As artists, we all fall in love with characters and stories and naturally, we get inspired by them. We want to draw depictions of our favorite scenes, draw portraits of our favorite heroes, and make beautiful word art out of our favorite quotes. Soon, you’ve collected a lot of great art inspired by your favorite TV shows, comics, books, and more. What can you do with it? Can you put fan art in your portfolio?
Due to copyright laws, it is illegal to sell fan art without written permission from the copyright holder. It’s ok to put fan art in your portfolio as long as you never plan to sell it and solely use it to demonstrate your art skills or for your own enjoyment.
I know that the waters of fan art seem murky. That’s ok. They’ve been murky to EVERY artist since the invention of art. It’s just that things have gotten more complicated since our modern boom of entertainment and digital media. Let’s dive into the issue of fan art and see if we can clear up the murky waters just a bit.
In order to understand whether fan art belongs in your portfolio or not, we need to start off with the basics of selling fan art. The rules and “no nos” around selling fan art establish a strong foundation for understanding what you can and can’t do with it.
Can I Sell Fan Art?
It is illegal to sell fan art without written permission from the owner of the copyright. For example, if you want to sell a piece of art that has Mickey Mouse on it, you have to get written permission from Disney in order to do so. This applies whether you’re selling your picture to your neighbor, or if you’re mass producing it for thousands of customers.
Getting permission to sell renditions of Mickey Mouse is a bit more complicated than getting a cute little note from Disney. In fact, it can be quite a process. What you’re doing is actually entering into a business relationship with Disney whereby they receive royalties for every image of Mickey Mouse you sell. In return, they’ll let you license him. The royalties they receive are basically the fee you pay for profiting off of their original work.
Getting a license for a character is no small thing.
This begs the question then:
If licensing is so complicated, how is it that so many people have done it? I see fan art for sale all over the internet.
They probably haven’t.
Even without taking a poll of every single person who is selling fan art, a quick look at the internet can close to confirm that the majority of artists are not going through the hassle of getting licensing deals. If they were, there just wouldn’t be as much fan art for sale. There would be no way. Licensing takes too long, is too complicated, and is too expensive.
A lot of fan art is being sold illegally. Opinions vary on whether that’s ethically ok or not. Some people believe that billion dollar companies shouldn’t be stifling artists who are barely making enough money to get by. If selling a few artistic renditions of a character is going to put food on the table, that’s the greater good.
And, wait. Isn’t it in the best interest of the companies to encourage it instead of beat it down? Sure, they may sell a few less posters from their own factories, but the more art that’s created around a series or character, the more that fans fall in love with it. It’s free PR and promotion!
On the other hand, some people believe it’s wrong and shouldn’t be done.
I think you can see where I fall on this side of the debate. That said, even though I believe that fan art should be legal, the truth is that it’s not. I personally don’t sell fan art for that reason. It’s illegal.
But, how are all of these artists getting away with selling fan art if it’s illegal? Well, not all of them do. A lot of artists get their stores shut down for violating copyright laws. The ones that still exist are dancing on a very thin line. At any moment, the wind could blow and push them onto the wrong side of it. All it takes is for a company to decide to pinpoint their store and, poof, they’re done. In addition to getting shut down, artists could end up in all kinds of legal hot water depending on the situation.
Selling fan art? Just don’t do it.
Ok, so selling fan art is really cut and dry. There’s a lot of debate around it on the internet because artists desperately WANT it to be ok and are eager to find loopholes. In reality, it’s easy. It’s illegal and you shouldn’t do it if you care about breaking the law. So, what does that mean for putting fan art into your portfolio?
Can You Put Fan Art in Your Portfolio?
There’s a HUGE difference between selling fan art and making it for your own personal enjoyment. To my knowledge, no company has ever come after a kid sketching in front of his TV during his favorite Saturday morning cartoon.
It is completely ok to have fan art in your portfolio for your personal enjoyment. It’s also completely ok to draw your favorite characters as a way to practice your art skills, experiment with new techniques, and just enjoy art.
Fan art, personal enjoyment, we’re all good there. Now let’s talk about professional portfolios. Are you breaking any rules by including fan art?
When we dive into the territory about showing your art to other people, we need to talk about plagiarism. As you know from your high school English classes, plagiarism is passing off someone else’s work as your own.
It can be as extreme as making a photocopy of another piece of artwork, or as seemingly minor as recreating a character from your own TV show. If you call either of those pieces of artwork your own without giving credit to the original creators, both are plagiarism.
And, it’s still plagiarism whether you show your art to the neighbor next store, or to the editor at The New York Times. The consequences might be different in either situation, but they’re both plagiarism nonetheless.
Firstly, if you’re planning on putting fan art into your professional portfolio, be sure to give credit where credit is due. The people evaluating your work may not know the characters from your fan art and think that it was your own unique creation by mistake. That’s an awkward conversation down the line.
Secondly, even if the people evaluating your portfolio DO know the subject matter of your fan art, it leaves a bad impression to fail to give credit. Especially if you’re applying for a job, do you want your interviewers to think that you take plagiarism so carelessly? For me, that would be a big turn off and a huge red flag.
Thirdly, ask yourself whether your fan art is the best depiction of your creativity and skills. Are you actually putting your best foot forward by using someone else’s ideas to create your work? As an interviewer, I’d learn a LOT more about you by seeing your own unique creations.
As long as you’re giving credit where credit is due, you aren’t doing anything wrong by including fan art in your portfolio. The real question is whether you want to. Does fan art display your talents in the best light? Is there other art you can include that better shows off your new, innovative, and creative tendencies?
Of course, you need to consider the purpose of your portfolio. For example, I have a portfolio page here on my website. With credit, I wouldn’t mind putting fan art up there. It’s a collection of my work that people can casually peruse. Personally though, I wouldn’t include that fan art in any professional capacity though.
Fan art can be a really great outlet for expressing your love for your favorite characters, and practicing your art skills. That said, never ever sell it without an official licensing agreement with the copyright owner. Also, never ever try to pass it as your own without giving credit where credit is due. But, if you abide by copyright laws and steer clear of plagiarism, fan art can be a fun addition to your personal portfolio.
Diana has been an artist for over 25 years and has training in drawing, painting, digital drawing and graphic design. Diana’s latest obsession is digitally drawing with Procreate and creating t-shirt designs with Canva. Diana has experience selling her art across a number of platforms and loves helping other artists learn how to make money from their art as well.