I feel like I've written about fan art here on the blog before, yet I can't seem to find any posts about it. My apologies if I missed it somewhere and this is beating a dead horse for some of you.
For the duration of this post, "fan art" is a term I will use to describe art that directly copies published art, rather than original work that is loosely inspired by and does not directly copy a licensed character or existing cover art.
Over the last couple of days several of my friends have been discussing conventions cracking down on unlicensed fan art. I have a lot of strong feelings about unlicensed fan art, so let's just dive right in.
I'll start out by pointing out the obvious: It's important to read the terms and conditions when you purchase an exhibition space at a convention, whether it's a dealer's table or an artists' alley space. Many conventions have clauses that specifically prohibit unlicensed fan art, although it's been my experience that most conventions with those clauses don't bother to enforce them. Some of the conventions are pretty lenient and will simply ask you to remove the offending items from your table, but others are more strict and will give you a lifetime ban from selling anything at that convention. This could be pretty painful, so it's best to make sure you've read those terms and conditions and asked any relevant questions.
Personally, I don't like the concept of fan art. Many fan artists are wonderfully talented and it's frankly a shame that they waste their time creating art that they can never license or profit from beyond sales of prints and originals. Initially, you may end up making a lot of money from fan art, but it won't continue to pay you down the road. Licensing contracts for my art have yielded thousands of dollars of income, sometimes for as many as 8-10 years since I created the images (and I've only been doing this for about 12 years). Fan art will never pay out this way, because it can't legally be licensed.
It may or may not be legal, and that doesn't really matter. A big company with a massive, dedicated legal team doesn't need to prove they have a case before they sue you. I have known a few different artists who sued or were sued by large companies and the lawsuits dragged on for years. Some of these people lost their homes, their cars, their equipment, and their marriages. Chances are that you can't afford the legal fees to defend yourself against a massive publisher. Good lawyers charge hundreds of dollars PER HOUR. Massive Art Conglomerate Inc. doesn't have to be right to sue you, and they don't even have to go to court to win. They just have to sink you in legal fees so you give up and give them what they want, which will often be "damages" plus legal fees for their entire team of lawyers. Will you get caught? Maybe not. Will they sue you if they catch you? Maybe not. But do you really want to do something that runs the risk of "getting caught"? Doesn't that mean that there is something inherently unethical about it anyway?
Imagine that you're an official Massive Art Conglomerate Inc. licensed artist and you're at a convention with your Super Mega Cat Man official art. You're selling prints for $25-50 a piece and signing comics when someone walks up and asks if you worked with the other guy selling Super Mega Cat Man art. Thinking that maybe one of your fiends is here, you get up and walk around the convention floor only to find that someone has ripped off a bunch of your official artwork and they're selling unlicensed merchandise featuring images that are almost identical to your own. Awkward.
Now imagine you're a huge Super Mega Cat Man fan and you spend a bunch of time copying the cover art. You go from convention to convention selling prints for $5-$10 a piece and you've never even considered that someday you might end up on the show floor with the original artist behind Super Mega Cat Man. Then someone comes up to your table and starts asking you questions about your art. You soon realize this isn't an average convention attendee, and they seem cautiously curious and maybe a little too knowledgeable for your average fan. Then they drop it on you like a bomb: They're the official Super Mega Cat Man artist, and they're here with their actual, official artwork, and you can tell that they are not impressed nor very happy with you. Wow, super awkward!
What are you going to say? How are you going to deal with this situation? What if you were the creator? What if you were the fan? If the convention has a clause about fan art, the official artist can probably request that you be ejected from the convention, which may mean the loss of sales plus anything you spent on your hotel room, your table fees, travel, meals, etc. It may mean a lifetime ban from the convention and you can probably bet you'll touchdown somewhere on the artist's Shit List. You'll probably be lucky if they don't also tell Massive Art Conglomerate Inc. about what you were doing.
This may sound far-fetched but it's a scenario that occurs far too often, according to firsthand accounts posted on blogs and in various artists' groups on Facebook. Many comic artists struggle to make a living while still having families to support. Going to conventions and selling prints is one way they can make a little extra money, so you can probably imagine how hurtful it is to show up and be in direct competition with a self-professed "fan" who is literally stealing from you both by directly copying your art and then drastically under-charging for it.
At the end of the day, I really think fan artists harm artists who are trying to make an honest living, so while it may initially be profitable, it will not earn you the respect of your peers and goes a long way towards damaging our profession a.nd making it unprofitable for everyone involved, including fan artists. I'm glad that at least some conventions are starting to take this problem seriously and I hope that some of the large publishers will get involved and take care of some of the serial infringers. Art shows should be for art, not for $5 prints of rehashed Super Mega Cat Man covers.