Commissions. The money generator for the starving artist. Many artists use commissions as their career; powering their lives by taking paid requests from clients. A drawing of a fox here, maybe an otter or two there, or even original characters doing their thing. All of these are totally legal and fine to do. Let’s talk about something that isn’t so legal. Copyright infringement.
Before I begin, let me lay down a quick disclaimer: I speak the truth! What I am about to describe IS indeed illegal and counts as copyright/trademark infringement. Whether or not the copyright/trademark holders will actually bust you for it is another matter entirely. Just know that, should they turn their baleful gaze your way, your legal defense is nil.
Being an artist myself, when I have commissions opened, I will occasionally get a request to draw things such as Nintendo characters, Pokemon, etc. I end up having to turn these down more often than not, because I do not own the characters in question, and neither will I draw the characters for free. (Repeat to yourself: “Exposure doesn’t pay rent”)
Well now, how is drawing these characters for money illegal, you may ask. Simple. Copyright. You CAN draw any character under the sun regardless of who owns it; however, you CANNOT receive money for such drawings. The moment money crosses hands, you’ve violated copyright by profiting from a character that is owned by another entity without permission.
If you’re drawing a character belonging to the commissioner, they are, in effect, giving you permission to make money off of their original character (do not confuse this with the popularized concept of an “OC”. More on that later) for this singular instance and then revoking that permission once the drawing is finished and paid for. They cannot provide legal permission to draw, say, Pikachu, because they do not own Pikachu. Gamefreak does.
Now, what about “OCs”, (the popularized version) that is to say, characters BASED off of owned properties? For example, a Pikachu that’s wearing a bow-tie?
Still illegal. It’s still a reasonable facsimile of a copyrighted character. Even if it’s different colors, wears different clothes, and has different abilities; if it’s still presented as [NAME] the Pikachu, it is in violation. I would also argue that that does not make it an “OC”, as that is an oxy-moron. How is it an “Original” character if it’s based on a copyrighted character? I personally feel “CC” or “Custom(ized) Character” is more appropriate, although I doubt it’ll catch on.
Alright, so… what about an anthropomorphic fennec fox wearing a top hat and aviator shades?
Totally legal. Nobody owns the concept of a fennec fox, therefor you’re in the clear so long as that top hat doesn’t have a Nike symbol on it or anything like that. This also counts (in my book) as a true “OC” because while fennec foxes are a real thing, and your character is based off of them, again, nobody owns the concept of a fennec fox. They just are. This means you’re not basing your work off of anyone else’s work, but rather off of the seeming randomness of reality.
So basically, you can draw whatever the hell you like no matter who owns what, BUT, if you charge money for it, you’d better either have ownership of the characters in question, or have permission from whomever does. Derivatives of copyrighted characters are no exception to this; however, derivatives of non-copyrighted characters are. These laws help keep art thieves from getting away with whatever they please, protecting large companies and individual artists alike equally. Oh, and if you were wondering as to how to acquire a copyright on your own characters… draw them, and make sure you have a signature/watermark. Preferably with a date. (I include the current year in mine) That’s all you need. The signature/watermark isn’t necessarily required, as simply drawing the thing makes it yours (unless it’s derivative or explicitly NOT yours) but having a provable identifying mark on each of your works, this concept being the origin of the word “Trademark”, helps.
Now go forth, and sin no more!… or do! I’m not the boss of you. Just be careful and don’t be a scumbag who rips off poor artists. This post’s featured drawing is from 2012, and features my signature from back then.