of fighting over fair use, plus the desire to not be seen as creative fascists, combine to convince them to leave it alone. But with all this in mind, I offer the following suggestions to artists who want to draw original works based on others creations.

1. The more original your work is, the more protected you are. Be creative, that’s why you draw, anyway.

2. Be wary of mass production. The bigger you get, the bigger the target on you.

3. Don’t use the logo or trademarked name. People want the drawing, not the name, so don’t risk it.

“If you take my intellectual property, I will find you. Especially if you try to sue me.”

4. This should go without saying, but since someone did it, I’ll mention it. Don’t draw attention to yourself or intentionally aggravate the big boys. In 2002, artist Jeff Supon sued DC for copyright infringement of his “Black Bat” comic. In 1984, Mr. Supon sent DC some original sketches of his ideas of where he thought Batman should go next, apparently hoping to become a new artist for the company. DC never replied to Mr. Supon, and he relabeled the work “Black Bat.”  In 1999, after the release of “Batman Beyond,” he brought suit for  copyright infringement, claiming the new series incorporated the designs he submitted 15 years earlier. He got creamed. DC won its defence against his claim and won its counterclaim that his designs infringed their intellectual property. Bottom line, don’t wake the dragon.

I hope this helps. Keep doing what you’ve been doing and you’ll probably be fine. If a DC (or Marvel, or Dark Horse, etc.) representative ever approaches you and requests you stop making a particular drawing, be nice, hear them out, and decide if it’s worth it to you to fight back. If it is, seek the advice of an attorney who can give specific counsel to your circumstance.

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