Can I (legally) use TV/Film characters in my digital products?
Ever wondered if you can use Disney graphics, or other TV/film characters in your printables or digital products? The simple answer is: NO, you can’t. Read on to find out why…
(This is the first article in a four-part series about using character graphics and other copyrighted or trademarked works in your digital products & printables. Click here for Part 2.)
Copyright and trademark infringement in character graphics
Many printable designers rely on purchasing graphics by other artists to use on their designs.
I do this too – I’m definitely not an artist myself so need to source graphics for my designs.
When using third party graphics, it’s SO important to make sure that the artist in question allows you to use their graphics in digital download products, and also that the graphics you purchase are legal and not breaking any copyright or trademark laws.
Copyright and trademark can be a bit of a minefield, however there is one major problem in the card making download industry at the moment, and that’s the use of character graphics.
Not a day goes by when I don’t see another card making download designer illegally using character graphics in their products.
Disney and Pixar characters seem to be the most frequently used, and I guess there is a pretty good reason for that – customers want to buy them.
However, often this is done without the appropriate licences from the copyright or trademark holder (e.g. Disney).
“Companies like Disney have Trademark protection on their characters, fonts, stories, quotes, images, etc. To reproduce and sell them requires a license from Disney, which is expensive and NOT for the average crafter.” [Source]
You probably aren’t going to be able to afford thousands of pounds to get the correct licensing to use character graphics in your products.
So, ask yourself – is it worth breaking the law just to get a few more sales of your designs?
Because that’s exactly what you are doing if you decide to use character graphics in your card making downloads WITHOUT those super-expensive licenses.
Here’s a great explanation:
“For example, if you sell stuffed dolls resembling Harry Potter, Ariel from The Little Mermaid, or Mario and Luigi, and identify them as these characters, you have produced a derivative work based upon a copyrighted work. As a result, J.K. Rowling, Disney, or Nintendo can sue you for infringement. In order to create goods based on these characters you need to obtain a license from the copyright owners. Some uses may be considered fair use, however, if you are selling these goods without a license you are most likely infringing.” [Source]
Licenses for character graphics can cost tens of thousands of dollars, which is certainly out of the reach of most (maybe all) card making download designers.
Is it just Disney characters that can’t be used?
Nope! Here’s a list of characters that are copyrighted and trademarked and shouldn’t be used in your card making downloads.
This list is not exhaustive and should not be taken as anywhere near complete. Just because a character is not listed on here does not mean that you can use their likeness. This is simply to give you examples of copyrighted and/or trademarked works.
- Disney, Pixar & Dreamworks characters
- Mickey & Minnie mouse & friends
- Disney princesses and their interpretations of Snow White, Cinderella, Tangled etc.
- Winnie the Pooh & friends
- Finding Nemo
- The Incredibles
- Beauty and the Beast
- How to Train your Dragon
- Inside Out
- Alice in Wonderland (Disney interpretation)
- Marvel – Ironman, Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, X-Men, etc.
- DC – Batman, Superman, WonderWoman, the Joker, etc.
- Children’s TV characters
- Fireman Sam
- Postman Pat
- My Little Pony
- Bob the Builder
- Sesame Street
- Paw Patrol
- Peppa Pig
- Dora the Explorer
- Cartoon characters
- Hello Kitty
- The Bubblegum Club
- LEGO characters
- Care Bears
- Characters from books
- Harry Potter
- Comic books
- Other existing characters
- Star Wars
- Star Trek
- Forever Friends
- Tatty Teddy / Me to You
- Video games characters
- Photographs of celebrities
- This includes celebrities who have passed away
- Still images taken from films
- This applies to ANY film, but the ones I see most are the live-action Disney films, Twilight films and Harry Potter
- Still images taken from TV shows
- This applies to ANY TV show, but the ones I see most are Game of Thrones, the Walking Dead and Breaking Bad
- Company logos
- The Disney logo and Disney font
- Football / sports club logos
- College or university logos
- TV/film logos
- Brand logos e.g. coca cola, fashion brands, perfume brands
That’s a pretty long list, right?
Why are there so many places selling graphics that infringe copyright or trademark laws?
This is a question that I wish I knew the answer to.
The truth is, there are thousands of people (and companies) all over the world making money by selling products that break copyright law.
It’s not right and it’s certainly not fair, but it’s happening.
A search on Etsy UK for “Disney clip art” shows over 11,000 products.
That’s 11,000 potential lawsuits for Disney to jump on. Eek!
How do I know which graphics to avoid?
This is a tricky one as there are just SO MANY people out there selling graphics that have negative copyright implications.
As a general rule, try asking yourself the following questions:
- Do I recognise the characters in these graphics?
- Do they show a scene from a TV show or film?
- Do they show a celebrity (including an actor ‘in character’)?
- Do they show a brand or logo (e.g. football team logos)
- Does the product description say that these graphics were ‘inspired by’ or ‘based on’ copyrighted works?
- If I Google the names mentioned in the product description, does anything come up?
- If this set of graphics looks okay to use, does the seller have any other items that don’t look okay?
If you answer ‘yes’ to any of the above, that’s a bad sign and you should seriously consider the potential consequences of using those graphics.
Remember – ignorance is NOT an excuse!
It is your responsibility to ensure any graphics that you use comply with both copyright and trademark laws.
These articles contain some great advice and guidelines on character graphics and other copyrighted works. I highly recommend giving them a read.
Although may of them are targeted towards people who sell their products on Etsy, the same advice is pertinent to all printable and digital download designers.
- Etsy shop shutdowns
- The truth about Etsy, copyright and trademarks
- The Etsy Copyright Infringement Problem
- How to avoid problems with Disney for Etsy sellers
- Etsy store trademark and copyright
- Are You Violating Copyright?
- Can I print quotes from poets, movies (Disney) and lyrics on my products for sale?
(This is the first article in a four-part series about using character graphics and other copyrighted or trademarked works in your card making downloads. Click here for Part 2.)
Disclaimer: I am neither a lawyer nor a copyright specialist. Nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice. It is up to you to ensure any graphics that you purchase and use, whether personally or commercially, are fully compliant with copyright laws. If in doubt, consult a copyright lawyer or solicitor. Neither I nor my company hold any responsibility for (and are not liable for) any copyright issues that you may encounter.
If you believe any of the information in this article to be incorrect, outdated or misleading, please get in touch with your concerns.