We were having a discussion last night about the specifics of copyright law on derivative works, sparked by a ridiculous flamewar discussion thread on fan-made music videos. While it’s generally known that posting fanfic and fanart is illegal, we were speculating on when exactly these creations become violations of the law. Is it when you distribute the work? When you show it to a stranger, whether they get a copy or not? When you show it to your spouse? Turns out that unless you have specific permission from the copyright holder to use the specific work involved, it’s not legal to create fanart or fic at all, whether you show it to anyone or not.
This runs up against a belief of mine that I’ve termed “the Six-Year-Old Doctrine:” if, in order to fully enforce a law, authorities would need to prosecute a fair number of unwitting six-year-olds, that law is in need of changing. With respect to copyright and derivative works, every first-grader who draws a picture of Dora the Explorer or Barney or Bugs Bunny is technically in violation of copyright law. Realistically, no one is going to issue C&D letters to a classful of fans, or sue their parents for damages. Sadly, the owners of the depicted property do have that right.
Copyright law is quite black and white, but feels incredibly gray. And no wonder, with the fineness of the dividing lines between legal and illegal. Continue reading