In the last few days, a number of Teen Wolf fanartists with stores on RedBubble have posted/tweeted about takedowns by RedBubble of some of the items in their stores. From what we’ve been told, all the items either had “Teen Wolf” in the tags, in the item or store description and/or in the item/store title; RedBubble isn’t claiming ownership of the works, and the language in the emails doesn’t say whether Viacom complained, or whether someone “authorized to act on their behalf” (namely, Redbubble themselves) cited the work as having issues.

This is not the first time RedBubble has taken down merch and sent an email to the store operator; RedBubble does this when their bots ”see” something that could be infringing (even if it isn’t) and generally RB tells the site operator that they were taken down after RedBubble ”received a complaint from [a major multinational rightsholder], the claimed owner or licensee of related intellectual property, and in accordance with Redbubble’s IP/Publicity Rights Policy.”

Back in 2003, CafePress took down fanart inspired by the Harry Potter characters from HPEF’s Nimbus - 2003 fancon store, because the site’s bot did some image recognition thing and CP’s policy was to take things down if the image matched up with images submitted by the copyright and/or trademark-holders. We replied to CafePress, explained that the works were transformative works and didn’t have any trademarks on them, and they were put back up shortly thereafter. Similar things have happened over the past 11 years. Every single popular show/film/brand/band/comic/series is included by CP and RB in their “usage review” systems.

As CP said in a recent annual report, ” We maintain content usage review systems that, through a combination of manual and automated blocks, monitor potentially infringing content of which we become aware.” Redbubble said something similar this summer:

Although we’re not required by law, we take further proactive efforts on many occasions and work closely with numerous content owners, brands and individual artists to minimize instances of third party infringement of intellectual property rights via the Redbubble marketplace.

They don’t always notify the copyrightholders or trademark owners expeditiously; CP and RB’s bots check the images and the descriptions and take things down just because the IP owner has put their brands and sometimes their art into the CP and RB content management system. That doesn’t mean there aren’t “false positives” - the content management system doesn’t check for fair use or parodies or commentary/criticism, and we’ll explain how to make them aware of that below.

The laws in the US regarding transformative works and copyright infringement have expanded over the last decade to define more things as Fair Use - and the bots that stores like CafePress and RedBubble use have become more precise; they’re similar to “Search By Image” on google. However, the laws regarding trademark infringement in this sort of situation are relatively unchanged.

Fanart shared in the “gift economy” is fair use; we posted extensively about noncommercially distributed fanart back in January. Selling fan art may also be fair use as a matter of law, for purposes of determining whether it infringes on someone else’s copyright.  However, even if a work is fair use under copyright law, selling it in connection with someone else’s trademarks may constitute trademark infringement.

It’s not a given - it won’t always. If the marks are used descriptively, if they’re used to compare things, etc., it may not be trademark infringement. But you are less likely to get a takedown notice if you don’t include tags that are a show or film or band’s trademark - use a shortened version of the show title (TW, ST, SPN, AOS, etc.) or a ship name or a character’s last name instead.

If you do get a takedown notice and you think that what’s been taken down is fair use, you are allowed to respond and explain why the work is noninfringing. You can discuss these factors:

1. The purpose and character of the work (Is the fanart transformative? Was it made for non-commercial purposes? Selling something on RB impacts on this factor, but it’s not the only element at issue, especially if the fanart doesn’t replicate something seen on screen or in a comic strip panel.)

2. The amount and substantiality of the copyrighted work used (How much of the copyrighted work was used and why was it used? For fanart, usually little if any of the copyrighted work was used.)

3. The effect on the market of the copyrighted work (Will the work be used as a substitute for the original copyrighted work or impact the market for sales of merchandise related to the original copyrighted work?)

You also might want to include language inspired by this:

As fair use is a lawful use of a third party’s copyright, to the extent that this art uses another’s copyright, it should be deemed fair use under 17 USC 107 because it is (a) transformative and (b) does not adversely affect the market or potential market of the original work or derivative works. When determining if fair use is applicable and thus a work noninfringing, the central purpose of said investigation [into purpose and character of use] is to see … whether the new work merely “supersede[s] the objects” of the original creation, or instead adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message; it asks, in other words, whether and to what extent the new work is “transformative.” Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 579, 114 S.Ct. 1164, 127 L.Ed.2d 500 (1994), Zomba Enterprises, Inc.; Zomba Songs, Inc., Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. Panorama Records, Inc., Defendant-Appellant., 491 F.3d 574 (6th Cir. 2007).

 Takedowns like this happen all the time; they happen when they’re justifiable because someone’s uploaded a show-created poster as a Redbubble tote bag or CafePress coaster, they happen when someone “markets” their fanart using a trademark that the show’s creators or distributors own, and they happen when works are completely noncommercial and only on display. Absent other information, it’s not practical to assume that it’s part of a crackdown on specific artists or ships, and with regard to what’s happened to some Teen Wolf artists this week, it’s impossible to even know if the takedowns were because the trademarks were used, or because of the images themselves. We’d love more info, though - so if your art has been taken down on RedBubble and you weren’t using Teen Wolf - or any character names - in the tags or descriptions, and you’ve submitted a “Fair Use” counternotice, and it still hasn’t gone back up even though a few business days have passed, please let us know and we’ll see if we can learn more.

Follow FYeahCopyright for more on legal issues of concern to fandomers.


Well this is kind of a big deal.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office has canceled six federal trademark registrations for the name of the Washington Redskins, ruling that the name is “disparaging to Native Americans” and thus cannot be trademarked under federal law that prohibits the protection of offensive or disparaging language.

In Landmark Decision, U.S. Patent Office Cancels Trademark For Redskins Football Team