Thursday, May 26, 2011

My First Brush With IP

When I was in high school, a freshman I think, they held a t-shirt design contest for the city's spring festival 5K race. There were a few requirements
  • The design had to be one color.
  • It had to fit on the front of a t-shirt.
  • It had to include the name of the race and the dates.
  • It had to somehow reference that year's theme, which was something centered around Disney. The 60th birthday of Mickey Mouse, maybe?
So I sat down and sketched out a design. The race name ran in a slight arc across the top with the dates flush along the bottom. The main image was a frontal shot of Mickey running across a finish line with Donald and Goofy behind him racing to catch up. It wasn't a particularly stellar drawing, all things considered, but it was serviceable enough considering I was barely a teenager.

I ultimately won the contest. I never saw any of the other entries, but they couldn't have either been too many or they must have been really horrid. I mean, realistically, how is a 14 year old with no professional art training going beat out a talented 17 or 18 year old with several years of art classes under his/her belt?

I don't recall how much my folks knew about the contest beforehand. I'm sure I must have consulted my dad for at least the lettering portion, but I may have printed the text onto a sheet of paper first and then drawn the figures around it. It's somewhat relevant here because, after I told my dad about my success, he first expressed pride in his son doing a good job on something vaguely professional but then also noted some concern. The design, as I said, featured three major Disney characters fairly prominently. This design was going to be printed up on hundreds of t-shirts and used in helping promote this spring festival. Many of the folks in the race itself would inevitably be wearing it.

All without any consent from Disney.

So my father's concern was that this was a notable violation of Disney's trademarks and, potentially, the company could seek legal action against the artist. Me. Dad gave me a basic lesson in trademark law. That characters were owned by people and it wasn't legal for just anybody to make a cartoon about Mickey Mouse. Just as not anybody could make a comic book about Batman. It was okay if I wanted to sit at the kitchen table and draw them for myself, but trying to make money off somebody else's idea was wrong and illegal. Since these t-shirts were going to be for sale, that really wasn't right.

I had to sign a contract of some sort to complete things. It basically said that I was considered to have done work-for-hire and that the final artwork was theirs. I think I was paid $50 and a free t-shirt once it was printed. Dad ensured that I knew about the legal issues and that I ask specifically about them before I signed anything.

The woman in charge of the design contest, who also happened to be the high school art teacher, assured me that any and all legal responsibility would be on their shoulders. That they weren't all that concerned since the entire town population was something like 7,000 so no one from Disney would be likely to notice. And that my dad was pretty astute to think of that sort of thing.

To no great surprise, the t-shirt design never attracted any legal attention. As was pointed out, it was just too small a burb to get noticed. I don't know if Dad knew that, or if he was pretty sure that I was safe as contractor first, and as a minor second. But I am certain that he was taking advantage of the opportunity to teach me about intellectual property. The basics he gave me then were expanded upon in some of my design classes in college a few years later, but I wonder if more kids were presented with those basics like I was, would we see as much digital piracy as there is?

1 comment:

Michael Mayne said...

I had a few similar lessons. As a result, I'm very mindful of what I (and others around me) produce and consume commercially.