My (Brief) Experience With Fan Art

ray and irwin's garage


A few months ago, I received an email via my website asking about purchasing a digital copy of my Ray & Irwin’s Garage artwork. They also loved the movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and wanted it to use on a t-shirt.

As I mulled over how to price it, I had to stop myself. This wasn’t an “original” piece of art, and I clearly stated that in the description. After doing some research, I responded to the potential purchaser and said I first had to get permission.

You can only legally sell derivative artwork if you have explicit, written permission from the original creator.

I contacted MGM, but never did receive a reply. Likely I’m small potatoes, or my request simply got lost in the shuffle.

Much of the work we do is shaped by our experiences and interests. That’s why you’ll see a bunch of space travel in my work (and a few cats). Popular culture and entertainment can work its way into the mix, too. Be careful with that.

There are a bunch of ideas in have in my list: Lost in Space, Star Trek, Pee Wee Herman, Monty Python. I’ve now removed these from consideration. Besides, I have plenty of other ideas to work on, anyway.

If I do a completely original piece, I never have to worry about whether I can sell it or not, because I own it. And besides, those are the pieces that will be more fulfilling to work on.

I don’t regret doing the Ray & Irwin’s Garage piece. It was fun to research and work on, but I had to kick myself. Out of all the artwork on my site, someone picked the ONE that I cannot legally sell.

Then there’s the grey zone.


fan art shirts


The shirt on the left portrays characters from the animated show The Venture Brothers. My GF knew I loved the show, and went looking for an appropriate birthday gift. There were no “official” products available, but there was this “grey market” t-shirt. Portraying the characters in silhouette is a sneaky way to get around things. Unless you’re familiar with the show, you’d never know what it was about. In fact, in all the years I’ve been wearing it, I’ve never been asked about it.

The other shirt is a more obvious portrayal of Groot and Rocket Raccoon from the movie Guardians of the Galaxy. While the raccoon could just be a raccoon, Groot (a sentient tree-creature) would be harder to explain away. While they don’t look exactly as they do in the movie, a raccoon and a tree-creature together could only mean one thing (usually involving big guns and infinity stones).

And to further muddle things up, an online search for Ray & Irwin’s Garage brings up t-shirts, clocks and mugs.

I’m certain none of these items received explicit permission to sell from the original author. For the entertainment conglomerates, it’s probably not worth their while to go after what’s likely a tiny piece of the market. The exception would be if the fan art were slandering or portraying the original authors works in a bad light.

Why take the risk, though?

Could I have sold my Ray & Irwin’s artwork and gotten away with it? Probably. But I would know, and that’s why I didn’t do it.