Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Fan Art

© 2015 Don Arday.
Fan art represents one of the fastest growing categories of illustration. Even so, it is a form of illustration that is besieged with many issues and conflicts. The problems that occur run the gamut from die hard cast in stone legal ones to problems involving the appropriateness of the art, and a bias against the art form itself.

Derivative Art

Fan art is a form of derivative art. Simply put, it is when an artist other than the originator uses imagery, characters, or settings created by an originating artist. For instance, when an illustrator uses Spiderman as a straightforward character in a promotional illustration. This kind of use requires the permission of Marvel Comics.

0% Inspiration, 100% Imitation

In 1820 the author, Charles Caleb Colton wrote, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, which has perhaps, become a statement of justification that can be used to validate fan art. But before Colton wrote his famous statement, the English writer Eustace Budgell in 1714 wrote, “Imitation is a kind of artless flattery”. Although written earlier, Budgell’s phrase presents a much more modern-day appropriate sentiment. Many professionals in the visual communication field have the opinion that if not exactly ‘artless’, fan art is an unoriginal form of art at the very least.

100% Motivation, 0% Distraction

Many illustrators, as novices, long before they even thought about a career in illustration, drew their favorite characters from comic books, cartoons, animated movies, and video games. It was this sincere admiration for a character that motivated people to pick up a pencil and draw. And draw with a focused attention they hadn’t applied before. In many cases, this rudimentary form of fan art became the initial inspiration behind the career of illustrators, artists, and designers.

Fan Art In Education

So, is there a place for fan art in education? Well, the answer is yes, but it is probably not the type of fan art anyone would expect. When we think of fan art today, we think of subjects that originate in mass media such as comic books, cartoons, animated movies, and video games. However, by definition there is a form of fan art that has been a part of art curriculums for decades -- copying master works of art. In color theory class, I recall being required to select an existing masterwork for the purpose of interpreting the work monochromatically, with analogous colors, and opposite values using gouache. I chose a work by Robert Motherwell, other students chose works by Van Gogh, Mucha, Picasso, etc. Additionally, students in art classes can be seen in Museums copying works of art. An accepted practice, artists often learn specific techniques evident in an existing work of art by attempting to copy them.

Is Fan Art Okay?

This is important to know. According to US copyright law, fan art using settings and characters from a previously created work could be considered a derivative work, which means the copyright would be owned by the character/settings originator.

The originator retains all rights over his or her creation. So, if I did an illustration that included Spiderman, I would not own the copyright of my own work! And technically, any display of my fan art Spiderman would be an unlawful distribution of a derivative work.

Practice, Don’t Publish

So, is fan art okay? Taking a cue from ‘Fan Art In Education’ above, fan art may have a place as a learning exercise. Just as musicians learn by practicing established music compositions, so fan artists can learn and practice their craft by imitating the works of others. Copyright restrictions exist for art and music when it comes to publication and commercialization. In both cases a fan artist or a musician is bound by copyright law not to abuse the rights of the creator/originator. Any abuse is both illegal and unethical.

A Loophole

The parodying or making fun of a copyrighted character or situation does not require permission of the copyright owner. This falls into the category of “fair use”, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t end up in court.

Fair Use

Fair use is the use of a copyrighted work, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research. If the reason for use of a copyrighted work falls under this description it is not an infringement of copyright. However, the following factors go into determining whether the use would be considered fair use: The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; the nature of the copyrighted work; the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

No Place For Fan Art

Showing derivative fan art is risky business, especially as work samples or in a portfolio. Doing so raises several issues. A bias does exist against the art form. Many feel it does not promote original problem solving or thinking, even in parody form. It is not considered intellectual property (IP). It is looked at as a practice exercise. Most believe it is not original work, so it is either dismissed by reviewers, or triggers a negative impression. It is scrutinized for its craftsmanship. If an employer considers or desires fan art, then exceptional quality is expected.