Is it legal to sell fan art at conventions?

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Written by Juha

If you’ve spent hours toiling away over a piece of fan art that you adore, you might be wondering whether or not you can sell it at a convention or somewhere similar to make a little profit from it.

Most people would think it’s reasonable to be able to – you made it, so you can sell it, right? Unfortunately not!

The short answer to the question of is it legal to sell fan art at conventions or not is no. It’s not legal to sell fan art at conventions if you haven’t acquired permission to do so from the copyright holder. The copyright holder can give you the right to sell fan art based on intellectual property created before. With the copyright holder’s permission, you are able to sell fan art at conventions.

This article will take you through why selling artwork at conventions is not permitted but also illegal. In order to understand why exactly this is the case, you must first understand copyrighted art.

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Twitchcon (source)

What is copyrighted art?

Thankfully, copyright is generally agreed upon in most countries in the world, so there aren’t that many differences in copyright law that may have been present in the past, although there are some differences, so be careful of this.

Nowadays, it’s pretty straightforward to understand. As a general rule, copyright always remains with the artist, and it lasts for their entire life and 70 years after their death.

This just means that they own the rights to it, and any reproduction of the art can only be done by the artist themselves or those who have express permission to do so.

This is especially relevant to selling fan art.

Although some artists may sell their copyright to somebody else, like a publisher, it’s important to find out who exactly owns the copyright to a particular piece before you create any fan art that you intend to sell.

If you want to reproduce somebody’s art and sell it, whether you’re making changes to their original piece or not, you need to contact the copyright holder, and that usually is the original artist, although there are some exceptions.

This importantly includes derivatives of the original artwork – so this means people using characters, settings, or something else related to the original artwork to inspire their own.

Essentially this means fan art. For most fan art creators, they won’t have received permission to create their fan art – so what now?

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Twitchcon (source)

Is selling fan art illegal?

If you did not get express permission from the copyright holder, then yes, it is illegal. The main reason it is illegal is that you are benefiting from the sale of copyrighted work, without the artist’s permission and without paying any royalties to them.

If an artist produces work and then allows the reproduction of the work by a calendar company for use on their new calendar, for example, the artist will receive a percentage of their profit – in other words, they’ll be paid royalties for their work because it’s reproduction went some way towards the sale of the calendar, so they’re entitled to some money for that.

The problem with selling fan art is that most people selling at conventions probably aren’t going to call the original artist afterward and offer them a slice of their earnings.

This means that they have reproduced and sold the original copyrighted artwork illegally.

In short, failure to get the proper permissions, and therefore failure to offer a percentage of your earnings, makes the sale of any fan art you produce illegal.

Think about it, if you created an original piece of artwork and others started using that art in different ways to make money themselves, you’d likely be pretty annoyed that they were earning money off your creative idea. 

Getting approval for selling an IP protected property

IP or Intellectual Property just refers to property that is intangible – i.e., you can’t physically hold it, but it can be owned.

This can cover a wide range of different things in law, but in the case of art and reproducing fan art, this usually refers to copyright.

As copyright isn’t a physical thing that you can hold, it is classed as IP because it is still owned by the copyright holder.

The original artwork produced by an artist is usually classed as IP protected property because copyright is owned by the artist (or whomever they may go on to sell it to).

How to get approval for selling your fan art?

It’s important that you know this because if you intend to create and sell fan art, you need to get this permission in order to do so legally.

The first step is finding out who exactly the IP holder is (or copyright holder, both terms are interchangeable in this case). Depending on where you’ve found the art you wish to create fan art of, there may be some differences.

Printed publications usually have copyright information provided close to the image. If you can’t find this information, you can always contact the publisher, who is obliged to pass this information on.

Simply search the publisher’s contact details online, or look for their contact details somewhere in the publication.

If you’ve found the image online, then they should provide the credit right below the image. Finding out who the IP holder is can be much easier online than in printed publications.

If you’ve found somebody’s artwork through a search engine, clicking the picture will usually provide copyright holder information.

If it doesn’t have the copyright information, simply click the link to the webpage, and you should be able to find the information somewhere on the website.

Once you have the information, you simply need to contact whoever the IP owner is and ask for permission to create fan art and sell it.

They might ask for details such as what you intend to create and may even ask for a copy of the artwork before sale to make sure it is suitable. 

Just remember, copyright or IP holders are under no obligation to allow you to sell your fan art, and if the answer is no, there’s very little you can do about it.

If that’s the case, you’ll either need to find something else to create fan art of and hope that those IP owners give you permission. Remember, without permission, selling your fan art would be illegal!

Why it is thought that selling fan art is OK

The misconception that selling fan art is OK comes from the confusion around ownership of the artwork.

Because fan art creators have produced the work themselves, they feel as though they are the rightful owners of their artwork and should be able to sell it to make a profit.

While you can understand this belief in law, that is simply not the case.

It’s easy to create this misunderstanding, though, especially when fan art is such a popular and widespread thing now.

You need only look at social media to see lots of examples of fan art created by very talented individuals receiving lots of likes and comments. 

You may even have heard success stories of individuals who have sold fan art and turned it into a way to make a living. The problem with this is, the people who get away with selling copyrighted fan art without permission usually shout about it a lot more than those who were stopped and faced legal processes such as Cease and Desist orders from IP owners.

If you are thinking of selling fan art, then you absolutely need to get permission from the copyright holders before you do so, or else you can find yourself in legal difficulties.

A common misconception or not, the law will always side with the copyright holders, so make sure you don’t skip this most vital step.

Also, one of the reasons why people think it’s fine to sell fan art is because they feel like they are not selling that much. Thoughts like: “I only sold 20 pieces, I only sold one, or I only did a commission” are all thoughts that can result in a lawsuit with the copyright holder.

There are no acceptable limits to how much you can sell fan art before it’s thought illegal. Selling only one fan art related artwork is already illegal.

Conclusion

In short, selling fan art is illegal unless you receive the appropriate permission from the IP or copyright holders.

Remember, this usually rests with the original artist, but it may have been sold to a publisher or somebody else.

You must do your research to find out who exactly owns the legal copyright to a piece of work before you attempt to reproduce it or create a derivative piece of art from it.

Only once you have received this permission and followed any of the directions of the copyright holders are you allowed to sell fan art legally. 

Interestingly, creating fan art, creating but not selling, is completely legal.

So, if you are somebody who creates fan art for the love of it, then you do not need to worry.

Giving them as gifts or framing them and placing them around your bedroom is absolutely OK, even sharing an image of it on social media is, but trying to sell them may result in legal action from the copyright holder, and the law will always side with them.

Fan art is a great way to earn some extra money if it is something your passionate about, so don’t let this article put you off.

See it more as a reminder to receive the proper legal permission as opposed to a warning against creating and selling it.

After all, fan art creators are incredibly talented and deserve to share that talent with the world, but make sure you do it legally.

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