Tuesday, December 10, 2013


There are three distinct levels of wrongdoing to this story, only
two of which Rich Johnston discussed when he posted his
coverage a few days ago.  We’ll work from back to front.

When the folks putting on the Steel City Con were informed a dealer
at their convention was selling bootleg copies of prints by artist
Jeff Carlisle and others, their response was immediate.  They did
nothing.  They didn’t see it as a problem and they certainly didn’t
see it as their problem.  I wasn’t at that Monroeville Pennsylvania
convention but, as a comics professional who has often spoken out
against my fellow creators being screwed over by publishers and far
too many others, the show’s indifference to what seems to me to be
a clear case of wrongdoing by a dealer would make it impossible for
me to ever attend said show in the future.  That’s one.

Reel Imports is the vendor that was named in Johnston’s article and
in the quotes included in that article.  Focusing on the Carlisle
piece - there were others - Reel Imports was selling bootleg prints
of Carlisle’s drawing of an impressive number of Doctor Who actors
and characters.  It’s a spiffy piece of art, but, according to the
artist, Reel Imports had appropriated the piece for its posters and
had not enter into any agreement to compensate the artist for this
use and had not paid him for this use.  That’s two.

A close reading of the Johnston article and a visit to Carlisle’s
website reveals no evidence that Carlisle had licensed the right to
sell prints of his Doctor Who art.  Reel Imports is selling bootleg
prints of Carlisle’s work, but Carlisle seemingly has no right to
sell these prints himself. Without a licensing agreement, Carlisle
is ripping off the owners of the Doctor Who franchise and perhaps
even the actors portrayed on his prints.  That’s three.

Comics publishers and other creative organizations have seemingly
overlooked artist prints of their characters and property for about
as long as the technology has existed for artists to mass-produce
their drawings in this fashion.  Attend large or even medium-sized
conventions and you will many artists selling prints of characters
they do not own and for which, apparently, they have not obtained
a license from the owner of the characters or any other permission
to create and sell these prints.

This is troublesome on multiple levels.  If a publisher decides to
crack down on this sort of thing, the artists will get their heads
handed to them in a court of law.  Whatever profit they have made
from the sale of their illegal prints will go to their legal costs
and to the owner of the characters they appropriated to create their
prints.  Even if they are lucky enough to avoid punitive damages,
the legal actions will cost them money, time and perhaps even any
future opportunities to work for these publishers.

Most of these mass-produced prints feature characters well known to
the fans, characters from Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Disney,
Marvel, DC and so on.  Some fans don’t care when a large company or
publisher is ripped off.  Maybe they figure those entities already
have lots of money and don’t need the money they might receive from
an artist selling prints of their property.  I have a real problem
with that way of thinking.

How would these fans feel about artists drawing and mass-producing
prints of creator-owned properties? I’m talking Elfquest and Savage
and Groo and Usagi Yojimbo and Astro City and others. 
Would it somehow be more wrong for the print-sellers to appropriate
these characters for their own profit than it is for them to appropriate
characters from larger entities? I see no logic in that.  If it’s
wrong to steal from “the little guys,” it’s just as wrong to steal
from the big guys.

If only because she posted to my Facebook page, I know exactly how
Wendy Pini, co-creator of Elfquest, feels about this:

“If Warp Graphics were to discover that a piece of Elfquest fan
art, with no copyright or trademark info, had been bootlegged and
was being sold as prints, Warp would have no sympathy for either
party involved. For both would be in the wrong.”

The only legitimate way for artists to sell their mass-produced art
featuring characters they do not own would be if they entered into
an agreement with the owners of those characters.  If they haven’t
made that agreement, they are stealing from those owners, just the
same as Reel Imports is stealing from Carlisle and others.  I don’t
see this as a remotely grey area.  Stealing is wrong.

Leave us speculate for a moment that Tony Isabella, creative dynamo
that I am, owns characters beloved by fans.  What would I do if I
saw an artist selling prints of those characters at conventions or

I would tell the artist to stop selling them and destroy whatever
unsold prints he has.  I would insist on the artist giving me the
original art to the print to make it more difficult for the artist
to continuing appropriating my property. 

If the artist didn’t honor my demands, the artist would be served
with a cease-and-desist order.  If that still didn’t do the trick,
I would file a lawsuit against the artist.

Or maybe it could and should go like this...

Andy Artist wants to produce a print of one of my characters that
he can sell at conventions or through his website.  Like a mensch,
Andy contacts me. 

First and foremost, I would insist on approving the art Andy plans
to use to protect the integrity of my character.  Mensch that Andy
is, this is no problem for him.

Andy and I enter into an agreement whereby he produces the print.
We work out exactly how many copies of the print he will be allowed
to produce.  He gives me five signed copies of the finished print
and a reasonable percentage of his profits from selling the print.
Andy makes some money without any worries about legal action from
me.  I get my five prints and a little bit of money.  Andy’s happy.
I’m happy.  Our fans are happy.

Because it’s just Andy and me cutting this deal, mensch to mensch,
I don’t see any problems with this business model.  While it might
be more difficult for bigger companies to do the same thing, it’s
not rocket science.  The company earns some good will, some money
and spreads some joy to the fans who buy these prints.  The artists
make some money, feel good about doing the right thing, and maybe
attract the notice of future clients.

Appropriating the creative property of others is wrong.  There’s no
middle ground there.  That said, there is a way to make such usage
beneficial to all. 

If the owners of the characters an artist wishes to use in creating
prints refuse permission, there’s another route the artist can and
should take.

Create his or her own characters and use them.

I’ll be back tomorrow with more stuff.

© 2013 Tony Isabella


  1. You don't see it as much now, but than I don't go to as many conventions as I did in the '80s & '90s, but I remember tables filled with bootleg (read - pirated) VHS tapes of just about any film and television program you could imagine. I don't recall many con organizers doing much to curtail that sort of thing unless there was a complaint. I used to find it amusing, since you would see police cars in NYC pulling up on venders doing the same thing on corners all over the city.

    Hard to respect a convention that would allow folks to be selling forgeries.

  2. Tony, I'm just curious. Are you OK with Neal Adams charging $50 to do a sketch of Batman, Green Lantern, or Green Arrow without giving any money to DC? If I read your argument correctly, you feel that others aren't allowed to profit from characters that they don't own or have been given rights to. If I am summarizing your opinion correctly, wouldn't Neal Adams be in the wrong also?

    I'm not trying to be antagonistic - I'm just trying to understand.

    1. I don't know how Tony feels about convention sketches (or private commissions in general), but as long as they are never published/reproduced they are not considered copyright violations under the law. At least, that's how it's been explained to me in the past (I'm not a lawyer)

  3. What about fan art/fanfic sharing communities without a profit motive (mosquitoes aside). Or owner/operators that profit from hosting websites/mailing-lists for that sort of media? And why is the 'Sign out' button placed in such a very bad spot?

  4. U can make fan art for yourself or friends. The problem lies in making hundreds of copies to sell for profit. It's illegal without consent from character/likeness owner