Can Students Draw a Cartoon Character or Is It Copyrighted?

By Tom Streissguth

The laws of copyright protect original created works, including graphic images such as cartoon characters. Any person or company may claim copyright to a unique and original creation; the copyright holder has the right to register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration allows the copyright holder to sue for damages if his creation is copied, sold or reproduced without permission.

Student Use

Although the law does not specifically mention the use of copyrighted cartoon characters by students, private use of a cartoon character for study does not violate copyright. A student practicing drawing a copyrighted cartoon character for fun does not act in violation of the copyright laws.

Art Works

Drawing instructors may also make use of copyrighted cartoons. In an art class, students may borrow or work with commercial characters freely, either as practice or in their original works. The appearance of a cartoon character in a work of art does not, by itself, violate copyright law. However, how that art work is used is an important consideration. In some circumstances, the work and the "borrower" may be guilty of copyright infringement. A person who publicly uses a cartoon character in a manner that slanders or otherwise damages the reputation of the copyright holder may be sued by the copyright holder.

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Commercial and Public Use

Any commercial use of a copyrighted cartoon character without permission of the copyright holder is a violation of law. This includes the sale of any drawings or art works, either by themselves or in some other form such as on a T-shirt, team logo, advertisement, billboard, or promotional design. In addition, many forms of non-commercial public use, such as the posting of a copyrighted cartoon or image on a website, also represents a violation of copyright, as well as the holder's legal right to control how his original work is used. If the copyright is registered, the party "borrowing" the cartoon is liable for the payment of fines, damages, and other monetary awards to the copyright holder.

Cease and Desist and Litigation

As a practical matter, companies holding copyrights to cartoon characters will in many cases send a "cease and desist" letter to anyone they believe is violating their copyright. This gives the violator a chance to end any commercial use or illegal reproduction and avoid a lawsuit and an appearance in court. Because copyright litigation is time-consuming and expensive, the chances of recovering large awards and damages from students making limited use of a cartoon are remote.

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Copyright & Fair Use Guidelines for School Projects

Using materials created by other people in a school project isn't necessarily a violation of the copyright laws. Students routinely lift images from web pages to illustrate a science project or quote passages from books in class papers. While the copyright law often protects such materials, the act of copying them may be protected by the fair use exception of the copyright law.

Are Commercials Copyrighted?

With the free accessibility of information and creative content over the Internet, it can be hard to know what is legally available to take and enjoy for free. It can be confusing to realize that something that may be free and legal to enjoy in one context may not be in another context. Most people think of commercials as a free bit of advertising that they are subjected to when they watch television or listen to the radio. Just because a commercial is broadcast for free through certain media does not mean that it is legal for anybody to upload the commercial on YouTube or post it for download on a website. Commercials are copyrighted, and only authorized parties may broadcast, copy or distribute them.

Indemnity Clause for Copyright Assignment

A copyright assignment places the person who assumes the rights in the shoes of the creator of the work. The assignment entitles the assignee to benefit from all or a portion of the rights to the work but also makes him responsible for any legal deficiencies. Consequently, the assignee typically wants some kind of guarantee or warranty written into the agreement that requires the creator to assume some liability if subsequent issues arise.


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