Geek Fun

Fan-Made Products: Do Fans Need to Ask if Artists are Licensed

2016 is the Year of the Geek. Everywhere you look there are products promoting one fandom or another. It ranges from clothing to collectibles to food products. At times it feels like the marketplace is saturated with mass produced items. Even though I’m thrilled to now be able to walk into most stores and find items associated with my family’s favorite characters, I’m still on the lookout for unique pieces.

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My desire to have artwork, clothing, accessories, and collectibles that are not produced by the hundreds of thousands leads me to websites like Etsy and to artist alley at fan conventions. I’m always amazed at the phenomenal things I find created by artists and crafters that share the same passion as the fans that are purchasing their work.

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Some of my family’s favorite items have come from such craft men and women, and not the big box stores. The artwork that hangs on the wall in my family room. My son’s Iron Kitty (which he takes everywhere). My daughter’s Arrow bracelet. All items found on Etsy or in a convention’s artist section. We loved that by purchasing these items we were getting things that were unique, that we really liked, and that we were supporting an independent artist. Problem is not everyone sees it as we do.

Now I’m not a lawyer specializing in intellectual property law. Nor am I versed in copyright laws or guidelines for fair use of an image. Many times the lines regarding use are blurred and can be confusing. Must artists cease making original creations even if they don’t resemble a currently mass produced product? I don’t know.

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There are those that view many artistic and craft businesses that sell products using copyrighted images as people who have stolen intellectual property and are profiting from someone else’s work. To be honest when we have purchased items in the past, we never really thought about if the seller had a licensing agreement and were permitted to sell the products they were selling. It typically isn’t the first thing that comes to mind because most of these items are handmade and don’t make you think knock off or misuse of image.

Up until a few years ago, corporate America didn’t care about geeks or providing items that fans wanted to purchase. Only recently have they truly opened their eyes to the money that these fandoms could bring them. Previously, fans had to seek out crafters and artists if they wanted something with their favorite character, show, or book on it.

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There have been growing concerns within the artist community as to whether they will be served with a cease and desist because of their productions. An article posted on PC World from 2013 about the legal happenings over handmade Firefly hats is just one example of this hot button issue. There were also circulated reports before New York Comic Con in 2015 that Disney and Marvel were going to be issuing cease and desist orders to unlicensed artist. Articles found on both Comics Beat and Bleeding Cool, demonstrate the varying perspectives of this issue within the geek community.

This issue is complex, and as a non-lawyer I’m leaving it to the people that own the intellectual property and the artists to sort it out. I hope that all parties can find a middle ground from which to work from. In the end, companies and artists are not the only ones that lose if this situation goes south. Fans lose as well.

So here are some questions.

  • Now that companies who own the trademarks and copyrights are mass producing products, should fans no longer purchase items from artisans that are crafting unique items for a niche market?
  • Should consumers ask every seller if they are licensed to sell a particular product?
  • Should companies be proactive and broker an agreement that benefits both them and the artists serving these niche markets?

Again, I’m not sure what the answer is to resolve this emotionally charged issue and I don’t see this situation being settled anytime soon. I just hope on behalf of fans and all involved that it has a positive resolution.

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