Fursuiting and copyright: an important issue for fandom
New powers to patent animals (including unrealized hybrids that populate furry fiction) burst into the news on 11/13/13, when activist organization Wikileaks revealed a draft of the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Analysts have called it "a major power grab for large patent and copyright industries," with powerful implications for the future of intellectual property.
With a lead like that, I have to apologize for faking you out. I couldn't resist. Now let's do a 180, and turn back to the furry level of life, where copyright concerns are much more personal. Consider this scenario that happened to fursuiters Sakura Fox and Mercury on their trip to New York City:
You're walking through Central Park, and see some panhandlers begging for change. They're wearing badly made, unsightly costumes of Sesame Street characters. You shouldn't hang around them in fursuit, because a pimp Elmo might come smack you off his corner!
It's an unauthorized misuse of trademark for profit. It could make the copyright owners look bad, and they wouldn't like it. It's probably too trivial for them to hear about, or hire lawyers to stop it- but you never know. In a famous 1989 action, Disney forced the removal of murals featuring their characters from three Florida day care centers. It helped earn their "reputation as an extreme copyright hawk -- there's a reason 'Disney lawyer' is a term all its own". (On the more friendly side, consider Hasbro's relationship with Bronies.)
After Sakura encountered the Central Park panhandlers, it inspired many questions about copyright. He asks: how does copyright work for fursuiters? Is copyright held by the suit builder, or the owner? How does it work for photography of the suit? Who can make money from these activities?
Such questions aren't uncommon. I suspect that they're complicated enough to cause persistent confusion, like with laws to protect commercial properties that aren't worth enforcing for fan activities.
Have we ever seen a furry copyright problem go to court? Have fan-made costumes of trademarked characters ever brought trouble to an event? Many makers won't build such costumes. Can any makers explain how they negotiate their terms for commissions? Are there any lawyers in the fandom who can give professional answers?
Sakura and Mercury let me join Secret Fox Club, at Biggest Little Fur Con 2013.
Sakura's journal has many opinions. I'm not a lawyer, but I've done enough professional art, negotiating, and working with my own lawyers to form a casual opinion about fursuit copyright. I assume that suit-building is contract work covered by one payment, with copyright held by the character owner, unless otherwise specified by contract. (Using detailed contracts seems important for commissioners and especially makers. You can write your own by adapting boilerplate terms. Everyone should do it, especially when furry fandom doesn't have many safeguards to mediate disputes!)
I'd like to toss out there that having worked with a local costume rental company that produced a lot of its own costumes for rent, and did theatrical work and design work as well (I'm an actor), the sort of 'magic number' that they used for costumes was '20% different'. Legal precedent has apparently gone in favor of the alleged trademark infringers if there is no 'company' logo or name and the costume is at least 20 percent different from the character in question.
Fursuiting presents an interesting copyright situation. It can be fundamentally collaborative, when the maker's creation goes on to be used for performance and photography. Fursuiting is also important if I can claim that it's the most original product of this fandom. (I appreciate that many people don't want to conflate "furry" and "fursuiting", but there are visual and survey-based reasons to consider it a key activity.)
Fursuit.org attempts to address copyright with a legal FAQ that's unfortunately incomplete. A lack of common consensus and understanding seems to leave an open challenge to build a central resource to help.
Resources for a better fandom
Subculture might be a better word than fandom, when furries do more than follow unoriginal creations. That's a good reason to build central resources, to support and promote fellow creators and members with questions like these.
Consider the "guild" concept. An association of furry creators could register formal memberships, issue a "seal of approval" to invite customer trust, mediate commissions and disputes, collect reviews and ratings, and benefit creators and commissioners as a one-stop info source. (I keep raising the idea.)
These issues seem likely to grow if fursuiting is trending in pop culture, raising the bar for it's craft, and increasing with the success of cons. I hope this kind of discussion will contribute to better resources. Others hope the same. Read more in this Reddit thread proposing a Fursuit maker review site.
Many different creators organize to promote their specialities. It's not like a "multilateral free-trade treaty" between nations, but fursuit makers and furries should consider it too.