Hybrid Merchandising as Fan Financing

Curator's Note

How do we describe fan art that is picked up as official art (especially when the artist retains copyright)?  What about commissioned official art that is attributed by the IP owners? What happens when that art becomes merchandise? What standing does fan created unofficial merchandise that has been given "permission" by the IP owner have? 

I came to these questions when I stumbled upon a fan art project for the podcast Welcome to Night Vale by bonesnail––a tarot deck that took the artist over a year to complete, and which is now official merchandise available through TopatoCo store. In the case of bonesnail (Jay Holloway), a portion of each deck sold is theirs and a portion returns to the WtNV crew (and TopatoCo takes a slice as well).  Upon closer inspection, a lot of the official merchandise is linked out to the artists’ portfolio providing not only attribution, but also promotion. Some of these designs are clear commissions like the official designer for WtNV, Rob Wilson, others are friends of the podcasters’ like Kate Leth, and yet still others are fans who are gifted (and often professional artists) who were “picked up” as official merchandise designs. Is this type of fan merchandising fan financing?

I could find few other examples of this type of symbiotic relationship between fan artist and IP holder, and I welcome other examples. Those that I did find include Rick Riordin selecting fan art as “official” character art by Viria for his Percy Jackson series, including paid commissions for the artist. Redbubble has also established a fan art licensing program with select videogame producers—thus allowing for fan artists to legally create and sell content through the site. (Redbubble is notorious for breaking copyright law.) Finally, Geekly Inc. has a series of podcasts that regularly host official fan art pages where podcast creators can crowdsource art for episode guides.  

Further down the rabbit hole, we can see several companies and artists who have created official guidelines for fan artists to create (and potentially profit from their works) including Undertale and Welcome to Night Vale, among others. With various guidelines regarding the use of logos, sampling, direct competition, and mass reproduction as limitations to fan commerce. 


It is so nice for artists when companies embrace (and often canonize) their creativity. One of my favourite examples (which I've been working on lately) would be Kevin Tancharoen and his work in the Mortal Kombat franchise. In 2010, Tancharoen made a short film named 'Mortal Kombat: Rebirth', and put in on YouTube, which made the audience think it was a trailer for an actual movie. After receiving positive feedback for his work and vision of the MK universe, Tancharoen received permission by Warner Bros. to film a web series.

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