Is my idea for a blog going to be a copyright issue, or is it fair use?
August 4, 2014 9:33 AM   Subscribe

I want to write a blog that invokes the aesthetics and atmosphere of a certain fictional world from a comic strip. In this comic, they live very happily, have a delightful home, and go on many adventures. I'd like to write posts inspired by their activities. I would reference the strip in the blog name, and occasionally include single panels for context. Is this okay in terms of copyright?

For example, pretend the strip is Calvin and Hobbes. Articles may range from tutorials on how to make terrifying snowmen, to how to get of of homework, or how to repair a stuffed animal. Basically, the comic strip serves as a fun framework and sets the tone for the posts. The articles would be written in my own voice, I'm not trying to imitate the character's voice. Will this usage make publishers angry? Will I be allowed to use the character's image in any way, shape or form (as in a single panel to start off a tutorial, or a small picture in the "about" section). I've never had a blog before, and I really want to write this. Thanks!
posted by to recite so charmingly to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
As far as I'm aware, sites like Nietzsche Family Circus, Garfield Minus Garfield, Joe Mathlete Explains Marmaduke, and Josh Reads all manage to get away with doing their comics thing without being forced to shut down, and your blog sounds like it would be even one more step removed from that. My non-legal guess is that it would be fine.

I think it would be really nice, though, if your comic's creator is alive, to send them an email/letter and tell them how much you like their work and that you're starting a tribute blog, and thank them for inspiring creativity in your own life.
posted by phunniemee at 9:40 AM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

A major point you don't address in your question: will you be profiting financially from your work? (For example by running ads on the blog?)

More info here and here.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:41 AM on August 4, 2014

Not a lawyer, but technically, I think you'd be probably be violating copyright laws, though there's something called "fair use" that protects people reproducing copyrighted things (but only, I think, when they transform the original work in some way). Whether someone would actually try to come after you is another matter, but it seems like you'd want to get permission to be on the safe side. Or if you want to take the risk, consider talking to a lawyer.
posted by three_red_balloons at 9:58 AM on August 4, 2014

You are probably talking about a fair use exemption from the copyright. Fair use is complicated and not clearly defined in all cases. The Wikipedia article is a good place to read about it, with many references for more information. Here's the US Copyright office explaining it. Profiting from the work is one important criterion of fair use, but not the only one.

As a practical matter, if your blog is small and you host the images yourself it's unlikely that the copyright owner will even notice you're doing it. If you get popular (or commercially successful) then the owner may come to you, at which point it doesn't matter whether you personally think it's fair use or not, it's become a legal matter. Often a copyright enforcement claim starts with a letter insisting you remove the allegedly infringing material. And if you do, the problem goes away, but you probably lost your blog.

They could also straight-up sue you for damages. That's unusual but not impossible. Andy Baio's story of a copyright dispute for an artwork he created is an example of how a copyright enforcement can go very badly for the alleged infringer. It's an extreme case, but it actually happened to one of MeFi's own.

(I'm not a lawyer nor an expert in copyright law. You should consider consulting an attorney.)
posted by Nelson at 10:10 AM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Andy Baio's story of a copyright dispute for an artwork he created is an example of how a copyright enforcement can go very badly for the alleged infringer.

This is an interesting exposition because the rationale he used is very similar to the rationale proffered for a large number of the fair use images on Wikipedia, of the covers of magazines or albums for example, involving the image being only an extremely low-resolution reproduction. But according to that blog post he still felt pressured enough to settle out of court for tens of thousands of dollars, without admitting any guilt.
posted by XMLicious at 10:30 AM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

A major point you don't address in your question: will you be profiting financially from your work?

Even in your links this isn't a factor. The idea of whether you profit is really a copyright myth. It matters how much you profited when deciding damages when infringement has been declared, but whether or not one makes money doesn't really change the fair use formula.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:47 AM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is pretty treacherous terrain but I think you're OK if you are not creating new stories around the characters. What you describe sounds like it fits into the commentary bucket which is covered by the Fair Use exceptions, which are: "criticism, comment, news reporting, parody, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research." It's when you create a new work of art or writing based on an existing, copyrighted work — a derivative work — that you can run into problems. If you're going to do that, make it a parody — that's permitted.
posted by beagle at 11:40 AM on August 4, 2014

IANAL, but I think beagle has it. My first thought was that I wasn't sure from your description whether what you are creating is commentary or derivative work. Keep it to commentary and the content you are creating should be clear. That doesn't necessarily allow for the blog name and hosting portions of the strip. That part is completely gray as near as I can tell. But, keep it clear that you're not endorsed by the property and only host pieces that are necessary to provide context for your commentary and I think you'll be doing what you can.
posted by meinvt at 5:16 PM on August 4, 2014

Just to clarify my point, I raise the issue of whether you're profiting from the work not so much because of whether it matters as a legal technicality but because it may influence how the copyright owner responds to your work, assuming they become aware of it. For example, Dan Walsh (the guy who did the popular Garfield Without Garfield thing) may have popularized the idea but the book that is being sold was a project of Paws, Inc., which has the rights to Garfield. Garfield creator Jim Davis thought the idea was funny and rather than sending a nastygram C&D, invited Walsh to write the foreword to a book based on the idea, but as far as I can tell Walsh doesn't get a cut of the profits. (Based on the last answer in the FAQ.)

This is just one case but it's a relevant example of a situation with a little guy who couldn't possibly hope to stand up against a prolonged legal battle even if he were technically in the right was able to find a modus vivendi with Paws, Inc..
posted by Wretch729 at 9:36 AM on August 6, 2014

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