Is Fan Art Legal? Creating Without Copyright Infringement

Yes, some fan art can be considered fair use, especially if it introduces significant transformations to the original work or is crafted for non-commercial purposes.

Transformative use, such as depicting a character like Harry Potter in an entirely new context that alters the essence or meaning of the original work, exemplifies this.

However, creating fan art without the authorization of the copyright holder might lead to copyright infringement accusations. This is due to the nature of fan art as “derivative works,” which are creations based on copyrighted materials.

Only Copyright holders exclusively possess the rights to produce such derivative works.

Key Takeaways

  • Fan art and Copyright Law: Fan art is a creative tribute to beloved characters and universes, but it must navigate the complex terrain of copyright law to avoid infringement. Understanding the balance between admiration and legal boundaries is crucial.
  • Transformative Use and Fair Use: Transformative use, where original works are given a new expression, and fair use, which allows for some copyrighted material to be used under specific conditions, are key defenses in fan art creation but do not guarantee immunity from infringement.
  • Commercial Use of Fan Art: While creating fan art for personal enjoyment is generally safe, selling fan art introduces significant legal risks and could be considered infringement, highlighting the importance of clear boundaries when monetizing fan creations.
  • Legal Precedent and Fan Art Myths: Legal cases and the widespread nature of fan art contribute to a nuanced understanding of what constitutes infringement. Common myths around fan art’s legality underscore the need for clarity and respect for original creators’ rights.
  • Creating Fan Art Legally: To avoid legal trouble, artists should seek permission from copyright holders, focus on creating original and transformative works, properly credit original creators, and understand the limits of fair use and transformative use.

Understanding Fan Art and Copyright Law

man drawing copyright cartoon image

Definition of Fan Art

Fan art is like a love letter in the form of art. It’s when we get so excited about our favorite characters from books, movies, or video games that we just have to create our own artwork of them.

Whether it’s drawing Harry Potter, sculpting Wonder Woman, or stitching together a costume of Link from Legend of Zelda, fan art lets us step into the shoes of an artist and pay tribute to the creations we admire.

Overview of Copyright Law

Copyright law might sound as fun as watching paint dry, but it’s got our backs when it comes to protecting our creations.

Imagine you drew a comic book from scratch or wrote a song.

Copyright law helps make sure nobody else can claim your work as their own without your permission. It’s like a big, invisible “Do Not Copy” sign on everything you create.

Fair Use Doctrine Defence

Here comes the tricky part: sometimes, fan art dances in a gray area of copyright law. Enter the hero of our story, the fair use doctrine.

This is a sort of “Get Out of Jail Free” card, but it doesn’t work every time. Fair use lets us use someone’s copyrighted work without asking permission but under some strict rules. It’s like borrowing your friend’s video game, but with legal guidelines.

Transformative Use

“Transformative use” sounds fancy, but it’s pretty simple. It means we take someone else’s character or story and give it a fresh twist. Think of it as making a smoothie. You throw in bananas (the original work), add strawberries (your unique idea), and blend it into something new and delicious.

If your fan art is different enough from the original, it might just be considered transformative.

Commercial Use

When it comes to fan art, selling is where things get sticky. 100% the only time artists get into trouble with making fan art is when they put it up for sale.

Creating fan art for our own enjoyment is one thing, but making money off someone else’s characters? That ramps up the legal risks big time.

We’re talking about moving from safe harbor into shark-infested waters. It’s important to tread carefully to avoid biting off more than we can chew.


Let’s shine a light on the TEACH Act. Think of it as a secret tunnel that lets educators use copyrighted materials in their online classrooms.

It’s not about fan art, but it helps teachers share cool stuff legally with their students. It’s like getting a hall pass for the internet. Pretty neat, right?

We’re navigating through the twists and turns of copyright law together, learning how our fan creations can share the stage with the original masterpieces we love.

Let’s continue exploring, armed with knowledge and a dash of creativity.

Factors to Consider

man drawing copright cartoon image for fair use

When diving into the ocean of fan art, navigating the waters of copyright law can seem daunting.

Let’s shine a light on what you need to keep in your boat as you sail through the realm of fan creations.

We’ll talk about what makes fan art a friend rather than a foe of copyright law, without throwing in a bunch of legal jargon that makes your head spin.

Purpose and Character of the Use

First up, we’re looking at why and how you’re using your fan art.

If you’re drawing your favorite anime characters in a new way or crafting stories that put a twist on a television show, you’re entering the land of transformative works.

This is a good thing because it means you’re adding something new to the original creation.

You’re not just copying. Transformative works often get a thumbs up for fair use. But remember, if you’re making money off your fan art, that’s another kettle of fish.

Selling your art puts you on shaky ground, while sharing your creations for free keeps you in safer waters.

Nature of the Copyrighted Work

Next, let’s chat about the type of work you’re creating fan art of.

Is it a popular video game, a comic by DC Comics, or a novel turned into a movie?

Fictional works like these are usually protected under copyright law, meaning the original creators have the exclusive rights to their work.

When you create fan art based on these works, you’re walking on a tightrope over copyright issues.

The closer your fan art sticks to the original, the trickier it can get. But don’t let that scare you away, it’s all about balance.

Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Used

How much of the original work are you using in your fan art? If you’re drawing every detail of a character from a popular TV show or using large chunks of dialogue from a book, you might be leaning more towards copyright infringement.

It’s like making a sandwich—you don’t want to use the whole loaf of bread for just one sandwich!

Use just enough of the original to get your point across. This shows you respect the original creators’ rights while still putting your unique spin on things.

Fan Art For Student Portfolio Use

For the aspiring artists and students among us, showcasing fan art in your portfolio can be a gray area.

You’re not selling your artwork, but you are using it to shine a light on your skills. It’s key to remember that even in a portfolio, the rules about transformative works and fair use still apply.

Stick to the golden rule: add something new and show your creativity. This can often be seen in a good light, as it highlights your ability to take something existing and turn it into something uniquely yours, without stepping on any legal toes.

In short, navigating the copyright seas with fan art as your vessel isn’t without its challenges.

Yet, by paying attention to these key points, we can celebrate our favorite characters and stories without getting caught in copyright quicksand.

Legal Precedents and Case Studies

fan art on the scales of justice

Landmark Copyright Infringement Cases

Diving into the world of copyright laws can feel like solving a giant puzzle.

Let’s break it down to pieces we can manage, starting with some real-life stories.

These tales from the courtroom teach us a lot about what’s okay and what’s not in the world of art and creativity.

One famous battle, often called the Betamax case, reached the Supreme Court where a big decision was made.

People were recording TV shows to watch later, not to make a huge collection. The court said this was fine because it didn’t hurt the TV shows’ money-making.

This case, Universal City Studios v. Sony Corp1., showed us that sometimes using all of a work doesn’t spell trouble if it doesn’t stop the original from earning its keep.

Then, there’s the time filmmakers used a short clip from a Muhammad Ali fight in a movie2 about his life.

They only snagged 41 seconds and used it to share information, not make money. So, the court gave this a thumbs up, showing us that using small parts for big reasons can be okay.

Lastly, let’s chat about tiny pictures on the internet, like when a search engine makes small versions of photos to help us find them faster.

One case, Kelly v. Arriba Soft Corporation3, mentioned these tiny photos didn’t compete with the real deal.

They helped people find the images they were looking for, proving that making something easy to find isn’t the same as taking away its value.

Legal Interpretations of Fan Art

Fan art is like a love letter to our favorite characters. But can we get in trouble for sharing that love?

Well, it’s a bit of a gray area. Think of fan art as walking a tightrope with copyright law below, ready to catch you if you slip. To stay balanced, knowing a thing or two about “fair use” can help.

Fair use is like a safety net. It means sometimes you can use someone else’s work without getting into legal trouble. But hold your horses; it’s not a free-for-all. You’ve got to pass a four-question test.

Ask yourself: Are you competing with the original? Or changing it in a new way that adds something to the conversation?

Are you using just a tiny piece? And is your reason for using it something the law likes, such as teaching, criticizing, or making a joke?

Fan Art Myths

vintage man drawing fair use artworks

When we talk about fan art, there are more myths floating around than in a season of your favorite fantasy TV show.

Let’s clear the air on a few. We’ve all thought it: drawing our favorite superhero or anime character can’t be that big of a deal, right?

Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Let’s dive into some common misunderstandings and what’s really true.

First off, many believe that creating one-of-a-kind, original drawings or paintings is perfectly legal.

But I Drew It Myself!

The thought process goes something like this: “If I drew it myself, it’s my own creation.” Not so fast.

Even if it’s your hand moving the pencil, if the character you’re drawing isn’t your original creation, you’re in a gray area of copyright law.

The character’s original creator or current copyright owner holds the exclusive rights to that character, which includes making art based on them.

But Everyone Is Doing It!

Another myth that’s as persistent as a catchy jingle is the idea that “if everyone’s doing it, it must be okay.”

Just because fan art is widespread, especially at conventions and on online platforms, doesn’t mean copyright holders are giving it a thumbs-up.

It’s more about picking battles and, in many cases, creators see fan art as good faith promotion until it starts hurting their potential market.

But I’m Not Making a Profit Selling

Let’s talk about selling fan art at conventions or online. Some artists think as long as they’re not making a profit, it’s safe territory.

The truth? Whether you make money or not, using someone else’s copyrighted material without permission is copyright infringement.

That said, fan artists often fly under the radar, as many copyright holders consider pursuing legal action more trouble than it’s worth, unless the fan art is directly competing with their products.

But I Only Sell a Small Percentage At A Convention!

Anime shows and other conventions have begun to set their own rules, limiting the amount of fan art vendors can sell.

This move aims to protect themselves and the copyright holders from potential legal trouble.

You might hear something like “You can only sell fan art that makes up 30% of your total merchandise” or “You can bring only a limited number of prints featuring popular characters.”

These policies help manage the legal gray areas while still allowing fan artists to showcase their love and talent.

How to Create Fan Art Legally

Creating fan art is a way to show love for our favorite characters from movies, anime shows, video games, and television shows.

But, we often wonder, “Is fan art copyright infringement?” The short answer is it can be, but let’s dive into how we can create fan art the right way, avoiding legal trouble.

Obtaining Proper Permissions

First things first, we need to talk about getting permissions. It sounds like a hassle, but it’s simpler than you think.

If we want to recreate popular characters without stepping into a gray area, reaching out to the copyright owner is the best step.

Sometimes, copyright holders are completely cool with fan artists creating work based on their original creations.

They might even give you a thumbs up to sell your fan art for commercial purposes.

It’s all about asking politely and showing that we respect their exclusive rights. Remember, a “no” isn’t the end of the world.

It just means we need to pivot and think of a new way to express our creativity.

Creating Original and Transformative Works

Let’s chat about transformative works. This is where we get to flex our creative muscles. Instead of just copying a favorite scene or character straight-up, why not mix it up?

Place the character in a setting they’ve never been in, or maybe imagine them in a different era.

As long as our new work adds something…well, new, and doesn’t compete with the original, we’re on the right track.

Fan fiction is a perfect example of transformative work. It takes the characters we know and love and puts them in brand new adventures.

These creations can share the spotlight with original work without taking away its thunder, often breathing new life into the fandom.

Properly Crediting Original Creators

Giving credit where credit is due is as easy as pie but so important. When we share our fan creations on social media platforms or print-on-demand sites, including a shoutout to the original artist or the show’s creators is a good practice.

It’s a sign of respect and ensures that everyone knows where the inspiration came from.

Not only does this build goodwill, but it also keeps us in the clear legally. It shows we’re acting in good faith, recognizing the hard work of the original creators, and not trying to pass off famous characters as our own. Plus, it’s just nice to do.

Be mindful that crediting a copyright owner is not permission and they may still come after you.

Joseph Colella – Wasted Talent Inc (Not a Lawyer)

Navigating the world of copyright law, fair use defense, and intellectual property law might sound like a trek through a legal jungle, but it’s quite doable with a bit of research and common sense.

Whether we’re doodling for fun or planning to become the next big name in fan art, sticking to these best practices will help us share our art with the world, worry-free.

The “Can I Use It” Checklist

Feel free to share this infographic called Can I Use It? and provide a link back to this page. Thank you.

It helps determine if you are breaking copyright law and if you can use another law to allow you to keep selling fan art legally.

  1. Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U.S. 417 (1984) – ↩︎
  2. Monster Communications, Inc. v. Turner Broadcasting Sys. Inc., 935 F. Supp. 490 (S.D. N.Y. 1996) – ↩︎
  3. Kelly v. Arriba Soft Corp.,
    336 F.3d 811 (9th Cir. 2003) – ↩︎


  1. Hey just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you know a few of the images aren’t loading correctly. I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue.
    I’ve tried it in two different web browsers and both show the same outcome.

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