home icon

August 18, 2014

Selling Other People's IP

I would love to draw some cool Star Wars prints to sell on my site. It’s something I’ve thought about from time to time. You know the kind of artwork I’m talking about, a quick Google search of any popular video game or movie franchise will get you hundreds of beautiful fan made posters and prints that you can buy from the artist.

There is one things that’s always stopped me from diving into the world of fan art, a college class I took years ago where we covered fair use law. The rules are pretty clear; if you don’t own the rights, you can’t sell it. Period. There isn’t much gray area here. One read of Andy Baio’s legal experience and you get a sense of how bad this can bite you.

Since there is so much fan art for sale out there I figured there must be channels to get approval from the IP owners. I had some ideas for a fun Mario poster so I started researching Nintendo’s policy on such things. I couldn’t find it anywhere on their site, so I wrote to Nintendo’s legal department to see if they could point me in the right direction. Here’s the reply I got:

Hello Brad,

Thanks for writing to us. I would like to apologize for the delay in our response, and thank you for your patience while awaiting our reply. I appreciate your interest in Nintendo and all our video game products. To us, it represents a great sign of success and recognition of the Nintendo brand.

We are grateful for all the requests we receive for permission to use Nintendo properties; however, we receive thousands of requests and do not have adequate staffing to review them all. Therefore, our general policy is to decline all such requests, no exceptions. Unfortunately, this means there is not a contact that I can refer you to for more information. I realize this isn’t what you wanted to hear and thank you for understanding.

Although we are unable to grant permission, use of Nintendo properties without our formal permission may still be allowed depending on the circumstances. You are encouraged to seek your own legal counsel if you have any questions about whether your particular proposed use is permitted without Nintendo's authorization. This is not a comment on whether we believe your particular proposed use is permissible—Nintendo cannot provide legal advice.

Well crap.

Companies like Nintendo are in a strange spot. On one hand the people making fan art are rabid fans, the ones you want to support. On the other hand they are using their intellectual property to make a living. It’s probably the fan backlash that keeps many of these companies from clamping down on these sorts of art sales.

In this middle of all this I found this video from a comic convention a few years back. Very enlightening.