Is Fan Art Illegal?

If you’ve ever been to an Artist’s Alley at a comic convention, the thought, “Can this be legal?” has surely jumped into your head.

Easily half the artists exhibiting at any mainstream Comic Con or Anime Show make and sell fan art. And by “fan art” I mean merchandise featuring characters the artist does not own: prints, buttons, tee shirts, key chains, hats, tote bags—I even saw Captain American mittens at the last show I attended.

And if you count the amount of artists who offer one-of-a-kind, original commission sketches of copyrighted characters, the percentage shoots way higher.

Surely Marvel owns the right to Captain America, we think, even if that sweet girl sitting at the booth was the one to knit the mittens.

But the question is: Does Marvel really care?

When it comes to fan art: What is legal, and what is not?

There is a lot of myth that clouds the truth of fan art in regards to what you can and cannot be sued for.

Perhaps you’ve heard some of the following myths:

  • One-of-a-kind, original drawings and paintings are legal.
  • Since everyone does it, copyright holders must not care.
  • If I only sell fan art at conventions, and not online or in stores, it is okay.
  • If I’m not making a profit from my fan art, it is legal to draw someone else’s characters.

Some Anime Shows have begun limiting the amount of fan art you can bring: either only a certain percentage of the kinds of items you sell can be fan art (i.e. only 30% of your prints can feature copyrighted characters) or, they’ve limited the amount of an item featuring fan art that you can sell (i.e. you can only bring 10 copies of any print featuring copyrighted characters.)

One show I exhibited at had such a strict “No Fan Art” policy that convention staff members actually policed the alley throughout the show. I was scolded for having a (not for sale) image of Harley Quinn on my commission sign as an example!

Fan art and copyright infringement might seem complicated, but really it isn’t:

Do you own the character in question?

  • Yes? Do what you please!
  • No? You have no legal right to profit from work featuring characters without permission from copyright holder.
  • No? You have almost no rights to create such works not for a profit, either.

This video is a real world, straight-shootin’ explanation of copyright law given at San Diego Comic Con earlier this year. Josh Wattles is the advisor in chief to deviantART and is a funny lawyer (imagine that) who describes the nature of fandom candidly—both its benefits to the copyright holder and the problems.

If you currently (or plan to) sell fan art at a show, online, or as one-of-a-kind original commissions, you must watch this video.

If you currently (or plan to) make fan art without intent to sell, just for the love of the fandom, you must watch this video.

And then, proceed with caution.

I know people personally who have been told to stop selling items by one of the “Big Two.” I even have personal experience in the matter in regards to treading too close to the line—in a parody that didn’t even use trademarked characters.

So watch this video and be informed. “I didn’t know it wasn’t legal” does not stand up in court.

Links mentioned in the video:

Public Knowledge

The Electronic Frontier Foundation

Josh Wattles


What do you believe in regards to fan art in Artist’s Alley? Do you think it is okay for creators to get noticed by making and selling fan art? Or do you think creators should use their own characters and stories to garner attention in the industry?

We’d love to hear YOUR thoughts!


  1. says

    I don’t think the intent is ever harmful with fan art (although sometimes it is, in order to make a quick buck.)

    Just like anything that features a trademark (brands, items, characters) we’re subject to legal threats by riding on other’s coat-tails. We all do it in some form – hoping we don’t get caught.

  2. says

    Ah yes, the great fan art debate. It’s so dicey, wrapped up not in just what’s legal, but what companies generally ignore for the sake of the artists involved (commissions for example). I’ll say, though reasonably I could probably get away with it, I’ve been moving fan art out of my portfolio. I’ve had some in there, and frankly it is the top seller for myself and many artists, but the risk isn’t really worth the reward. Moreover, fan art quickly becoems a distraction from your own work, and you can find yourself producing art just to hit trends (known this to happen with several artists).

    The one thing that will happen when you switch away from fan art is your audience will immediately alter away from the mainstream Spider-man/Batman fan. You’ll get more indy folks, art collectors, webcomic readers and new comic readers. It’s an excellent example of how what you decide to produce also helps dictate the kind of audience you recieve, and why trying to alter your own work to fit an audience is often not the way to go.

    • says

      “fan art quickly becoems a distraction from your own work”

      Isn’t this the truth, Jake!

      I’ve had two fan-art prints at conventions, one was a WWII Cap. America print I created as an exercise to get comfortable using Sketchbook Pro when I had my free trial. The other was a Poison Ivy commission for a paying customer. I had made him wait extra long so I put a lot more work into it as a “thank you for being awesome with the wait / I’m sorry” bonus. It turned out so nice I colored it and used it for a print.

      Apart from that, I have so many projects going on, I’d rather devote that time to The Dreamer or Paper Wings. Between the two there’s seldom much “extra” left over. The list of “fan art” I’d love to do just as, well, as a fan! not for sell, is long but art-for-fun-time is scarce these days.

      I’ve thought about doing a “sketch a day” warmup Tumblr for a month or something. Just to get back to drawing characters that don’t wear tricorn hats and frock coats… but I digress!

  3. says

    Oh, I remember seeing this before and completely agree. I’d love to see fan art of Misfit Supers, but I wouldn’t wait anyone to my characters for their own profit. I personally hadn’t thought much all about it before this video, wanting to create and sell my own original ideas, assuming most artists want the same.

    • says

      Scott, I think around here, Chris & I are wired that way and we’ve definitely attracted a crowd of “Personal Project First!” creators around us.

      As Jake hit on below, the Batman Fan Art crowd doesn’t always (usually?) translate to your indy project. Yup, my Poison Ivy print often gets a lot of attention, but it seldom translates into Dreamer sells.

      This year I’ve all but eliminated anything but Dreamer at my table and it hasn’t hurt me at all. As Jake pointed out, when you push your personal project, you attract the people interested in Indy Comics. And that’s exactly what I’ve found!

  4. says

    So Josh basically explained the loophole to fan art “sales.”

    If a patron covers the cost of your material, and you donate the piece as a gift, it doesn’t qualify as an actual sale, yet you can still receive compensation.

    Strange how the law works. I’m sure you could probably get busted for subverting copyright laws and financial transactions.

  5. says

    I’m one of those who hardly ever make fanart, not out of any high-minded principles or fear of retribution but because it just doesn’t interest me. I look *looking* at fanart, but the impulse to make it? Not there.

    I’m making plans to attend two conventions next year, partly as a marketing drive for my comic-in-production “Icefall”, and I’ve been wondering if I should make fanart of other works to draw people to my table. Between this video and the responses so far, the answer is leaning back to “no.” The risks are too great, the chances of it translating to actual interest in my project is too small, and, well, I just don’t have the time to put out Icefall and associated art AND make fanart of other stuff – even if it’s stuff I like.

  6. says

    The best way for an artist to build a fan base is to do something people can really, really relate to. Unfortunately, one of the best ways to relate to people is by doing art of something they recognize, i.e. fan art. Fan art sells. Fan art gets you recognition. Fan art can make you the popular artist everyone wants to be when they set out to make their scribbles. And the awful truth: the majority of popular artists out there made their fortune off of doing works of characters they didn’t own. Yes, there are exceptions, but for the most part, this is true.

    Does this mean an artist should only do fan art to get recognized and build a fan base? Maybe. But then you have to weigh if you’re creating art to make money or if you’re creating art to be happy. The majority of work I do is creator-owned because it makes me happy to tell my own stories and share them with the world. However, the awful truth is that my creator owned work doesn’t make me very much money. I couldn’t even think about living off my CO work at this point. Fan art for artists is a means of survival and an inevitability. And like the man in black in the video, it can lead to real, paying work.

    • says

      “Fan art for artists is a means of survival and an inevitability.”

      There are other things I suppose I could do besides trying to make a quick buck off of more familiar characters, but I do enjoy creating the fan art that I make. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it so much.

      Does that change the legality of it either way? No, but as I said in my post, the mere existence of the gray area lets me continue on with fan art without too much worry.
      Will I get to a point where I could practically attend conventions fueled mostly by my own characters? Sure, it could happen. But even then, as long as that gray area’s there, I’d probably still try to enjoy kicking out new fan art every now and then.

    • says

      Tis true, fan art wa initially the only way I could break even on a table. That’s less the case these days, but then I’m a better artist, my portfolio is a lot bigger, and I have more of a name locally. I have the luxury now of goign to a convention and not necessarily requiring fan art to make the money, but that wasn’t always the case.

      Frankly, I think most publishers know this is the situation, and that’s why we don’t see companies en-masse cracking down on fan art in general. There’s a certain threshold of money, interest, and professionalism below which you just aren’t worth persuing.

      Not to say people shouldn’t consider the ramifications if they do fan art and get tagged, mind. There’s definitely a safer route that way, it’s just that every path has it’s own trade offs.

    • says

      “And the awful truth: the majority of popular artists out there made their fortune off of doing works of characters they didn’t own.”

      This is true! Most comic book rock stars got the exposure through drawing Spider-man or the X-Men or whoever.

      But… that was paid work they were doing for the copyright holder. The quickest way to fame in the comic world is to be put onto one of these titles. But how do you get one? Through awesome portfolio submissions? Yup, I think that’s still the #1 way.

      But cool things have happened through the years like Art Baltazar’s Wolf Boy landing him the Tiny Titans gig. Blue Monday’s Chynna Clugston doing work on Ultimate X-Men. And Scott Christian Sava (Dreamland Chronicles) did a 3D Spiderman mini-series. David Mack got his Daredevil run via his creator owned series Kabuki. Jeff Smith did a Shazam! comic after Bone before starting Rasl. Terry Moore wrote Spider-man Loves Mary Jane after Strangers in Paradise wrapped up.

      The thing I think is so interesting about THESE comics is that the independent creator is asked to work on the mainstream titles as a result of the character of their own work. No one else is going to draw a comic like Art Baltazar, Jeff Smith or David Mack. It’s a different approach into those same jobs, but this route allows you to have a style and “brand” to your work. You don’t have to turn yourself into a Marvel or DC clone.

  7. says

    The penalties involved with trademark infringement are pretty frightening. I think it’s fair if a big corporation, like Disney or Marvel, goes after another company that has unlawfully taken their images or intellectual property. But it’s kind of dispicable if they go after independent artists who made a couple bucks at a con with something they created themselves. It’s a weird situation… I love when I see someone else draw my characters and share it online, but I wouldn’t be happy if I saw someone selling it in an artists alley. So I understand why everyone needs to protect their property… There’s a few cons around here that have completely banned fanart too.

    Personally, I’m more impressed by artists who come up with their own properties and characters. There’s lots and lots of great artists on deviantart that ONLY post fanart. And they’ve built a big following off that, but they can only go so far with material that’s already licensed. I think a lot of people would much prefer to see their talents put into their own ideas and creations, or at least try to balance out the fanart with original projects.

  8. says

    I’m one who unashamedly throws fanart into my artist alley prints catalog. I like the idea of a community of “fan artists” and appreciate the notion that any respectable fan artist isn’t trying to usurp creative control over the properties in question.

    Yes, most of my income at conventions probably comes from fanart, be they prints or commissions. Honestly, it’d be nice to make more off of Bonnie Lass stuff, but so far there hasn’t been an overwhelming interest (the comics sell well enough if I take the time to pitch them, but I’ve been sitting on certain prints for years now). Fanart is just how I personally make conventions worth the time and energy at the moment.

    I honestly don’t know how I’d feel if I stumbled upon anyone else hawking Bonnie Lass pinups at a con… Part of me would want to establish some kind of stipulation, but I think I’d frankly be super elated and appreciative off the bat. If I were to calculate how profitable Bonnie’s been for me so far, I’m pretty certain I’d find myself in the red, but that, I feel, is more on me, and even if there were other independent artists out there making some scratch off their own depictions of her, I don’t think I’d feel that was doing any extra harm. Pinups (which I think fall under the category of “art for art’s sake”) seem harmless to me; anything else (that’s not parody or satire) is where I draw the line, for myself and others.

    In a very niche example, this past summer I was thrilled to be part of the Six Season and a Movie art exhibit, a tribute to the TV show Community. The organizers did everything they could to keep things under the radar, so as not to get struck down by Sony/NBC’s lawyers—ultimately they didn’t seem to want to bother. But series creator Dan Harmon gave the exhibition his personal blessing, even attending the opening with some of the cast and crew (some of whom contributed to the gallery as well). It was, I thought, just a really cool, if not rare, example of the creator(s) appreciating the fans appreciating the show, even if Harmon himself doesn’t have reigns over the property.

    But getting back to the broader scope, the legality of it all is essentially black and white. The artists and even the rights holders are the ones who create the gray area. Because there is currently and allowance for that gray area, I don’t feel pressured to purge my catalog of fan art right now. At the same time, I do have my own limits as to how far I’ll go to make that fan art part of my usual stock.

  9. says

    at the end of the day, if you feel you can’t afford to work the alley with out fan art, you need to rethink the reason for going to artist alley and why you’re doing what you do

    • says

      Considering how many professional, big two artists do commissions which would technically fall under this definition as a means of supplementary incomce, and are in fact often encouraged to do so by their employers in some cases, I think that may be a bit too reductionist and judgemental to sum up the situation. It’s dicey, and dicey for a lot of fine reasons, but I don’t think that’s a unilateral pass to come down on people who do or have done fan art and question their motives.

      For example, plenty of people in artists alley really do just want to draw Spider-man. That’s a valid personal goal. And some actual Spider-man artists were found exactly that way, so it’s not exactly that cut and dry.

      • says

        I appreciate what you’ve said here because it is a somewhat complex topic, and we should reduce it so simply.

        One thing, I’d like to add to what you’ve said that has made me curious is, whenever I’ve applied to Marvel or DC, and Marvel in particular, they specify that they want you to show work based on THEIR characters. That’s something that has always been a bit boring to me, it’s like, why do I want to put ALL that effort into drawing something that I have no use for other than showing to them? Unless, what if there is another use for that art, for sales for instance, be it sequential or pin-up? So, in a way with just their submissions, they encourage you to base your art on their content, but it seems ludicrous to think that artists wouldn’t use that art that they produce for submission for some sort of income. I don’t think artists are trying to be so sly to make it seem like they created Spiderman, Batman, etc. They are just trying to capitalize on their work and the market.

        Anyway, that’s just another thought to add to yours that stuck in my mind :)

    • says

      It’s hard to argue with anything he said. His Wolverine situation might be an edge case (and the Gary Friedrich lawsuit he alludes to was an even more extreme edge case), but it’s still a concrete example of how the trademark owners can and will step in if they think you’ve gone too far. And what constitutes “too far” is pretty much at their whim. Which ties in with what Wattles mentioned in the video: Ultimately, it’s up to the court to decide what “fair use” is, and most of us don’t have the resources to go ten rounds with Marvel/Disney’s legal team.

      The message seems to be that, at best, you shouldn’t depend on fan art for your bread and butter, because anything you make from it can be snatched away at a moment’s notice.

      • says

        You know J. Kevin, this is where I come out. But it is interesting to hear all the different sides.

        When you boil it down, legally it just isn’t right to sell it. Period. Apart from that you’re just choosing to break the law but you don’t have a leg to stand on if someone does get upset.

        • says

          It doesn’t help that the publishers have never expressed a clear policy about these things. I guess they don’t want to squash their own freelancers doing sketches, because they know it’s an important supplement to their income (plus it helps promote the books they are working on). But that then opens the door for every Tom, Dick, and Harriet to join in.

          I wonder if it would be possible to set up some kind of licensing program…you pay Marvel an annual fee, and/or a percentage of sales, agree to certain restrictions (e.g., no porn), and you get an I.D. number that you put on every sketch that identifies it as “officially licensed”. Eh, it would probably be unenforceable.

  10. says

    I just finished doing Long Beach Comic Con and the amount of work being sold as prints featuring copyrights is a stalwart feature of the show. I have produced work for sale exclusively from my copyrights but something very interesting happened in the last two years. I have produced my share of fan art – I include it in my portfolio which I have on display and in most cases they are simply computer printouts from my inkjet printer at home. When I say fan art I should qualify this – I interpret each original property heavily, redesigning characters entirely from the perspective of my being a concept artist for television. This past con, someone almost completely bought out the printouts from the portfolio. To be fair he also bought a generous portion of work which was completely original and of course mine to sell freely. But it made me think I should include less of someone else’s property and definitely have duplicates of even display only pieces just in case someone wants to actually pay money for something that came from a home office printer. I can safely and thankfully say that most of my income from these shows is derived from my original work. But I have definitely misunderstood the desire so many fans have to see their favorite characters in a favorable light – and sometimes that means paying money for something as paltry as a cheap computer printout.

  11. Ashikai says

    I got an AA table for the first time at a con this year and despite having some fairly nice cheap prints, sales were really low. Most of the images I sold were drawn AT the con and were fanarts to boot. I want to point out that the people in the AA with the best sales were either selling cute merchandise, OR My Little Pony prints. OTL.

    As someone who draws primarily original content, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, my artwork is good (but not amazing), and on the other, the series is based on is original, so it’s not very popular. In order to make money off of my original content (and not have to resort to selling MLP merch…), I need a baseline of popularity. Let’s be honest, it’s unlikely that I’m going to get any sort of popularity JUST producing original content. The amount of eyeballs I’m going to attract will just stay low for a very long time.

    I started doing fanart this past week (ironic, eh?) in order to pull in eyeballs from some fans of series or works that were like mine. I really didn’t want to, but in such a competitive market it’s almost a necessary evil to get started. I know it’s not legal, but it’s better than trolling forums going, “Hey people! Read my comic! (link)”. At least, I think so. .____.;;;

    • says

      I’ve built my fan base (online and at comic conventions) entirely on original content. Yup, I started out with a table full of just Dreamer comics and a banner and worked my way up.

      It can be done!

    • says

      If you’re just starting to have tables at conventions don’t take that first experience (or three) as the baseline. Shows run by different organizations, and in different locations, will have different attendees. Wizard shows, for examples, almost all my business is in pritns. The local Dallas show? Comics and comissions. From what I’ve heard of SPX or APE? Mostly original comics. Your convention attendance can gear you for an audience as much as anything and there are more and more shows geared to the indy creator over the fan crowds.

  12. says

    Thank you so much for posting this! When I first started doing cons and didn’t have much original contest I did do fan art prints with that same mentality of trying to get people over to the table. Over the past year or so now that I have plenty of original content I have stopped displaying fan art on my tables. I am not sure if this counts but I do have small prints of “classic” monsters. My take on Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, things like that that are public domain or more of concepts then say my take on Wolverine. People seem to like them. My work is horror related so it is a good way to talk about my comics.

    A couple of things I do offer at my table are sketch cards. I have worked on official Marvel and DC sets so I have some of the extra “Artist Proof” cards for sale. While I guess technically it is fan art I am given permission by the company to do with what I please with those even if it means commissioning them or selling them.

    Also I am part of a local draw blog that changes themes every week and most of the topics are of IP’s (Marvel, Star Wars, etc) and I will put those one of a kind pieces in a bin with other original pieces. Speaking of that I do offer commissions at my table and almost all of the time I get asked to draw a famous character. How do others handle commission requests if they are concerned about the legality of that?

    Definitely an interesting topic and I have often wondered about the legalities of it especially seeing those tables int he alley that are just prints of other companies characters.

  13. says

    Thanks for the post! I used to worry about this sort of thing more when I was a younger artist, but recently haven’t thought about it as much. In fact, I recently had a professor encourage us to do fanart on our tumblr or whatever in order to gain followers, since people are generally more interested in what they already know. This made sense to me, and so I’ve been following this advice and I definitely get more hits on a fanart piece than one of my originals. However, this seems to only apply to my illustrations. When I post a comic, or even part of a comic I have created, people seem to like it. I don’t know how I feel about selling my fanart. From what it sounds like, fanartists usually only run into trouble when they make money from their work (especially large quantities). This post has definitely made me think harder about the copyright issue. Thanks for great content, Lora!

  14. says

    Very educational video. Thanks for the post Lora! I’ve always been super curious about IP and fan art, and this answers some of these questions I’ve had for years! Cross-posted it on my tumblr (with a link back to this post), since it does seem like something people should be aware about.

  15. says

    This is a great post. As someone who draws parody and satire *of superheroes*, I would like to hear more about this. In particular I wonder which problems you found with one of the big two.

    Sorry I ask a bit late, I wasn’t aware that you were posting again till recently.

  16. Lilly Kitten says

    Thanks so much for posting this!

    I was always under the belief that fan art copyright was quite a grey area, unfortunately information fed to me in art school by the teachers there. Fan art at cons over here is rife and I myself have been contributing to it something chronic, strolling along under the impression my TAFE teachers would actually know what they were talking about and it was all roses

    Clearly not even close.

    I’ve been suspicious of late, more and more so, and now I’ve bitten the bullet and went searching for straight answers. I got them, and I’m grateful.

    I built my popularity on parody comics, using it, like so many artists (especially in countries like Australia, where the arts industry is worse than appalling.) to build my popularity…

    But at what cost? I’m reading a lot of comments from people clearly torn by the bright lure of gaining popularity via fanart. Don’t do it. Not just because of what’s said in this video, because I admit, even after I started getting a niggling suspicion my TAFE teachers had no effing idea and were making shit up so it LOOKED like they knew the answer rather than face my question about copyright gaping blankly, I ignored it and forged on. No one would go after a small time operator like me, would they? Not with so many other fan artists around? Possibly not. So I stoppered my uneasiness and kept going rather than hunt for the truth

    However, the cost to my artistic integrity is too high. I draw far far more original things now, putting a lot of effort into my works, but all anyone asks for is the parody comic, and that was drawn rather terribly and rushed so I could get it out every week without having to concentrate too much on it.

    It’s horribly disheartening. You draw a lot of fan art with the idea of getting know and it works… but that’s all you’re known for from that moment onwards. Drawing people in with original art is hard, I know, but it’s a hell of a lot more satisfying because those people appreciate you for YOUR work, not the work you can churn out that is a pale shadow of someone elses.

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