Fan Artists Fear Retaliation over Warner Bros. Copyright Claims
Much of what makes the Wizarding World fandom so strong, vibrant, and fun has been thanks to the fan works that have been created because of it. Fan art, fan fiction, wizard rock, clothing, tattoos, Muggle quidditch – you name it – have all been born out of fan creativity.
Recently, however, we at MuggleNet began receiving reports that fan creators – primarily artists who sell unofficial merchandise such as fandom-inspired lapel pins and prints online – have been receiving troubling notifications on various platforms. From Instagram to Etsy, we have learned, these creators have been informed that some of their content related to items or artwork inspired by the Wizarding World franchise has been removed at the request of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., also known as simply “Warner Bros.” In some cases, creators have reported receiving notifications from Instagram related to posts of fan art that was not listed for sale. In other cases, the art was related to generic witchcraft themes, such as potion bottles, rather than imagery that was specifically tied to Harry Potter or Fantastic Beasts.
What We Know
We’ve done some digging, so let’s start with what we know. From what MuggleNet has gathered so far, items removed have included art prints, pins, knitted or crocheted items, stickers, and stationery, among others, and the creators affected live both inside and outside the United States. Some have only recently faced issues, while others report having been met with copyright claims years ago.
This isn’t exactly surprising. Corporations and other rights-holders have had a long history of tension with fan creators. Warner Bros. itself has challenged fan entities over the years. At the time of publication, ongoing cases include Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. v. Random Tuesday, Inc. et al. (Random Tuesday, Inc. operates Potterhead Running Club, among other virtual running groups.)
Other legal challenges to fan creators have been brought by 20th Century Fox Television in relation to a hat featured in the series Firefly and by Disney and Lucasfilm in relation to unofficial merchandise depicting the character the Child (also called “Baby Yoda”) that was being sold on Etsy. In many instances, cases arise when a corporation has an interest in creating a similar product to what they are targeting, and it is possible that the official Harry Potter Fan Club’s pin sets are part of why Warner Bros. is interested in those selling their own enamel pins.
Targeting small, fan-run businesses over alleged infringement upon intellectual property rights has the potential to create what is known in the legal world as a “chilling effect,” discouraging people from engaging in legal behavior for fear of legal action. In fandom, that means stifling fan creativity for fear of reprisals from entities with much greater power. This is especially true for marginalized fans, who often use transformative works to establish headcanons related to their own identities that were not represented in the original works.
It is impossible to picture what the Wizarding World franchise would be without over two decades of fan ingenuity. As fans turn to creative outlets amid the coronavirus pandemic or find their livelihoods affected by economic downturns, many individuals are simply trying to make ends meet and may not have the money necessary for legal fees.
What We Don’t Know
Aside from the differences in the law from location to location, perhaps the biggest question we have right now is this: To what extent does Warner Bros. hold rights over specific imagery? Is a lightning bolt, a potion bottle, or an owl sufficient for Warner Bros. to claim that a fan-created work has infringed upon its intellectual property rights? How far do those rights extend? For example, would fans with tattoos that include copyrighted imagery face legal action? Would tattoo artists? Even more importantly, how do we know for sure if something has crossed a line?
What Can We Do?
At this point, you might be asking yourself, “What can we do?” Whether you’re a fan artist or a consumer, there are plenty of questions here. While we at MuggleNet certainly don’t have all the answers, we know that it is important for members of the fandom to remain informed. This article is the first in a series about this issue, in which we will be exploring the legal side of fan-created works and what concerns like this might mean for the Wizarding World fandom as a whole.
If you have been affected by copyright infringement claims related to the Wizarding World fandom or have other experience with them (as a lawyer or legal scholar, for example), we would love to hear from you!