Last week, in the wake of the Gary Friedrich case, Joe the Barbarian artist Sean Murphy said he would no longer sell sketches or do commissions of characters he doesn’t own.
Over the weekend, Murphy explained how he learned from personal experience that even a small, innocently conceived project can put a creator into legal jeopardy. Murphy did a set of Wolverine ABCs and printed it up into about 200 sketchbooks to give to friends—including Marvel creators and editors—as gifts.
Because I was a pro and because I wasn’t selling them, I figured I’d be fine. After three conventions of EVERYONE telling me I should sell them, I broke down and sold some. At the last show that season, I sold the remaining 40 copies or so.
Then Marvel called. I explained that I didn’t have a warehouse of sketchbooks, I only made around 200 (or close to that) and mostly I gave them away. I explained how none of the Marvel editors complained when I handed them one, and my lack of hiding the ABCs should show the innocent nature of my endeavor. I even offered to sign a Cease and Desist, and pay them the money I made selling the last 40. But Marvel wanted the rights to the ABCs–they wanted to own them and pay me nothing. I wasn’t willing to do that, so I got a lawyer. And we eventually came together and agreed to drop the subject if I simply removed them from my site and promised not to make any more sketchbooks.
Murphy readily admits that he was in the wrong, not only in using characters he doesn’t own the rights to but also in thinking that Marvel would overlook something so small. While their reaction seems excessive, they were within their rights. And he is in no way reassured by the statements made by Marvel execs Dan Buckley and Joe Quesada about not making any new policies and not wanting to interfere with creators who are “providing a positive Marvel experience for our fans.” They seem to him to be purposefully vague, leaving the door open for them to take action if they choose—as, in his case, they already have.