Gary Friedrich case spurs debate about convention sketches

Reacting to analysis of Marvel's much-publicized dispute with Ghost Rider creator Gary Friedrich, Joe the Barbarian artist Sean Gordon Murphy has announced he'll no longer sell convention sketches or commissions of characters he doesn't own, and encourages other creators to do the same.

"Am I rolling over in fear of Marvel? Maybe, but [...] they're in their legal right to come after me if there's ever a dispute," Murphy wrote this morning on deviantART. "I love to complain about the Big Two, but I can't (in good conscience) get upset at them if I'm breaking the rules myself. Being DC exclusive, maybe I can get a waiver that allows me to sketch DC characters, so I'll keep you updated."

Friedrich sued Marvel, Sony Pictures and other companies in 2007, claiming the rights to Ghost Rider had reverted to him six years earlier because the publisher never registered the character's first appearance in 1972′s Marvel Spotlight #5 with the U.S. Copyright Office. Marvel counter-sued in 2010, seeking damages from Friedrich who, through Gary Friedrich Enterprises LLC, had produced and sold unauthorized Ghost Rider posters, cards and T-shirts at conventions and online. The company also asserted that Friedrich had "aided and abetted third parties" in reproducing and selling "graphic and narrative elements" of Ghost Rider comics.

It's on that claim that Friedrich, who lost his lawsuit against Marvel in December, was ordered last week to pay $17,000 in damages in exchange for the publisher dropping its countersuit. As Ty Templeton humorously points out in his latest "Bun Toons" comic strip, Friedrich wasn't simply selling Johnny Blaze sketches at conventions, but rather offering prints and T-shirts of Mike Ploog's Ghost Rider covers. While it can be -- and indeed has been -- argued that a multibillion-dollar company shouldn't be pursuing an ailing writer with limited financial means, it's important to make the distinction between an artists alley sketch and an inventory of T-shirts, prints and cards.

Artist Phil Noto highlighted that difference this morning on Twitter, writing, "Once again folks, there's a big difference between mass produced prints/sketchbooks and original art. Prints/books are a grey area where companies can claim a copyright if they choose. You're completely free to sell a drawing for someone's personal collection. People who do mainly recreations or 'erotic' pieces featuring the characters would possibly be scrutinized a bit more. The only thing that could possibly curb original art would be companies and cons in agreement of no sketching. Which I'd be shocked at."

However, in Stephen Bissette's alert to creators -- it's his Facebook post that spurred Murphy into action -- the artist quotes extensively from his longtime legal adviser Jean-Marc Lofficier, who warns: "This is the first time Marvel is using convention sales of copyrighted Marvel characters as a 'weapon.' They are of course perfectly entitled to do so, legally speaking. But it does mean that, from now on, all of you here who draw sketches of Marvel characters for money at conventions or sell sketchbooks containing pictures of Marvel characters are on notice that you might be sued (usually for triple the amount you made) should Marvel decide to go after you. My legal advice to you guys is simple: STOP and destroy all sketchbooks for sale with copyrighted materials in it. I'm serious. You've just been put on notice by this case."

Murphy for one is taking Lofficier's advice to heart, warning other creators to "QUIT doing, creating, selling ANY sketches or sketchbooks or prints featuring Marvel/Disney characters, IMMEDIATELY. And let fans know WHY you are no longer doing them, and/or CANNOT do them ever again."

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