Monday, December 12, 2016

Where's the line?

Last week I drew a fan comic for a cartoon and posted it on the Internet. It involved a character thinking about relationships other characters have, and to illustrate this, I drew some of them in poses that would be considered iconic for the fans of the show.

Everybody remembers this kiss
And then in one of the places I posted the comic, someone wrote "some of these look traced from screen shots."

I told the person my drawings were not traced, but were meant to invoke specific moments that should be familiar for fans. Nothing escalated from there or anything. 

I'm not sure whether I feel like the comment was a compliment or an insult. Because, I mean, to get accused of tracing, it has to be a pretty good likeness, and that's nice to hear. But to be told your art is more likely to be cheating than a demonstration of your own abilities, well . . . that doesn't feel good. Especially because it echoes something that happened to me when I was a teenager that I don't really wanna talk about, where I used a reference to draw something and was really proud of it, but then someone who was very close to me scoffed at me for claiming I'd done it and said, "are you sure that's not [other artist's] drawing?" Feels good to be compared to a better artist; feels bad to be called dishonest (and to be told your abilities generally aren't good enough for your work to be believably yours).

The shot I used as a reference
Anyway, what I did was NOT tracing, and it was explicitly done the way I did it to make readers remember specific moments (which was why I reproduced the poses almost exactly), and there were also several drawings that weren't reproductions of anything (except, of course, the characters aren't mine). But how far from tracing do you have to go before something's yours? Where's the line?

Once upon a time, a young fellow who liked my blog reproduced a bunch of its content. As far as I could tell, he was literally cutting and pasting entire posts and in some cases replacing my opinions or answers with his own, but in many cases simply leaving the words I wrote in the order I wrote. He did occasionally reference me, but did not at any point leave a reference link saying he'd gotten the content or format from my blog. The format of my Saturday digest posts was lifted for his blog (with a couple sections he'd added or deleted to make it fit him), and sometimes he'd go back in my archives to find something to write about and basically say the same thing I'd said. I found some of it mildly flattering, but I also didn't appreciate having entire sections of my site lifted (sometimes with my commentary and personal content not trimmed out to make it his), so I commented on his blog asking him to please ease up on reproducing so much of my content. He did not reply and instead deleted the entirety of his blog. It was weird.

I didn't mind that he'd taken the format and even some of the ideas from me. I did mind that he was in some cases pasting my exact words and very slightly altered sentiments. I would have been okay with him wanting to do his own weekly updates including some of the same categories, of course, but the close reproduction of those and the more than occasional "writing his own article about the thing I wrote about with very little of his own new content" thing made it feel not only like he was ripping me off, but that he was limiting opportunities for himself. Though in that case, it's not like he was trying to take my content and sell it. I guess he just liked what I was doing enough to want to do it too, and didn't realize that it goes a little too far when you do what I do when I do it the way I do it.

Fanfiction, fan art, and fan creations in general are inspired works, and they are never entirely your own content (obviously). Where is the line? It can never completely be yours if it's using someone else's characters or premise, sure. But instead of thinking "how much of someone else's creation can you rip off/use/reprint before it infringes on them?" maybe try thinking "how much of my own creation am I adding?"

Are you redrawing an existing screen shot for art practice? That's probably fine (as long as you don't sell it as official art or through prohibited channels). Are you making your own version of a scene just for fun? Writing an interaction between two of your favorite characters from someone else's book just for fun? Covering a song just for fun? Learning a dance someone else made up just for fun? All of that is great. As long as you don't claim you made it up or that your reproduction is the original work of the source material's creators. You're probably adding something when you do these things--something that other fans of the original can enjoy partly because it's familiar and partly because your version is novel.

For the comic above that I drew, I used characters in a television show I like to express a sentiment that hasn't been expressed explicitly on the show as such (but doesn't contradict any message on the show, either). It's something I could have said myself, in text, without illustration and without using someone else's characters, but illustrations make some things "speak" more effectively, and they also build on understood character relationships to convey messages about real-life relationships. I didn't "trace" anything, but I put someone else's characters in a message I wanted to send. I think tracing would have been over the line if I didn't admit it was a trace, but I don't think reusing images is over any lines. Especially since (given the enthusiastic reception of the comic on Tumblr) this message was something others wanted to hear, too.

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