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Discussions From Artists Alley - Unlicensed Prints

Preface: In Artists Alley we talk about stuff. Creators discuss things that are a part of the industry, the business, or just plain old nonsense. This series of blogs is geared towards that end. I will not speak for anyone else. I will not name names. I will only present the topic and my position in the discussion.

One topic that I have spent many years wrestling with is that of unlicensed prints. Should I just do them? Everyone else does, right? Almost everyone that I know in the industry sells unlicensed prints, and I don't fault them for it. It is a standard practice that has a long history. I promised myself that I would never talk about it publicly until I had some sort of answer for it, or I could add to the discussion about it in a constructive way. I think that I now have an answer that satisfies one of my biggest problems with the practice. It's an answer that accepts that the practice of selling unlicensed prints is never going away. It's an answer that allows things to go on, relatively unchanged.

It's logical and obvious why they are so abundant. Prints are an easy product to offer. They are quick and cheap to produce, they have a low price point, wide profit margins, and the ones that I am writing about in this post all feature recognizable characters and intellectual properties. In many cases, they are reproductions of work that has already been complete, published, and paid for by someone else (A published cover, a pinup, or a splash page are commonly used as a print). In whatever case, the prints of well-known characters sell and make money--a lot of money.

For the veteran artists,the freelance world is cruel and has a short memory. There are no benefits, no health insurance, no retirement funds, and there's no guarantee that the last page that was turned in won't be the last one ever assigned. Editors leave and change places on a regular basis. Trends change all the time. Hands get slow as time rolls on. Royalties are not guaranteed by every publisher. Independent publishers offer even fewer long-term considerations. One way to add income for artists is to sell prints and reproductions of past work and new art.

For the new artists, it's harder now to get that first work published than it has ever been, and the market is the smallest in its history. They buy spaces in Artists Alley, set up Etsy Stores, and sell wholesale to print vendors. They flood the market with as much art as possible to show people and editors what they can do. They are now competing with the best artists in the world. They have to find a way to go from an outsider to an insider, and there is no direct route.

Selling prints of well-known characters has been a part of conventions since conventions began in the late 1960s. In the early days there were prints, portfolios, and whole fanzines published and sold featuring unlicensed artwork from every publisher by some of the best artists of the time. At any point from the first convention to today, a fan could by a print from an artist and never know that it was not licensed. Today, some shows claim that they don't allow this practice of selling unlicensed prints or bootleg merchandise. However, it isn't really enforced, and I have yet to be at a convention that was 100% free from bootleg merchandise in the twenty-plus years I have been attending and setting up at shows. The overly-simplified answer is NO UNLICENSED PRINTS. However, as you can now see, it's complicated.

One of my biggest hang-ups of the practice is that I loathe the fact that it deceives the customer. It's not always intentional by the artist. For example, when a customer sees an image of Batman for sale, they don't even know that they should question its source or legitimacy. Sometimes the unlicensed print is a photocopy of a cover that the artist drew thirty years ago. On original compositions, some artists put attributed copyright information on the piece, making it even more difficult for a customer or fan to tell if it was actually put out by the proper rights holder or the artist.

Then, there are those that I've seen lie to people directly, and they will just tell the customer that they've worked on a character or book when they haven't. Sometimes it's an elaborate tale or a simple, "It hasn't been published yet." It has been rare, but I have witnessed it. When I've questioned them on it, I've gotten responses akin to, "I worked on THAT image of ________," or "I earned that $10, the corporations don't need it!"

To further illustrate my issue with the deception of fans and customers, here is an approximation of something else that I have been told on numerous occasions featuring different artists and characters. Customers have told me they refer to 'ARTIST X' as a 'Batman Artist' because they buy different Batman prints and drawings from them all the time. In actuality, that artist has never worked on Batman for DC Comics or anyone that licensed it from DC Comics. What that customer doesn't know is that, a row away from their 'Batman Artist', is someone that actually worked on Batman. Did that artist misrepresent themselves? Did the show fail to make it clear who is who? It's tough for me to say one way or the other.

I'm far from the first person to try to answer this question. Artists, convention promoters, and all sorts of people in the industry have tried. One answer that I've heard artists talk about is, "The publishers should let us submit our art for licensing." In truth, the logistics and infrastructure needed to do that are not impossible, but they are very expensive and time-consuming. A print submission program is highly unlikely, and it's probably unreasonable to ask of the publishers. Publishers have a lot to worry about just putting out the books and products that they've planned and budgeted for.

Another answer, that is tougher and more time-consuming is getting permission from the publisher. I've signed contracts with many publishers that have strictly prohibited reproducing the work. I have honored my contracts, and I do not sell unlicensed prints featuring art or characters owned by others without permission. However, I have gotten permission from some companies to reproduce art on occasion. New England Comics and Boom! both have given permission to reproduce images for different purposes. AR Comics allows all of their contributors to reproduce their art. All they need is proper copyright information on the piece. San Diego Comic Con allows outside vendors to submit projects and products for approval for their SDCC EXCLUSIVES. They then produce the items on their own dime with the SDCC logo and status. It is possible to get permission.

As promised at the top, I came up with an answer for the one particular thing about the practice--transparency. On the print, at a legible size, type the words, "FAN ART." That way, the customer knows that they are buying something that was not issued by the publisher or rights holder. Then include the proper copyright information after that. This goes for the guy that created the character who gets their table, hotel, travel, and entourage comped, but can't or won't get permission to reproduce their own work. It also goes for the fan artist with the wall of prints that has never been published in anything. It's a simple addition, and things can carry on relatively unchanged.

As stated above, I accept that the sales of unlicensed prints are probably never going away. I'm not asking anyone to stop what they are doing. I'm not judging anyone who makes their money this way. I just want a better label on it so people know what they are buying. Does it make it legal? No. Not in the slightest. Do I have an answer for that? Nope. Would I ever sell a FAN ART print? Maybe.

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