Debunking Furry Misconceptions about Copyright — guest post by Grubbs Grizzly
by Dogpatch Press Staff
Welcome to Grubbs Grizzly, known for his “Ask Papabear” advice column and Greymuzzles group popular among the original generation of fandom. He started The Good Furry Award for furs who demonstrate outstanding community spirit, and is at work on The Furry Book where copyright has a chapter.
(Editors note:) It happens time and again. Someone traces art, does a “recolor” or reposts without asking. Or perhaps without knowing, with all the memes and reposts on social media. There’s good ways and bad ways to fix mistakes and spread constructive awareness (something easily forgotten in fandom.)
First, DO: send a DM saying “hey I don’t know if you were aware about this but can you please credit/take it down?” — DON’T: Rush past doing a DM to brew up a nasty mob and grab that callout clout. (Especially if the art isn’t signed and it’s a super-generic meme used all over the place.)
Nicely asking is the way to start with fan-to-fan issues. Fake-legalese can sound threatening, but what’s the ratio of sad drama vs. real lawsuits you can name about furry art? Unless there’s mass-production going on, that’s just likely to spread nastiness and waste time when you could have been constructive.
I once bought a warehouse of cases of a photography book for next to nothing, saving them from being put out in the rain. I tried contacting the photographer to see what happened but got no answer. But after starting liquidation, he found me with a nice letter saying “the distributor screwed me and went bankrupt without telling me, I could sue about ownership, but I made them for love and really want them, is there any way to work this out?” I could have told him to piss up a rope because it would never be worth the lawyer fees; but his approach got me to ship him a truckload for only my loading cost and his transport cost. Win-win. He was a Playboy photographer who now likes furries. Triple win!
This site started like many fan projects as a free wordpress.com blog, promotes countless creators as a not-for-profit community service, and costs me to run it. There’s hundreds of years-old articles that won’t get weeded and could have a few reposted files in them (I don’t know). It can happen with posts taking 4-12+ hours to write. If any issue turns up, send a DM or “Here’s my Paypal if you can do a modest fee.” It’s that easy to get a win-win.
Writers get paid peanuts, but at least guest submissions here now get thank-you pay above fandom-standard rate (compared to fiction publishing, as the only furry news site that pays anything at all). Plus there’s a new regular banner feature that commissions underrated artists — the upcoming one is a Mexican fur. For this guest article, I’m grateful to Grubbs for declining compensation, he’s a great fandom supporter. (My opinion is independent from his). Enjoy! – Patch
Debunking Furry Misconceptions about Copyright — by Grubbs Grizzly
A few weeks ago, a furiend of mine messaged me. He was excited that a website called TechSpot had included one of his original drawings for an article. The drawing was originally posted by him on DeviantArt.
“Oh, so they paid you for it?” I asked.
“Did you know they were going to use it on their site?”
“So, they downloaded your original art without permission from a different website and posted it to accompany their article on their for-profit website?”
After a little more discussion, my furiend was no longer quite so flattered about this development. He contacted TechSpot, which eventually took down the art and apologized. Turns out that DeviantArt could also be vulnerable to lawsuits because it is possible to right-click art on the site, download it, and use it for any purpose without asking for permission from the artists.
My furiend was very naïve about his rights. So are most furries.
The advent of the Internet—and the move from analog to digital in general—has initiated a free-for-all on original writing, art, videos, and music. Today, there is a misguided belief that if it’s online, it’s free to use, at least if the art comes from a little guy. Of course, people are more reluctant to steal from a big studio or publisher that commands a cadre of attorneys. Play a Blu-ray movie and you’ll see a threatening message about prison time and $250,000 fines that are quite off-putting. It’s called piracy (Arrrr, matey!). When it is reproducing text as one’s own, it’s called plagiarism. Same if you trace someone’s art and say it is yours.
But no one’s going to fine you a quarter million for some fursona drawing you ripped off from FurAffinity, are they. Are they? Why do they care? What does it matter? Whom does it harm, anyway?
In this article, I will debunk several myths about copyright that have proliferated within the furry fandom, including:
- If it’s on the Internet, it’s free to use however you wish
- Copying someone’s work doesn’t harm anyone
- Furry artists and writers aren’t the same as professionals
- It’s impossible to protect my work because I can’t afford the legal work
(Note: Much of the below relates to U.S. law, since that is what I am most familiar with, but it also applies to other countries. If you live outside the U.S., do some research as to copyright law in your country for specifics as to how you are protected.)
What Is Copyright Law?
Before we answer the “whom does it harm?” question, we need to understand what copyright law is. The first copyright law goes back to England’s Statute of Anne in 1710, which was designed to protect the works of writers and inventors (today, inventions fall under patent law, of course). In the United States, the first law protecting copyright passed in 1790. Over the years, other copyright laws were passed to cover new technologies (photography, movies, and sound recordings). The most important law in recent years is the Copyright Act of 1976, which put the United States in line with the international Berne Convention on copyright law.
Copyright covers the following:
- Written (literary) works, including novels, stories, poems, drama, etc.
- Graphic, pictorial, and sculptural works
- Music (including lyrics)
- Other sound recordings (e.g. dramatic readings and even original sound effects)
- Movies and videos
- Choreography and pantomimes (yes, dance is covered!)
- and, as of an addition in 1990, architectural works
The copyright holder has the exclusive write to perform, distribute, and earn money from these original works of art and imagination. Copyright lasts for the lifetime of the author plus (as of 1998) 70 years (benefitting an artist’s estate). Corporate authorships (a.k.a. works for hire) have copyright protection for 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever ends earlier.
Note: It is irrelevant as to whether the original creative work is recorded on paper, on audio, on video, in paint, in stone, or digitally (on the INTERNET, folks). All of these are protected by copyright.
You are violating someone else’s copyright, therefore, if you copy (this includes tracing!), distribute, perform, or otherwise make money off someone else’s original work.
What about video games?
Good question! Oy, and kind of a nightmare when it comes to copyright because, as you know, a lot is involved in a video game, including music, writing, art, and, significantly, game engines, all of which can fall into different areas of copyright and trademarks. If you’re creating a video game, it might be time to bring in an attorney to help protect your rights.
What isn’t covered?
It should be explained here that if you create, say, a drawing as a commission for someone else, the copyright is then owned by the purchaser as a work for hire (ideally, this should be expressed in a contract). From that point on, the art is no longer yours and you can’t sell copies or earn profit from it; only the purchaser can.
Copyright also doesn’t extend to things that should be patented or trademarked. Things such as business names, product names, book titles, and so on need to be trademarked, which is why you see the little ™ symbol next to Jell-O™. Such things must also be proven original, which is why Donald Trump failed in his attempt to trademark the phrase “you’re fired.”
Copyright does not cover inventions, ideas, methods, and systems, which fall under patent law. For example, if you create an original idea for a better mousetrap or a way to manufacture candy more efficiently, you need to file for a patent.
Now to the more complicated legalities of fair use, parody, and satire.
Fair use guidelines were created under U.S. Copyright Law to allow certain uses of original creative works. For example, you can quote portions of a book when writing a critical review, for a scholarly article, for a news story, or for educational material. Other factors considered are how much of the original material is used (the less you use, the better), whether it is being used for profit, whether it is being integrated into another work of art, and other conditions too detailed and rather complex to go into here.
Fair use also relates to the genres of satire and parody. There is a difference between them. Parody is written to make fun of the art form from which it is derived. For example, the “Austin Powers” movies are parodies of “James Bond” films, and Scary Movie parodies horror movies. Parodies make fun of the thing they imitate. Satire, however, makes fun of broader issues such as politics and society but employs the style of an earlier work. For example, if I wrote a children’s book in the style of Dr. Seuss using the character of the Lorax to criticize Donald Trump’s environmental policies that would be satire. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that parodies are protected by copyright law, but satire is not (in the above example, my use of the Lorax is clearly copyright infringement.)
One more important law I need to note here, just to be thorough: the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA). This law was passed in the United States in keeping with the laws of many other countries to protect significant works of recognized artistic merit. It basically says that if you purchase art, even though you then have the right to copy it, distribute it, display it, and make money from it, you do not have the right to destroy, mutilate, or modify it in ways that disrespect and detract from that art. VARA really applies to recognized, important artists. For example, if you bought the Mona Lisa, you can’t burn it, cut it up, or paste a photo of your family on it. This is just an interesting side note. I seriously doubt any furry artist, no matter their talent, falls into this category, so if you commission a piece you are probably within your legal rights to alter any way you wish.
Now look at the artwork at the top of this story of the bear wearing what appears to be a Captain America jumpsuit and bearing a shield. Does this violate Marvel’s copyright of the superhero? No, for a couple reasons: first, although not drawn by me, it is a work for hire that I paid for and now have rights to; second, the drawing is dissimilar enough to not be mistaken for Captain America; third, the character is being used for education and not for profit (I’m not being paid for this article). So, it’s fine.
Why Do We Have Copyright Laws?
Okay, you got through all that boring legal stuff, which I hope will persuade you, at least, that it is not okay to steal someone else’s original work from anywhere, including the Internet.
But why do we protect the rights of people like furry artists anyway?
Simple. Artists—writers, illustrators, musicians, filmmakers, crafters, etc.—have a right to make a living with their art, and they can’t do this if anything they create can be freely taken away from them by others without consequence. You might be more familiar with this concept when it comes to music and how musicians constantly battle to protect ownership of their compositions because if they didn’t, they couldn’t make a living.
But furries don’t care about making money, right? They create art and write stories as a hobby and share it out of the goodness of their hearts because this is an open and loving community, right? Kind of like a hippie commune in the 1960s.
Seriously? Yeah, this is what many furries believe. Buying into this belief is saying, “You don’t have a right to your dream to make a living as an artist or author. Furry art and writing aren’t worthwhile other than to maybe make a few extra bucks so you can attend a furcon. Besides, the fandom isn’t about commercialism, right? We don’t want to be like Comic-con or Disney.”
While it is true that furries have an aversion to commercialism, that doesn’t mean we should deny artists their dream of making a living doing what they love. There are many talented artists and writers out there who deserve to do that.
The second reason—which is a BIG one that is unique to the furry community—has to do with fursona art and characterization.
While there are some hobbyists out there who don’t take their fursonas (if they have one) too personally, for many of us (yours truly, included) a fursona is a deeply personal alter ego. Grubbs Grizzly is literally a part of who I am, and if you steal my fursuit or my commissioned art or my character and portray it as your own, I will hunt you down and strangle you myself. (Not that I would take what you did personally, goodness no).
When you steal someone’s fursuit or trace their character or copy it, what you are saying is this: “I have no personality or imagination of my own, so I have to use someone else’s.”
And that’s just sad.
Don’t be pathetic. Yes, we are not all artists, so if you can’t draw your fursona that’s why you commission an artist, and as I explained above, when you commission and purchase an original piece of art, the copyright falls to you (think of it like a company commissioning a logo design). And when it comes to writing, you know that copying someone else’s story is straight-out plagiarism and is also against the law.
Artistic endeavors like music, writing, and graphic arts are forms of free speech that are protected by the Constitution. And art, by definition, is an expression of personal creativity that needs to be respected by all concerned.
How Do I Prevent Theft?
Many furries feel that the only way to protect their work is to file for a copyright. You can imagine that doing this for everything you draw or commission could add up. Filing for copyright in the United States costs between $35 and $55, depending on the nature of the work, if you file yourself. Hiring an attorney to do it will cost you $200 or more.
You might file if you just want to, for example, copyright your original fursona character, but to file lots of copyrights can be pretty draining on the pocketbook, and many furries simply don’t have the resources for that.
There are many things you can do to discourage theft that will cost you nothing at all.
It is important to remember that as soon as you write a story or complete an original work of art it is, technically, already copyrighted. The reason for officially filing for a copyright is to create documentation that makes defending your work easier to do in court, should that be necessary.
If you don’t wish to be bothered with the time and expense, here are some other things you can do….
Document, Document, Document! This is probably the single best thing you can do to protect your work. You need to keep records of what your creation is and when you created it. Fortunately, thanks to the Internet, you can do this very easily. As you probably know, whenever you post something on a furry site or on YouTube etc., it creates a time stamp that you can’t edit. So, if you create an original story or artwork, post it on sites like SoFurry or FurAffinity. It will get a time stamp that will prove when you posted it, so if someone comes by later and steals it and then shares it online, you can show people that you posted the work long before they ever did. You can do the same thing with anything you have written. For example, I have posted the full text to my fantasy novel on FA.
This works with fursuits, too. If you’re not aware of it, there is a lovely site called the Fursuit Database (https://db.fursuit.me/), where you can post your original fursuit, and the record is time stamped, too (mine is dated November 22, 2014). I highly recommend doing this for all fursuits.
If you are commissioning work, ideally you should get a bill of sale, contract, or other receipt from the artist that includes a date when you bought it. Save all documentation of this nature, including emails and texts.
Documenting evidence also means saving evidence of the theft, such as capturing screen shots of the work that has been stolen and posted on unapproved websites.
There is also a little method known as “the poor man’s copyright.” What you do here is email yourself a copy of the work and save the email, which now serves as documentation as to what and when it was created. This is not the same as formally filing a copyright, but it can serve as another layer of documentation.
Monitor. You can’t defend your original work if you don’t know someone has stolen it. This might sound daunting, given the size and extent of the Internet, but it is doable even if you don’t have an entire staff dedicated to it like Disney does.
Obviously, for furries there are some websites where people go and post furry stuff exclusively, so you can always search on those (don’t forget phone apps such as Furry Amino, too), but it is possible, certainly, that your work will be posted in non-furry real estate. Checking is easy to do when it comes to text. You can simply type in a couple of sentences in a search engine and see what comes up. Even if the text has been altered a bit, if it is similar enough to your own, you will get hits. This is how university professors often catch students plagiarizing papers.
Images, though, are a bit trickier. You can do regular Google searches, but there are also a couple of tools that will help your search:
- Google Reverse Image Search. Type in keywords related to your image, click search, and then click “Images” in the options at the top of the search results. This still takes a bit of work to sort through.
- This one is quite amazing. Go to www.tineye.com and upload your image next to the search box and click the magnifying glass. TinEye creates a fingerprint of the image, searches over 36 billion images on the web, and finds exact matches and images that have been cropped or resized. Wow! And it’s free!
No-Right-Click Script. You might be aware of this one, which works on several sites, although furry sites do not apparently have this feature. However, if you have an art site and have created a Web presence using, for example, WordPress, you can add this script to prevent people from downloading your images. The plugin is not perfect, but might help; you can read about it here: https://wordpress.org/plugins/no-right-click-images-plugin/.
Watermarks and Low-Res. Watermarks are light images imposed over the artwork that discourage copying. Usually, the image is text (e.g. “SAMPLE”) or perhaps a logo or other gif. A person skilled at photo editing can clean these up, but it’s a pain to do so. You can also post your images in low, pixelated versions to give people an idea of your work without it being desirable to download.
My Work Has Been Stolen Already, So Now What?
If it is a fursuit, that’s theft, and you can file a police report. Fursuits are worth hundreds and even thousands of dollars, so it is, indeed, quite a criminal matter the police can be made aware of. Also, of course, put the word out as to the theft, post pictures, and if anyone sees your fursuit being worn somewhere, they will hopefully report it to you.
Put the Word Out. Furries live and die when it comes to their reputations and drama, so getting the word out about the theft can be an effective deterrent. There are several “furry beware” social media pages out there, and you can simply just post on your own journals etc. about the theft. It adds muscle to your protest if you know who the culprit is. Don’t be afraid to name them and shame them because what they have done is despicable.
Send a Cease-and-Desist Letter. You can either do this yourself or hire an attorney to do it. Either can prove effective. In the former, contact the person (by snail mail, if possible, but realistically this will likely be online). In the letter, state that you know what they have done, that you have documentation proving your ownership, and that you will contact a lawyer if they don’t stop. Often, just the threat of legal action will put an end to it (as in the example at the beginning of this article involving TechSpot).
Contact an Attorney. Expensive? Sure, if you go the traditional route, but these days you can get some legal help at discount rates thanks to sites such as LegalZoom and RocketLawyer. For example, at the RocketLawyer site you can get a free draft of a cease-and-desist letter that takes into account the laws of your state by going here https://www.rocketlawyer.com/sem/cease-and-desist-letter.rl#/. You can also get specific legal advice for a reasonable fee at such websites as www.justanswer.com and www.legaladvice24-7.com.
How Do I Avoid Getting in Trouble for Using the Work of Others?
Does all the above mean you can never use another artist’s or writer’s work? Of course not. Naturally, if you commission work you can use it as your own. But the furry community is still very free spirited and there is a lot of sharing and even free art that artists have no problem with contributing.
If you do use someone else’s work (for example, sharing a photo you like on Facebook), be polite and considerate. Credit the person who created the art and, if you think of it, link it to their original work. Even better, ask them first. And, of course, never never never say someone else’s work is your own.
In the End, the Best Policy Is Respect
One of the great things about the furry fandom is that it is not owned by corporations; it is not about franchises; it is not, at its core, about money and greed and proprietary methods and inventions. Stories and art and music are, more frequently than not, freely shared within the community. It is perhaps because of this that many furries come under the false impression that everything is free and artists and writers don’t care about rights to their work.
It might be said that the currency of the furry fandom is creativity. Furries place value in and admire talented artists, awesome fursuits, well-written stories, and kick-ass music and videos. Stealing these things, when you think about it, proves that they have value and are worth possessing. And if the artist chooses to place a monetary value on their work, we should, therefore, respect that.
Just as important (more important, in fact) as the money issue is the factor that sets furry apart from other fandoms: how personal our fursona art is to us. By stealing it, a thief does something worse than financial harm to the owner: he or she is performing identity theft.
It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration, indeed, to call fursona theft a kind of emotional rape on the order of ripping off someone’s face and wearing it as your own. To my mind, this makes fursona theft, in particular, far worse than being a regular art theft criminal.
Grubbs Grizzly (Kevin Hile) is a furry author, editor, and advice columnist (www.askpapabear.com). This article is an adapted excerpt from his upcoming book The Furry Book: The Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of the Furry Fandom.
Question: I’ve been told that characters are not covered by copyright because they are subject to trademark instead. I saw this come up once in an artist’s TOS, in which the artist stated that they will post all commissioned work to their gallery, including commissions of your character if you hired them to make one, and they went on to explain that copyright vs trademark distinction regarding characters.
Was that accurate?
IANAL… but just from common sense, I highly doubt that is true unless someone takes special effort to trademark something, and I don’t think any character can just be trademarked, I think that is a special status reserved for something that actively and mainly represents a whole brand. This kind of confusion can come from all the DIY terms people use, when in doubt consult a professional.
Character copyright is a thing, but very few nations grant it. The US does, however it is subject to a test so strict that _no_ character has ever been found in court to have met it.
Note that before the mid-1980s, the US did fully grant character copyright but that changed when the US fully became a Berne nation.
Characters do generally qualify for trademark protection.
Great article! What is the legal aspect of saving photos and artwork on ones own computer/storage for personal use. I am sure we all do that, saving pictures we like from the internet to enjoy later in organized folders.
Reposting them, especially claiming them as your own, is clearly wrong, but just saving for personal use?
Are we all criminals? 😉
If you didn’t download something that wasn’t meant to be shared in public, and you’re not making money from it, I wouldn’t worry about that for a second. Sounds like just harmless reference.
Agreed. Think of it this way: You can download sheet music that is copyrighted and play it at a family gathering or privately at home if you are making no money for it, but you can’t play it at a bar or other public venue for pay.
It’s worth noting that there is a slight distinction here.
Unless you actually sign a contract that gives you the rights as a commissioner of an artistic piece, you don’t have those rights. Those rights remain with the artist. Yes, there’s “work for hire” and that’s technically what commissioned work is, but unless it’s registered that way with the requisite copyright offices or you hold a signed contract giving you those rights, the artist retains those rights.
Owning rights to artwork you commissioned (other than the ones the artists typically grant in their TOSs) is far more expensive than average furry commissions.
So just be aware that if you paid someone to draw your character, you don’t have a right to go after people who sell that artwork in sticker form or what not unless you explicitly have exclusive resale / redistribution rights. Those rights are retained by your artist.
Looks like one of those distinctions between “do you actually have standing and power to do something about it” vs “seeing something wrong and expecting better” informally. It brings up why not to go for that callout and to ask nicely and constructively instead.
Such formality really isn’t necessary. In most cases, if you have an email exchange with the artist and they agree to give you all rights to copying and distributing the work, you don’t need a formal, signed contract.
That is actually not correct. ‘Work for hire’ is a very specific type of contract and must meet very specific conditions. A single piece of original artwork, such as a commision does not fall under the ‘Work for Hire’ rules and so the artist -always- retains the copy write of the original work unless expressly stated in a contract. You might want to review and update your coverage of copy write in the above article for the proper ‘Work for Hire’ rules.
For ‘Work for Hire’ to apply, the following provisions must apply:
1) You must have commissioned the work and it must be expressly stated in a written contract and signed by both parties as ‘Work for hire’
2) ‘work for Hire’ only applies to the following:
* a contribution to a collective work
* a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work
* a translation
* a supplementary work (to another author’s work, such as a foreword, chart, or table)
* a compilation
* an instructional text
* a test
* answer material for a test, or
* an atlas;
If the work does not meet both criteria, it is not considered ‘Work for Hire’ and the artist retains all rights to the work.
So any re-posting of that commission you bought, even on your page, requires the artists specific permission and cannot be altered in any way or it violates Copy write.
Your definition of “work for hire” is _way_ too broad:
“(1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or (2) a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire. (17 U.S.C. § 101) ”
Note how for a commission, not only is a written contract specifically required but it is also restricted in a way that a commission simply for a single piece of art cannot ever qualify. Instead, you would need to purchase the copyright itself from the artist, (which does not transfer moral rights the way a work for hire would).
The “poor mans copyright” you mention is even worse than the classic one, (snail mailing it to yourself). An email gives you exactly no reliable date information as you can simply edit the headers, (and the Date: header itself could have been set to anything you want in the first place).
You’re correct, I should have been more clear on work for hire. If you purchase art from an artist, you only own the copyright IF the artist gives you that right in writing. As for the poor man’s copyright, if you save the email that date information can’t be changed. If you print it out, then sure, you can edit a printout, but as long as it is saved in your mailbox, you can use that as evidence. Now, as stated in the article, that is pretty weak for protecting your rights, but it is one thing you can do. Thanks!
Er, I do say in the article “ideally, it should be in a contract.” That’s my bad. I should have said it MUST be written down. Sorry.
It’s actually quite easy to change the contents, including the headers, of a saved email. All those ‘mailboxes’ are is a set of, possibly compressed, text files. I know that they are easy to edit because I’ve done it.
Plus, as I mentioned, most of the headers on an email can be arbitrarily set. This includes the Date: header, which I could easily set to claim the email had been sent Sept. 10th, 1752, (even though there was no such day here).
(N.B. Like many people with a chakat fursona, I use the standard chakat name format. It’s a ‘what who’ construction with “Chakat” acting as an honorific.)
Yes, but it is recorded in your email inbox as being received by a certain date, is what I’m trying to say.
Here is an excellent article defining work-for-hire better https://www.legalzoom.com/knowledge/copyright/topic/works-for-hire-and-copyrights
Question: Would it be considered theft if I use the same base (color) yet change everything else? e.g. accents, markings, eye color, facial form, etc.