Monday, July 31, 2017

Fan Art & Fair Use - An Update

I’m frequently asked about fan-created works. I’ve written about my thoughts on the matter previously here, and generally, my thoughts on the matter remain the same: if you don’t own the rights to the characters you are drawing, you are probably in violation of someone’s intellectual property rights. Recently, rulings have been made in two cases involving works akin to fan art that will perhaps provide some guidance.
            First, we have the Axanar case. I previously wrote about the Axanar case when Paramount and CBS released their fan art guidelines. Briefly, Axanar Productions was attempting to create a feature-length film based around a character who appeared in an episode of the original Star Trek series, Garth of Izard. Axanar raised over $1 million on Kickstarter to fund its production and was planning on hiring people who had worked on Star Trek productions in the past. In 2015, Paramount/CBS sued for copyright infringement. In January, the judge hearing the case ruled Axanar was not entitled to a fair use defense in its work, and the case was settled shortly after. For more information, see the Hollywood Reporter coverage.
            Our second case also involves Star Trek, but in this case, a different rights-holder is suing. ComicMix, LLC started a Kickstarter campaign to fund a mashup of Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and Star Trek called Oh, the Places You’ll Boldly Go![1] It did not have permission from Paramount/CBS or from Seuss Enterprises.[2] Seuss Enterprises sued ComicMix for copyright and trademark infringement.[3] In addressing ComicMix’s Motion to Dismiss, the court weighed the four factors of fair use and found it evenly weighted between the two parties.[4] As such, it could not dismiss the case. Additionally, the court found the ComicMix work was not a parody.[5] The work used Go!’s style and format to tell stories from the Star Trek canon.[6] However, the court did find the work transformative because it creates a completely new work from the two source worlds.[7] The court also dismissed the trademark claims.[8]
            Initially, these two cases might seem at odds with each other, but they can easily be reconciled. They also shed light on questions surrounding fan art. The Axanar case involved a work heavily reliant on the Star Trek universe to tell its story. Since it sought to develop a character and story line first mentioned in the original Star Trek series, it is easy to clarify it as a derivative work. It primarily used Paramount/CBS’ intellectual property to create a new work. However, the ComicMix case involved a mash-up. As the court points out, it blends two different intellectual properties together to create a new work. [9] The court recognized mash-up works as an emerging culture and did not want to categorically eliminate this form of art.[10] Whether or not a mash-up work qualifies as a fair use will be a case-by-case determination, and in the ComicMix case, it is still to be determined whether Oh, the Places You’ll Boldly Go! will qualify as a fair use.[11]
            As I mentioned in the beginning, if you don’t own the rights to the intellectual property you’re using in your fan-created work, you could be infringing on someone’s rights. Even though you might believe your work qualifies as fair use, it’s likely you will have to go to court to assert your fair use defense. As both of these cases illustrate, courts determine fair use on a case-by-case basis, and you can easily find yourself on the wrong side of a copyright infringement claim.  Especially since there is not a clear line demarcating the point of infringement. If you are creating a piece of work using someone else’s intellectual property, tread carefully.  

[1] Dr. Seuss Enters., L.P. v. ComicMix, LLC, No. 16cv2779-JLS, at page 2 (S.D. Cal. 2017).
[2] See Cullins, Ashley, Dr. Seuess Enterprises Takes Another Shot at Vaporizing ‘Star Trek’ Parody Book, July 3, 2017,, (last visited July 28, 2017).
[3]Id. at page 3.
[4] Id. at page 13.
[5] Id. at page 8.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id. at page 20.
[9] Id. at pages 8, 12.
[10] Id. at 12.
[11] See Cullins, Ashley, Dr. Seuess Enterprises Takes Another Shot at Vaporizing ‘Star Trek’ Parody Book, July 3, 2017,, (last visited July 28, 2017).

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