This weekend I had the pleasure of participating in a panel presented by Washington Lawyers for the Arts at Geek Girl Con in Seattle. For those not in the know, Geek Girl Con is a conference dedicated to connecting women and celebrating the legacy of women contributing to science, technology, comics, art, literature, and game design, among others. Our panel was dedicated to the legal issues surrounding the creation of fan fiction including the basics of U.S. copyright law and the public domain. We also explored the potential attachment of copyright to specific characters or settings, which requires a certain level of delineation by the original author so as not to grant a monopoly over more generalized ideas, stock characters, plots, or themes. In addition, we discussed fair use as a defense to accusations of copyright infringement including issues around parody, good faith, and degrees of transformativeness.
Our audience posed many thoughtful questions, giving us an opportunity to reflect on the disconnect between the law of copyright and the business realities of suing fans for making fan art as well as a chance to debunk some myths about supposed bright line rules in fair use. The difficulty of course, as I've reflected on recently, is that we are left with rather vague guidelines for artists who are creating work involving appropriated materials. Despite these circumstances some excellent resources, such as Columbia University's Fair Use Checklist, may help those working with appropriated materials spot potential trouble. Other resources, including our slide deck from the presentation, are available on the Washington Lawyers for the Arts website. Although the legal issues may be aggravatingly imprecise, education is the best way to prevent unnecessary self-censorship, allowing artists to explore (or more aptly, appropriate) with awareness.