What legal issues should I be aware of if I want to include cartoons in my work?

Animation and film companies will generally fiercely guard against unauthorized use of their intellectual property such as images of cartoon characters, particularly when these are portrayed in ways contrary to the public image of the character.  Even images, film, audio or photographs on the Internet are protected by copyright, and cannot be used without the author’s permission.

You should also be aware of the risks of basing your work on any photographs of such images, as you might also be infringing the photographer’s copyright.

Whilst many copyright owners ignore infringements of their copyright (or do not find out about them), action is more likely to be taken where the original work has achieved a high public profile and / or commercial success.  In such a case you should try to obtain a copyright license authorising your appropriation of the original work. If it is for a non-commercial project you will be more likely to obtain this free of charge, subject to the inclusion of an appropriate acknowledgement of the author / creator.

In addition there may be moral rights to consider, as the author of the work has the right to be both identified as such and to object to derogatory treatment of his or her work, where it has been either modified or distorted. These moral rights last for as long as copyright (i.e. for the whole life of the creator), and on death will pass for the next seventy years to the artist’s estate, or his or her successors.

You should always consider writing to the copyright owner for their permission to use the protected works, briefly explaining the appropriateness of it to your work, how the work will be shown/seen and where, and most importantly whether there will be a commercial dimension involved in the performance based work, i.e. will it generate income for you?  If it’s a non-commercial project, the chances are good that permission will be given without requiring payment, but with an acknowledgement being given.  Conversely, if it is a commercial project then the company / owner is likely to request a one-off fee or income share for the licence.




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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.