In this blog post, we’ll explore the legality of selling fan art and provide some tips on how to not get sued.
So whether you’re a beginner artist looking to make a few extra bucks or an experienced artist who wants to stay safe, keep reading!
What is fan art of celebrities and what is copyright infringement
To understand the legal risks of selling fan art, it’s important to first know what fan art is and what copyright infringement is.
Fan art is any artwork created by a fan of a celebrity, copyrighted character, or other pop culture figure. This can include paintings, drawings, digital art, sculptures, and more.
Copyright infringement is the unauthorized use of someone else’s copyrighted material. So if you create fan art of a celebrity without their permission, you could be infringing on their copyright.
The risks of selling fan art without getting permission from the celebrity or their estate
Now that you know what fan art and copyright infringement are, let’s talk about the risks of selling unlicensed fan art.
If you sell fan art of a celebrity without their permission, at the extreme end you could be sued for copyright infringement.
The penalties for copyright infringement can be severe, including:
- Damages (including statutory damages) – If you’re sued for copyright infringement, the court can award the copyright owner damages. Statutory damages can be as high as $150,000 per infringed work.
- Attorney fees and costs – If you’re sued for copyright infringement, the court can award the copyright owner their attorney fees and litigation costs.
- Injunctive relief (a court order prohibiting you from continuing to infringe on the copyright)- If you’re sued for copyright infringement, the court can order you to stop infringing on the copyright.
- Criminal charges – In some cases, copyright infringement can also lead to criminal charges.
- Destruction of infringing materials – If you’re sued for copyright infringement, the court can order you to destroy all infringing materials.
To avoid being sued for copyright infringement, you need to get permission from the celebrity or their estate before selling fan art.
The best way to do this is to contact the celebrity directly and ask for their permission.
If you can’t get in touch with the celebrity, you can try contacting their agents, representative team, or estate if they have passed away.
Even if you are giving fan art away for free or using it for personal use only, you could still be sued for copyright infringement.
To avoid being sued, you need to get permission from the celebrity or their estate before using their likeness in your fan art.
There are a few things you can do to protect yourself from lawsuits when selling fan art:
- Get permission from the celebrity or their estate before selling fan art
- Keep careful records of all communications with the celebrity or their estate
- Do not sell unlicensed merchandise that uses the celebrity’s likeness without permission
- Only sell fan art that is clearly labeled as unofficial and not endorsed by the celebrity.
- Make sure your artwork is transformative and does not copy the celebrity’s likeness too closely. This can be a caricature or cartoon.
- If you are contacted by a celebrity’s legal team, be cooperative and take down the offending artwork immediately.
What to do if you’re contacted by a celebrity’s legal team
If you receive a cease and desist letter or other legal notice from a celebrity’s lawyer, it’s important to take it seriously.
Cease and desist letters are not a joke, and if you ignore them, you could end up in court.
If you receive a cease and desist letter, you should take down the offending artwork immediately and avoid further contact with the celebrity or their representatives.
Begging and pleading will usually result in nothing and may aggravate the issue.
How to get permission from a celebrity or their estate to sell fan art
The best way to avoid getting sued for selling fan art is to get permission from the celebrity or their estate. This can be difficult, but it’s worth a try.
You can start by reaching out to the celebrity’s agent or publicist and asking if they can put you in touch with the right person.
You can usually find the celebrity’s agent online.
A quick check of Tom Cruise, for example, showed me that his agent is Paul Wagner, I found his contact details (not his personal details but booking agents and publicists.).
You can do this quick search for pretty much anyone famous enough.
Another resource I like to use is https://bookingagentinfo.com/ but you need to sign up and pay for some of the information needed.
If you don’t have any luck, you can try contacting the celebrity directly through social media or their website. Keep in mind that celebrities are often bombarded with requests, so your message may not get through.
Another option is to contact the estate of a deceased celebrity. This can be tricky, as there may be multiple people involved who all need to agree on the licensing agreement.
However, it may be worth it to try if you’re interested in selling fan art of a particular celebrity.
What if you are giving it away for free or using it for personal use only
There are a few gray areas when it comes to fan art and copyright law. For example, if you’re giving away your fan art for free or using it for personal use only, you’re less likely to be sued for copyright infringement.
You’re also less likely to be noticed or sued if you are not that big a player in the fan art world. Chances are if you are reading this you are either at the start of your fan art journey or you have yet to start.
Tips for protecting yourself from lawsuits when selling fan art
The best way to protect yourself from a lawsuit when selling fan art is to get permission from the celebrity or their estate first.
This can be done by contacting them directly or through their website.
Another way to protect yourself is to make sure that your artwork is significantly different from the original material.
This can be done by adding your own unique elements or changing the medium.
For example, if you are selling prints of a painting of a celebrity, you will want to make sure that the painting is significantly different from any photographs of that same celebrity.
You can also help protect yourself by selling your artwork online without using the celebrity’s name in the description as this is what little BOTs use (these are little bits of code that travel around the internet looking for anything that matches the celebrity’s name and reports back on it).
Selling locally also reduces the risk as the chance of anyone connected with the celebrity coming across your fan art is pretty slim (unless you sell the celebrity fan art on Hollywood Blvd!).
When it comes to fan art, it’s always better to err on the side of caution. If you’re unsure about something, it’s best to consult with a lawyer before moving forward. If you are a small player then a lawyer may not be worth the expense.
My tip is, even with all the risk of being sued, go ahead and make that celebrity fan art.
When making the celebrity fan art be careful when selling it, and if you are approached by someone connected to them telling you to stop selling the fan art then STOP.
Joseph Colella (Joe Colella) is an Editor and Writer at WastedTalentInc. As a frustrated artist with over 40 years experience making art (who moonlights as a certified Business Analyst with over 20 years of experience in tech).
While Joseph holds a Diploma in Information Technology, in true wasted talent fashion he spent years applying for various Art degrees; from the Accademia di Belle Arti (Napoli), to failing to get into the Bachelor of Arts (Fine Arts) at the University of Western Sydney.
While he jokes about his failures at gaining formal art qualifications, as a self-taught artist he has had a fruitful career in business, technology and the arts making Art his full time source of income from the age of 18 until 25.
His goal is to attend the Julian Ashton School of Art at The Rocks Sydney when he retires from full time work. Joseph’s art has been sold to private collectors all over the world from the USA, Europe and Australasia.
He is a trusted source for reliable art advice and tutorials to copyright/fair use advice and is committed to helping his readers make informed decisions about making them a better artist.