When Fans Infringe Copyright

Applegeeks, a Web comic produced by Hawk and Ananth, found itself at the center of a copyright controversy when fan and blogger Chris Davis mentioned in an entry that he had printed up a collection of the comic’s history for his own personal use. This prompted a severe backlash against both Mr. Davis and Lulu.com, the self-publishing service that he used to create the book.

Though, in the end, things were resolved amicably enough with Mr. Davis admitting his actions were in “bad form” and apologizing for what he did. Despite that, the saga and the ensuing flame war points to the growing number of problems that arise when fans infringe on copyright.

The Napster Lesson

When a music industry lawsuit shut down the original Napster in 2000, it was seen as a tremendous victory against copyright infringement. However, CD sales, which had been climbing during the Napster years, suddenly plunged as both consumer backlash and a weakened economy struck the music industry.

It became clear, to some at least, that art and information wanted to be free so many great artists began experimenting with a new business model. Sites such as Homestarrunner and Red Vs. Blue began making their living by offering their work up for free, but selling merchandise, memberships and DVDs. These people, and others like them, found themselves on top of the world far faster than any traditional path could have taken them.

However, with this new business model comes a strange hazard. Well-meaning fans who sincerely enjoy the work often forget about how much blood, sweat and tears go into creating it. They begin to cross the line and violate copyright law thinking that it’s what the creators want. Even though most such creations are licensed for some kind of reuse, many just take it too far.

In the end, what happened at Applegeeks is just the latest incident of a fan going beyond the bounds of legal reuse and putting both the copyright holders and fellow fans in a very awkward position.

Fan Art, Fan Sites and Fanning the Flames

Following the Napster ordeal, most people realize that sharing copyrighted songs on the Web is illegal. They realize that, no matter how much they want it to be acceptable, making copies of music, movies or books, even when not for sale, is illegal unless permission is given. Though the Creative Commons organization came forth to make such permission easy to obtain, the vast majority of all popular music/movies/literature/artwork remain out of the reach of file sharers and other Internet users.

What most people don’t realize is that, fan art is, by law, the property of the original creator. It is viewed as a derivative work of the original and, since copyright law gives the copyright holder the exclusive right to create derivatives, all derivatives become that person’s property.

In a similar vein, fan sites often infringe upon copyright by reusing original material beyond what is allowed in fair use. Many such sites, including several for Star Trek and Star Wars, have been shut down on grounds of copyright infringement.

While some more popular franchises have taken a very strong stand against fan creations, most have made some kind of peace with them. Some offer samples of their TV shows, music or writing for use on fan sites and host sections for fan art. They see it as a great way to build community support, add content to their sites and create a feeling of good will while sacrificing only an iota of the marketability of their product, no matter what business model they use.

So, even though these fan productions are generally considered to be infringing, they are very well tolerated. Though, personally, I agree that they should continue to be, it’s easy to see how this attitude, especially when in conjunction with freely distributed works, can lull some into a very false sense of copyright security.

When Fans Attack

The inevitability of all of this is that some fans will go too far and do something that injures the content creator either financially or personally. The book mentioned above, for example, was of little financial consequence since only one copy of it was made, but it clearly caused the creators of the comic series a great deal of personal stress, a position I’ve been in many times before.

This begs the question though, how does a creator who’s very liberal about copyright put his foot down without creating another Napster-like backlash? How does one say “No” to their fans without turning them away?

As the forum post on Applegeeks points out, there is no simple solution. Many fans of the series fell down on the side of Mr. Davis and his book. Though Hawk and Ananth never threatened any legal action, and in fact went out of their way to clarify that issue, many fans were angry that the creators were so upset over the issue.

What most artists forget though is that they need to practice preventative medicine. Having a well-worded, easy to understand and practical copyright policy is the first step to preventing these kinds of conflicts. If everyone understands what the rules are beforehand, they are much less likely to get upset later when someone is chastised for breaking them.

Also, following such a policy strictly will eliminate charges of favoritism and bias that can rock a lot of smaller content creators. Having something written down, updated as needed and followed religiously helps fans and copyright holders alike work together and stay within the bounds of accepted practice.

Because most viewers are willing to deal with a reasonable amount of copyright restrictions on a work, especially if they get to enjoy it freely. However, they have to know what the boundaries are so they can avoid crossing them and avoid running afoul of both their fellow fans and the creatives they admire.

Best of all, it avoids putting copyright holders in an awkward position that might cause them to either greatly restrict the work or, worse still, pack up and leave.

So, even though no one likes setting rules, they are critical to playing the game.

[tags]Copyright Infringement, Fan Art, Fan Fiction, Plagiarism, Self Publishing, Lulu, Copyright[/tags]

Want to Reuse or Republish this Content?

If you want to feature this article in your site, classroom or elsewhere, just let us know! We usually grant permission within 24 hours.

Click Here to Get Permission for Free