Every so often, you may come across a comic strip that you want to use for a personal or professional project. Perhaps you find a digital comic strip that perfectly fits into your company’s training course, or you want to include a comic strip from your local print newspaper in a personal project.
If you find yourself in this situation, it is important to familiarize yourself with comic book copyright laws before sharing a comic strip published by another entity. In many cases, following the correct procedures for obtaining permission allows you to use the comic in your self-published project while staying within the legal bounds of sharing published work and giving appropriate credit to the original creators.
What is Copyright?
Copyright is a concept that protects intellectual property such as paintings, illustrations, poems, books, movies, and music recordings. Copyright helps prevent intellectual property theft and gives creators legal control of how their work is used and who can profit from their individual expression.
Anytime you create original content and specify that it is under copyright, copyright laws protect you. You can go a step further and register with the United States Copyright Office; however, it is not necessary to register for legal protection.
Copyright law prevents anyone other than the original owner from:
- Reproducing the work in any capacity
- Preparing or publishing derivative works
- Distributing copies by selling or transferring ownership
- Displaying the work publicly
- “Performing” the work publicly, which includes audio recording
Under copyright law, posting a comic strip on your website, printing it in a professional course, or publishing it in your own comic book without permission violates the law and could face legal consequences.
Are All Comic Strips Copyrighted?
Not all comic strips are copyrighted materials. According to U.S. copyright law, there are three main distinctions to keep in mind when determining the copyright status of a work. Works created after January 1, 1978, works created before January 1, 1925, and works in the public domain.
Works Before 1925
The Copyright Office made various changes to the duration of copyright coverage in the 20th century. When all the changes are considered, the result is that any work published before January 1, 1925, is copyright-free and in the public domain.
Works After 1978
The most recent regulations on U.S. copyright laws place any work published after January 1, 1978, under copyright protection for the creator’s life plus 70 years after their death. For anonymous works, the copyright term is 95 years from publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever period is shorter.
The public domain consists of free and available works for the public to use in whatever way they wish. Public domain works are those published before 1925 and modern works that are expressly created for public use. Comic strips in the public domain are not under copyright law and can be used without written permission.
Identifying if a Comic Strip is Copyrighted
If you find yourself in a situation where you want to use a comic strip, your first step is to determine if the work is copyrighted.
The best way to do this is to look for the copyright symbol on the website or digital platform, on the newspaper or magazine where the comic is published, or on the colophon, typically the first left-hand page after the title page in a printed work. If you see a “©” anywhere or written copyright notice, the comic strip is protected.
Some comic strips are in the public domain. Like a written copyright warning, you will usually see a notice that says “this work is in the public domain” or something similar. A good example of this is on the site, The Comic Strip Library. This archive houses older comic strips in the public domain and states that you may freely use these comics.
Overall, the safest course of action is to assume that a work is under copyright unless stated otherwise. Creators no longer have to expressly state this fact to be protected, so unless the notice says the work is free for public use, prepare to obtain permission before sharing.
How to Obtain Permission to Share Copyrighted Works
The most straightforward way to obtain permission to use a copyrighted work is to ask the publisher for written permission. Sometimes a website or publication may have a processed outline for asking for permission; other times, you may have to contact the creator or publisher by email or phone.
It is common for the copyright owner to ask for a licensing fee to use their work. However, many will allow you to use their work for free as long as you meet their crediting criteria. This simply means that they will ask you to credit their work so that whoever looks at your project knows where the comic strip came from.
In some cases, you may avoid written permission under the Fair Use Index, which outlines scenarios that allow the free use of copyrighted materials for certain situations. Although you may feel that your usage falls into one of these categories, it is advised to seek legal counsel as these situations can sometimes end up in a legal battle.
Publish With Permission
If you find the perfect comic strip to include in a workplace training manual or self-published project, you must gain written permission before sharing the work. If you use a comic in the public domain, you are good to go, but if you want to use a copyrighted work, you must ask the publisher for written permission before proceeding. Not only does this keep you out of potential legal trouble, but it also attributes the credit to the original creator.
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