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Posts Tagged ‘copyright’

Trent Reznor (left) has elected to use CC and alternate payment methods to market Nine Inch Nails music.

Licenses, as I said last week, are a way for an artist to give permission to others to use his or her work. Licenses can be highly restrictive or a virtual give away. Creative Commons (CC) is a license, used mostly on the internet, that allows artists to give permission to others to use their work, so long as the user follows the limitations selected by the artist. CC is both new and controversial, but before all that, a simple description of what it does.

There are four “building block” permissions that a CC license can have:

Attribution: others may use your art, but only if they give you credit.

No Derivative: others may use your art, but they may not change it.

Share Alike: others may use your art and change it, but if they distribute it they must use an identical license to the one you chose.

Non-Commercial: others may use your art, but they may not charge money for what they create.

The four building blocks can be put together in six distinct licenses (attribution is in all the licenses), it is impossible to combine No Derivative and Share Alike because you cannot forbid someone from changing the art and allow them to change it at the same time (at least, not in this reality).

There are nearly 150 million images using the six CC licenses on flickr

The various CC licenses give artists the ability to communicate their intentions to other artists without them ever having to meet to hammer out terms of usage, saving time and money. In this way, CC can be great for remix communities (using the share-alike provision) or for independent film makers looking for cheap (free) background music. The internet allows for nearly unfettered communication and CC allows artists to speak a similar legal language. CC allows for agreements without the use of lawyers, or even talking to each other. A person in Russia can grab a CC image off flickr posted by someone in Sweden and know exactly how they may use it. Even to the degree that CC replaces what I do as an arts/entertainment lawyer, I think it’s great.

Lotus Root Children by Wei Li is a graphic novel published under the attribution-noncommercial-share alike license, meaning anyone can incorporate his work into theirs, but no one may charge for what they create.

No license is perfect for all situations, and that is true for the CC licenses. Some potential pitfalls to consider: If you don’t elect “non-commercial,” another person can incorporate your work in to theirs, sell it, and not pay you anything. The share-alike license is viral, and when combined with the non-commercial license  creates a never-ending flow of work that no one can ever be paid for. If you elect only the attribution license, you have effectively donated your work to the world for whatever anyone will ever choose to do with it, and it is unlikely you will ever get control back. None of these are bad, it’s just important to understand what you are giving people permission to do with your work.

One thing I don’t like about the CC license is that it oversimplifies licensing law and options. The non-commercial license, for example, grants permission for others to copy, distribute, perform, display, or make derivatives. That’s the entire copyright  bag of goodies. There is no way to limit others to only royalty free performances, but reserving the right to charge for distribution. I would like to see the ability to break down which rights can be given or not given under the non-commercial license so an artist can grant unlimited permission to display or perform, but retain copying and derivative work rights.

The CC licenses are presented using simple pictures and brief explanations of what the licenses do. What they accomplish in brevity, they lack in clarity. Should you choose to click on the “View Legal Code” link of each license, the text of the CC licenses prove to be just as wordy as any corporate contract.

The fine print of the attribution non-commercial license

A careful reading reveals such facts as the CC license is world-wide, non-exclusive, and lasts for the duration of the copyright. Because the CC license is non-exclusive, you are free to enter into other non-exclusives licenses with others, even for money. However, once permission is given to one party for non-exclusive use, you cannot enter into an exclusive deal with someone else. The “behind-the-link” fine print also makes it clear that CC is not a law firm, has not been hired by you, and if anything goes wrong, is not responsible to you. Again, good to know.

Last week, The American Association of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) sent an email to its members that characterized CC as a threat to musicians ability to be paid and an assault on copyright. ASCAP is a licensing house that arranges licensing and royalties for musicians. ASCAP, as the “about” page of the website states, “exists to ensure that music creators are paid.” That’s what they do. CC does not exist to ensure musicians get paid, but rather to foster creativity over the internet and allow artists to elect whether or not they seek to get paid. To call CC a threat to musicians or copyright is to call sailboats a threat to rowboats; both get you from one place to another, choosing one may exclude the other, but ultimately both have their place.

Multi-author websites like Wiki demonstrate the power and potential of the free exchange of information over the internet.

Is Creative Commons bad for artists? No. Is it good? Maybe. For the right artist working on the right project, CC will be great. It’s greatest potential, in my opinion, will be in fostering collaboration for non-commercial purposes in film, music, graphic design, authorship, and beyond. If, however, you want to collaborate with others to make money, especially through exclusive agreements, or want to reserve the right to take your art back from the public at some point, it’s probably best to steer clear of CC.

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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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To follow-up my last post, and in response to a couple of conversations I’ve had lately, I wanted to try to sharpen the picture regarding fair use. I recently told a friend and playwrite that using the fair use doctrine is like running a yellow light. It’s risky, you’re on the verge of having done something wrong, but if you did it “just so,” you did it right. When running a yellow light, it matters if a traffic authority sees you, and it matters what his or her perspective of you is. Outside influences can make a difference, a reckless driver who runs a yellow is more likely to get pulled over than someone who is doing everything above reproach except for running the yellow.

Running a yellow light is legal, running a red light is not. Fair use is legal, unauthorized derivatives are not. What makes for properly executed fair use? Read on.

Because I like examples, and because I like Batman, we’ll turn again to the Dark Knight as a test subject. Instead of fan art, however, we’ll look to the silver screen and consider Nicholas Cage’s Big Daddy from Kick-Ass. [SPOILER WARNING: I’m going to refer to details from Kick-Ass that give away some of the plot. If you haven’t seen it, read with caution. Also, see the movie, very funny, it may still be in some cheap shows and it hits DVD August 3].

First, the original work must qualify for copyright protection. As I previously wrote, copyright usually applies to specific works, but it is conceivable for highly distinctive characters to achieve a protected status. The Batman character as depicted in both comic and film qualifies as a protectable character.

Christian Bale as Batman in the most recent film. the visible features of Batman are part of the protected property: cape, cowl, utility belt, insignia. The idea of the man who dresses up as a bat because of a previous crime in which he lost family is also a part of the property.

Nic Cage as Batma... uh, Big Daddy in Kick-Ass. Cape, cowl, utility belt, the lack of insignia is all that's missing. Big Daddy shares a similar back story of losing a loved one to organized crime giving birth to a vendetta.

Copyright grants to the owner the exclusive right to make derivative works based on the original. If a second work is derived from the first, it must either be done with permission or be a fair use. The character Big Daddy, as depicted in the movie, borrows from many of Batman’s key elements. Yes, there are plenty of original elements to Cage’s portrayal, but the character is also clearly derived from DC’s iconic hero. Cage’s original elements will be key to the fair use analysis, but it doesn’t change the work from being a derivative, it’s just an allowed derivative.

Fair use is complicated and muddy, allowing courts a great deal of latitude, but the basic elements that will be considered are:

1. the purpose and character of the use

2. the nature of the original work

3. the proportion that was “taken”

4. economic impact of the “taking”

No one element is controlling. The elements are not taken individually, but rather in tandem with one another. A use could fail on two or more elements, but the great weight of the use could still favor finding it a fair one. Looking specifically to the use of Big Daddy.

1. Purpose and Character of use includes public vs. private and commercial vs. non-commercial. Private, non-commercial uses are more favored for fair use. Educational uses, especially non-profit ones, are favored. Parody use is favored. The more the second use “transforms” the original work, the safer it is. Big Daddy is a commercial, public use. Kick-Ass was distributed on a wide scale with the goal of turning a profit. However, Big Daddy is also a clear parody of Batman. The basic elements are taken, but then expanded, comic value is added. Big Daddy is ruthless toward the mob, just as Batman is, but unlike Batman, he uses guns. Big Daddy employs a fake mustache, lampooning the idea of changing appearances to fight crime – a great comic touch as Big Daddy has a regular mustache by day and an even bigger mustache in costume.

Big Daddy 1, Batman 0.5.

2. Nature of Original Work. This factor is tied closely to the fourth (economic impact). It basically asks when the first work was published. Social statement? Educational text? Mass-marketed to maximize profits? Batman may well be a social statement, but the franchise is just that, a franchise marketed for the purpose of making money. Neither DC or Warner Bros. (which owns DC and distributes the current run of movies) means for Batman to do anything for them but bring in the green.

Big Daddy 1, Batman 1.5.

3. Amount Taken. This is a critical factor for a parody, for a parody must take some for the target of the lampooning to be clear, but may not take too much or it simply making money on another person’s idea, rather than making money from making fun of another person’s idea. Big Daddy takes some of Batman’s core elements, but the character doesn’t take too much, only what is necessary for the audience to know “we’re mocking Batman,” The rest is original. If the target is well identified and the lampooning is well targeted, the taker can actually keep taking. For example, Nic Cage’s speaking cadence when in costume is taken from Adam West’s Batman in the 60’s television series. He took an element not needed to make the identification, but then he had fun with it. Another additional taking was the not-so-subtle reference to the Bat signal:

Big Daddy 2, Batman 1.5

4. Economic impact on the original. Often misunderstood, I have heard people say that so long as they aren’t making money, it’s a fair use. Not true. The question is not “are you making money?” It is “are they not making money because you usurped them?” One last complication, if they lose money because you spoiled the public’s taste for their product, you’re okay, the issue is are they losing money because you met the consumer’s need for the original. Kick-Ass and Batman are rival films vying for consumer dollars. Although not released in direct opposition, DVD sales, Netflix, and On-demand make the analysis worthwhile, if not crucial. Kick-Ass will probably enjoy some sales at Batman’s expense, but if it does, it will do so because people prefer it as a superhero movie or because Nic Cage has forever ruined people’s ability to take Christian Bale’s performance seriously. Both of those are okay. A court would not find that Kick-Ass fulfills people’s need for a “Batman Movie,” that’s the analysis, and Kick-Ass wins.

Big Daddy 3, Batman 1.5. Game Over. Fair Use. Don’t mess with Daddy!

Two points in closing.

First, if it isn’t obvious, I liked Kick-Ass. I got the joke. This makes a difference, just as a sports car is more likely to get pulled over than Volvos, it matters if a judge or jury likes the second use. It’s not fair, but it’s reality. This is one reason why utilizing a lawyer can benefit an artist claiming fair use. Lawyers specialize in framing issues in a way that court’s will find more palatable.

Second, I wrote about trademark fair use in a previous post, but it’s worth noting here that the line in Kick-Ass “he looked like Batman” is a trademark fair use of the “Batman” trademark. The line was talking about Batman, and isn’t likely to confuse the audience into thinking that Kick-Ass was in some way endorsed by DC or Warner Bros.

Parody is the easiest of fair uses to define and protect, but the basic analysis is the same in all instances. Purpose of second use, nature of original work, amount taken, economic impact. My educational use in this blog is subject to the same analysis, in my case: 1. education, non-profit use, 2. Batman & Kick-Ass both commercial original uses, 3. my clips and pictures were just large enough to emphasize my point, 4. no one is going to skip seeing either movie because my blog usurped the core property. I win.

An even simpler stating of the fair use analysis is “Transformative qualities vs. Economic impact.” Have fun, use fairly, drive safely.

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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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Nintendo shuts down fanmade Pokemon MMO.

An image from before Pokenet was taken down

Last week, Pokenet, a fan made online game that allowed players to login as Pokemon trainers and catch and trade Pokemon, turned off it’s servers after receiving a cease and desist letter from Nintendo. The event raises a few interesting legal questions.

First, is it correct to say, as the headline of the story did, that Nintendo “shut down” the site, or is that angry rhetoric from the online community? In a literal sense, in order for Nintendo to “shut down” Pokenet they would have either had to physically turn the servers off or obtained a court order commanding the developers to close up shop. A cease and desist letter doesn’t do either of these things. Nintendo’s attorneys told Pokenet that it was Nintendo’s opinion that Pokenet violated trademark or copyright rights and that if the site was not shut down, further legal action would follow. Pokenet didn’t have to comply. They could have retained an attorney and fought back. However, Nintendo is a massive company with an in-house legal staff and access to multiple powerful law firms. Pokenet was a collection of web developers creating a website in their spare time. The notion that they could have afforded a viable defense is laughable. So in that sense, yes, Nintendo shut down the site. It is worth remembering, though, that a cease and desist letter is not a court order and legal authorities will not act on it (that would require a temporary or permanent injunction), it’s a warning and a demand from one person to another (or multiple people). There have been David’s who have fought back against such Goliath’s in the past, often aided by talented attorneys looking to do some good for cheap.

A second question is whether or not Pokenet was in the wrong. Did they actually violate Nintendo’s trademark? The US Trademark & Patent Office grants protection for trademarks that are used in specific areas of commerce. I may, therefore, start lawfirm and call it Emerald City Law Group after my beloved Seattle. I could register the trademark for legal services. This registration would not stop someone from opening up an Emerald City music shop or bike store. I don’t own “Emerald City,” it’s a nickname for Seattle. Greater protection is given for names that are completely made up, such as Kodak or Bravia (or Pokemon). These words often receive a kind of global protection in that I couldn’t start a Kodak music shop or Bravia bike store, such names are so distinct that only the companies that coined them may use them. Looking at Pokenet, they lose on both considerations. The trademark “Pokemon” is registered for online video games and the word was made up. So, even if a kind hearted First Amendment attorney had wanted to take on Nintendo over the website, they would have lost.

Another question is why Pokemon went after Pokenet. The site didn’t charge users any money and only had 7,000 users at the time of shut down, so the “threat” posed to the core IPs and profits would seem to be minimal. Presumably, users of Pokenet are avid Poke-freaks who will still buy the games, collect the cards, and watch the show. Doesn’t Pokenet actually raise the profile of the brand? Why would the Elephant need to squash the bug? The first is that Pokemon holds a valid trademark and has the right to control the use of the mark in the video game space. If they deem it a business asset to be the only game in town, they may do so. Pokemon may someday want to launch such a program, but even if they don’t, they have the right to stop anyone else. Pokemon may have had reasons other than financial to shut Pokenet down, the game may have been subpar and made the brand look bad.

Another reason Pokemon went after Pokenet is the property doctrine of laches, which states that the true owner of a property may lose rights to the property if they don’t actively protect it when someone attempts to encroach. The doctrine has been ported to intellectual property, so Pokemon is forced to go after the small “trespassers” if they want to retain the right to go after the large ones.

One last irony is that if Pokenet had been a satire of Pokemon, rather than a faithful recreation, they would have stood on higher legal ground. Spoofing, satire, and commentary are protected under free speech. So if the developers at Pokenet wanted to do a build of the game “Pinch-and-Chew” instead of “Pikachu” and make fun of the original IP, they’d be fine. However, because they made a game that honored the core IP, they can’t fight back. This may seem like a backwards result, but sometimes that what the law gives.

*Note: I refer Nintendo and Pokemon interchangeably in this posting. The two companies are separate entities in the US, but as Nintendo’s legal department is much larger than Pokemon’s, the junior company uses the Big N for anti-piracy and similar type matters. Without seeing the cease and desist letter, it cannot be said if Nintendo, Pokemon, or outside counsel actually flexed the muscle in this case.

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