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'I almost got sued for knitting a Firefly hat': The legal risks of pop-culture fan art

Leah Yamshon | July 22, 2013
How intellectual-property squabbles over fan-made crafts are alienating fan communities.

"In this instance, your order contained products with copyright-protected content related to Harry Potter, which cannot be printed without written permission from the rights holder or licensor," Zazzle stated in a letter to Buczek. However, Buczek was eventually able to create the shoes through Zazzle after she dropped the Harry Potter reference and named them "Generic Battle Shoes" instead.

Etsy and Zazzle abide by copyright law, and though they are not obligated to blow the whistle when items in their marketplaces break the rules, they tend to lean in favor of the copyright holder. They clearly state these practices on their respective websites. (Both Etsy and Zazzle declined our requests for comments on this story.)

Copyright can't bring the fandom down
Fans will always find a way to share their art with others. Three months have passed since the initial ban on unlicensed Jayne Cobb hats, yet you can still purchase them on Etsy. However, you probably won't see them with the words "Jayne Cobb" or "Firefly" attached, and if you do, you'll see large fan disclaimers stating that they have no affiliation with the show.

"Since I was [originally] using Fox's trademarked terms, I got in trouble for that. I learned that I 'can't show any endorsement' for the show, so I resolved this issue by renaming the hat," says Lucas. The problem with sticking to generic terms for items in your shop is that they aren't easily searchable for other fans and Etsy patrons, but fans still make it happen: Etsy is full of shops that sell unique, original art inspired by pop culture.

Jonathan Daily of Plagiarism Today provides a few tips for fans to follow when creating inspired art: Check the community rules, make it clearly unofficial, be noncommercial or charitable (if possible), be careful with domains, and comply with requests if the original creator asks for the item to be removed.

"By no means do these steps prevent fan fiction and fan art from being a technical infringement, but they may help your use of the content be considered a tolerated and even respected use of the source material," Daily writes.

University of California's Sunder believes that a variety of available merchandise is healthy for the free-market competition. "Are we moving away from crafty and DIY towards an official version of everything?" she questions, adding that the social learning aspect of creating art around things we're passionate about is essential to learning and development. "One main purpose of copyright is to protect learning."

Etsy seller Jessa agrees. "I understand the purpose of copyright and am not in disagreement with it, but I do believe that fans should be able to choose where they get their paraphernalia from," she says. "If they want a certain piece from another fan instead of a company who doesn't give a damn about the art, then that should be an option."


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