Definitional Essay ~Tony Shilling

Unspoken, acknowledged, and respected rules to abide by unfortunately are a thing of the past.  Possibly the only unspoken rule that remains to this day is the concept of money, where people “just know” what the bills they exchange for goods represent; the days of verbal agreement are things of the past.  Today, everything must be dealt with in dense legal contracts, with witnesses and hundreds of “sign here” lines.  Ironically, all of this is driven by money, and understanding who owns what and who makes a profit.  This, though, deals more with the laws of copyright.  Copyright is understood as protecting the rights of someone (or someones) who own a specific object or creation. In fact, the United States Copyright Office’s website explicitly states that their mission statement is “To promote creativity by administering and sustaining an effective national copyright system.”  Unfortunately, all this seems to do is act as positive advertising; yes, the Copyright Office wants to promote creativity, but they do not actual specify what they do or how.  Perhaps that may be too much for a “mission statement,” but with how many legal cases there are every year because of copyright laws, clarification should be demanded.

The actual definition of copyright, as according to Mirriam-Webster’s most up-to-date edition, is “the exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something (as a literary, musical, or artistic work).”  This is merely a bare-bones description, however.  Copyright laws are defined not by what they are, but who decides what they are; there will be different laws and regulations per each contract.  For instance, both Marvel and DC Comics publishers own different characters named Captain Marvel.  DC is still legally permitted to advertise their character and use his name inside their books, but, as his name is the name of their rival company, on the covers or merchandise he must be dubbed “Shazam!” instead; they still own him, usage is just restricted.  This is wear the issues with copyright laws arise; the laws and contracts are beneficially vague.  Beneficial, note, to the owner of the rights.

This does beg for clarification.   A recent upsetting copyright battle has been launched by Marvel Comics, on the grounds of them begin supreme owners of all characters they publish.  This has always been the case, but there was always another unspoken agreement between Marvel and its artists that they would be permitted to draw these characters for commission and personal profit.  Due to some bad blood spilled in several court cases over the rights of Ghost Rider with creator Gary Friedrich, Marvel’s position has changed.  Creators and artists do not have the ability to earn a personal profit from Marvel characters, it appears; these are not just ex-artists or the artist of The Invincible Iron Man drawing Spider-man, Marvel will sue the Iron Man artist for selling an Iron Man commission.  Someone who draws this character literally for a living cannot due so by other means, without the risk of impending lawsuit.

Yes, the artists do not own the rights.  All created characters to be published by Marvel are legally sold over to Marvel, they make sure of that at the meeting.  This is not the case to attack; it is universally understood that the publisher now owns the rights, such as artist Rob Liefeld mentions in his description of signing his creations over to Marvel, and it is now understood that Marvel can use that character in whatever manner they see fit.  But this creates a rift between the publisher and the creators, as a lack of respect grows.  Something worth noting is the ability of artistic license and interpretation.  No artist draws the same; Ed McGuinness will not be drawing the Hulk forever, and a new artist will take his place.  He will draw in his own way, and thus make that book run “his own.”  Should he sued for changing the look of a character from the status quo?  Not as long as he makes Marvel money, surely.  The issue is personal gain.

From there we can step back and observe art in the realm of copyright.  Artists always have personal liberties allotted to respect each’s own personal methods.  This is true for the entire art and design world; Brand logos like Pepsi have gone through drastic changes, never by the same designer, and the differences represent liberties taken.  The same can be applied to the Marvel suit.  Within the realm of artistic license, artists are allowed personal interpretation.  So, why not make a statement that these commissions are merely portraits?  Portrait works for artists is a norm, and part of the profession (then again, so is drawing Marvel characters, in this case), and thus could skirt some of the attack.  In fact, Marvel used to wholly welcome such work; Jack Kirby, oft-called “The King” and the best comic artist of all time, got his wonderful status from his works being enjoyed in a larger medium, without Marvel adding text and advertising to the piece.

Even still, these commissions are not even a part of a Marvel artist’s contract; as far as we are aware, at least.  In fact, whether they are contractual or not does not matter:  If they were, Marvel could not take any action as they would be paying the artist for this purpose, and if they are not contractual and in no way cause Marvel any grief, the case itself should not be occurring.  These are entirely free-lance pieces made for someone’s love of a character.  Yes, a slight profit made without legal use seems to be slightly more than bending the rules, but caricature and parody artists have the ability to draw literally anything without lawsuit risk.  A comic artists doing the same thing at a show is no different, and it should be more accepted as they actually get payed to draw that character any other time.

Vague details kill all when copyright comes into play, and creators are usually the victims.  It is quite difficult to see how the Copyright Office can boast that they promote creativity in instances like this, when the one thing that is being robbed from an artist is his ability to be creative.  Copyright secures the rights of a creation in the grasp of a company to produce how they see fit and make a profit, not for the purpose of creativity.


“Worth A Thousand Words: The Images Of Copyright.” Harvard Law Review 125.3 (2012): 684-759. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Mar. 2012.

“No More Unauthorized Artwork.” Murphy, Sean Gordon. DeviantArt.  14 Feb. 2012

“Complete version of the U.S. Copyright Law, December 2011.” U.S. Copyright Office (2011) Title 17. Dec 2011

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2 Responses to Definitional Essay ~Tony Shilling

  1. tonyshilling says:

    Hey Professor, i’d love to hear what you have to say about the Definition piece, moreso to have changes ready for the final paper.

  2. davidbdale says:

    I know you don’t do it on purpose, Tony, but you use language to distance your readers from your ideas. I follow most of your argument, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t if I didn’t already know what it is. If I can help you write more clearly, you’ll be better able to share your fine ideas.

    You’ve packed so much into your first paragraph, I’m going to try to translate it for myself. Tell me how I do.

    The days when a man’s word was his bond are gone. The handshake to seal a deal between people who both hope to profit from a business relationship has been replaced by dense legal contracts, with witnesses and hundreds of “sign here” lines. Money can still be passed from hand to hand without legal riders, but it’s the only currency that requires no explanation. Artists used to understand that what they created was theirs to sell; their copyright protection gave them the sole right to profit from their work. And that right, as expressed by the United States Copyright Office’s explicit mission statement, was granted specifically “to promote [their] creativity.” That once clear concept has been very much muddied by recent legal cases in the comic art world—so much so that a clear definition of copyright is now needed.

    You don’t have to write like me, Tony. (I couldn’t make you if I tried, and wouldn’t!) I do hope, though, that you can continue to refine your own style to be more helpful to your readers. Good ideas are worth sharing and the best writing celebrates the brilliance of the ideas, not the brilliance of the writing.

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