Intellectual Property and Principles
I'm gearing up for a new season of local comic cons here in SC - last year was not great, but I'm still in the black even after paying for space at the two bigger cons. I missed half of one of the bigger shows last year and that took a pretty big chunk out of what I hoped to make.
Mostly I mod and sell steampunk goggles, some jewelry and other cosplay stuff, and I also do facepainting. This is how I earn the money to pay my artist - who IMHO is better and faster at sequential art than I am and her style fits the tone of my story - and I'm always working to earn more at my tables and maximize all this effort I'm putting in.
I look around and I can't help but feel that the easy thing to do would be to ride the coattails of Marvel, DC, Disney, Ghibli, etc. and create art of their characters. Neighboring tables have professional displays and signage and there is merchandise and art of all these popular, recognizable characters, while I'm over here on my shoestring budget selling public domain and generic steampunk and fantasy items and things I've designed from my own stories that nobody recognizes (but is bought on its own merits anyway). Nobody has heard of my stories - I suppose that bit would be easier if I had them done and AVAILABLE - and so there's a wall to overcome.
Every single con, multiple people pick up the goggles and say, "What show are these from? I swear I've seen this show!" I just make steampunk goggles. Goggles are a big part of the aesthetic. If it's steampunk, there will be goggles. So that's a good product - nobody owns the concept but yet it has meaning and familiarity for a lot of people. I need more products like that.
On the other hand, facepainting is a nice chunk of my con income as well. It's attractive to quite a lot of the con crowd, probably because my signs have familiar characters (that I've handpainted) and they can get those characters in face paint. If I have a pic to go by, I can paint anything from whatever obscure fandom they like. Supposedly it's okay to do a commission, as a service, of licensed characters as long as it isn't merchandise. Well, facepaint is purely a service, it has to be created on commission, and there is zero resale to be had. As far as I've been able to research, it's legal. This is the safest thing I can think of... and also, I like facepainting. But it's time-intensive and takes me away from selling products, and I can't get help with it.
I'm waiting on the crackdown. Even my little local cons have legal language in the registration and websites prohibiting bootleg merchandise. I know I don't have the rights or license to make knockoffs, and I'm quite certain that many of my vending neighbors don't either. I think that one day, many of them will be out of business or forced to pivot their model to either legally licensing or going with public domain.
By then, I hope to have my stories done, available, and with their own growing fandom so that I can fund the creation of more stories with products made with my own IP.
Of course, the crackdown may never come... but I'd sooner struggle now to build on my own foundations, than risk building on someone else's foundation and get wiped out.
What's your approach to licensed characters at cons? Any indies have success building their own fandom merch?
In most cases, small press and indys love to see their characters represented. But of course, they want to get a piece because its a struggle and every little bit helps. In my case, as long as its not egregious, it's great to see other people recognizing your work.
There are a couple legal issues, however. If you remember Mad Magazine's mascot, Alfred E Neuman, he was originally some company's character and by using it as much as Mad did they gained control of the IP because it wasn't protected. m More recently, Pepe the Frog was a character from a comic book that got co-opted in memes and became a favorite of conservative meme artists. To the point where the creator of the character tried to kill him off. But Pepe lives on in meme-land.
A company has to protect its characters or it can be ruled as public domain and they can use lose control of their copyright. So for big companies like Disney/Marvel, they are forced to be hardcore about protecting any appearance when they can.
I could be wrong, but I doubt facepaint would ever be cause for a shakedown. You never know.
It's always good to create your own characters and keep them alive in some media so they can hopefully pay off down the road.