As comic creators, there are do’s and don’ts on how we can handle the usage of copyrighted material in our comics under the name of parody. The biggest question I get asked is “Do I have to get permission to use another creator’s characters in my comic?”
The short answer is no. Here’s why, and, more importantly, how.
Why is it you can use another comic character, or even TV/movie celebrity in your comic? Fair use under parody is how. I hate definitions, but let’s define parody. A parody exists when one imitates a piece of work, such as literature, music or artwork, for a humorous or satirical effect*. Feel like you’re in school again? Yeah, me too! What that says is you’re allowed to use any type of copyrighted material as long as it is in a humorous or satirical manner. This is how Saturday Night Live can make fun of popular commercials and products. It also explains parody songs. The work is protected under Fair Use.
There are specific legal tests** to verify how you are using copyrighted material under parody, and I will link to those references at the end of this article. I am not a lawyer, so it is good to investigate these links and do a bit of research to ensure what you plan to do is legal or not.
But back to using comic characters in your webcomic. I recently used another creator’s characters as the gag in a comic. In the comic, I use the primary characters from the webcomic “Pinkerton”. I did not get the creator’s permission as I used them in a humorous way… thus legal under fair use. See the example frame at left.
My next example is I’ve used a copyrighted character from the TV series “Quantum Leap” and did so in a very short storyline where Sam “leaped” into my character Robyn’s body. As this was done for humorous effect, it fell under Fair Use, even in this case where Sam appeared in three contiguous comics. So I had the “Quantum Leap” character Sam drop in and solve a problem for my characters. It was a fairly creative way of ending a situation for my characters. And it was legal under fair use.
There is a difference between Fair Use and simple stealing. Making a t-shirt with “Calvin and Hobbes” on it, then selling it for profit is not legal. Using the characters in your comic is legal if it is done under Fair Use limitations (see the references below **).
Well, you ask, how did someone like Andy Warhol use Marilyn Monroe’s image in a painting and not get sued? The reason is called appropriation as specifically used in an artistic medium. And that is the topic for my next article.
* Source: http://www.publaw.com/parody.html
** Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_use