Custom Silhouette/Outline Based on Movie/TV Show

'Is it legal', 'can I do this' type questions and discussions.
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Custom Silhouette/Outline Based on Movie/TV Show

Post by andymann »

Hello Everyone.

I apologize if this question has already been asked, but I couldn't find an answer. Go easy on me, I'm new here.

I have an idea for a design that can be printed on items such as t-shirts, hoodies, mugs.... and so on. I don't know if it would be copyright infringement so here I am asking.

The idea is to print a silhouette or outline of a character from a movie or tv show. I found this and it has inspired me to have another idea based on it. teespring dot com/shop/twd-abraham-fan-shirt?aid=marketplace&tsmac=marketplace&tsmic=search#pid=2&cid=2122&sid=front
Is this seller infringing copyright? Or would I be able to do a similar thing?

Also, where would I stand with phrases. Not necessarily catchphrases, but memorable one-liners. For example from the movie sixth sense, could I use "I see dead people"? along with an outline of a character from that movie?

And finally, what if I silhouette the whole body with them standing in their well-known pose, or holding an item they're associated with?

I would create the images myself from scratch using memory for reference.

I hope someone can answer my question. I hope it isn't too newbish.

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Post by AndyJ »

Hi andymann,

You don't say which country you live in so I will assume for the moment that it's the UK. Under UK copyright law, fictional characters in films or books etc are not given any special protection. The general rule is that infringement only occurs where something which forms a substantial part of the overal copyright work is copied without permission, in a way which does not engage the various fair dealing exceptions (more on these in a moment).

It is therefore pretty unlikely that a silhouette alone would count as a substantial part of the representation of a character who is normally seen in conventional 2D or 3D format and as often as not, in colour. This won't always apply of course. Take the example where the posters for a movie feature the hero or villain of the film as a silhouette (try searching on ''movie poster silhouette' in Google images to see what I mean). In this sort of case, the film's producer will be implying that the silhouette is so recognisably synonymous with the character portrayed, that this may make it a substantial part of the overall work. And obviously even where this special case doesn't apply, any artwork you produce must be your own work, not a copy of someone else's.

Where you feel that perhaps the silhouette of the character you wish to use may amount to a 'substantial part' of the work, you could still be able to use your silhouette version if the purpose is obviously a parody or caricature of the movie etc, as this is one of the fair dealing exceptions. We haven't had any cases in the UK which test the boundaries of this new exception, but it is clear from European law that an essential ingredient must be humour or satire.

Quoting a line or catch phrase from a movie is even less problematic; generally speaking, it is highly unlikely that a half dozen words could ever be 'substantial' irrespective of how well-known they are. And secondly there is another fair dealing exception for the purpose of quotation. However for this to work correctly you are supposed to acknowledge the source of the quotation "unless this would be impossible for reasons of practicality or otherwise" - something which might apply to a tee shirt slogan, I suggest, given the limitations of screen printing small text.

And briefly, if you live in the USA, the situation is rather different. There the degree of protection given to facets of fictional characters is considerable. Even the Batmobile is considered to be a 'character' and fully protected in its own right. Similarly, relatviely trivial plot details from the Sherlock Holmes stories have been held to be protected. So if you do live there, you should consider getting advice from an attorney in your state before going ahead with any large scale venture.
Advice or comment provided here is not and does not purport to be legal advice as defined by s.12 of Legal Services Act 2007
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