Copyright 101: Why it’s OK for me to use superhero characters in my infographic

Feb 27 2013

For my last piece for STEMwire.org, the Reese News Lab’s project about STEM education, I created a visual story about Marvel character’s STEM backgrounds. It was a cool project: You should look at it!

The story seemed pretty straightforward. I put together the STEM profiles of 12 different Marvel heroes and villains, including their names and pseudonyms, their education, their profession, and their skills related to science, technology, engineering and math.

But I quickly realized that by using images and information related to the Marvel characters, I could run into problems with copyright law.

I found the information I needed at Marvel’s official webpage and on Marvel Wikia, both of which offer information on every single character ever featured on a Marvel episode.

While this was very convenient, it also became an obstacle: Most of the information is so straightforward that not copying what was stated became hard. How do you rephrase “Nuclear physicist” under Hulk’s Occupation? Or “Ph.D. in biochemistry,” for the Beast’s Education? At the same time, however, these are not merely facts, as Marvel’s writers and artists invented all that information. That meant that I did not feel comfortable simply copying that information the way I would copy information from, for example, a phone book.

Working with my editor, I rephrased everything I could, using synonyms and writing the information in my own words.

The other challenge was the use of each character’s name and identity. Is it fair to use them in my work?

Copyright law takes into account four factors when determining whereas there is copyright infringement or whereas it is a case of fair use:
1. Purpose and character of the use
2. Nature of the copyrighted work
3. Amount of the work used
4. Impact of the use upon the potential value of the work

Three out of the four factors to be considered when deciding if something qualifies as fair use are in our favor: While Marvel’s content is copyrighted for being both literary and artistic works, my infographic is essentially a commentary or news reporting on Marvel’s stories, so the purpose and character of the use is likely to be considered fair. Also, the amount of the work used in the infographic was kept to a minimum, by paraphrasing the text and by keeping the illustrations minimalistic and simplified. In my own artwork, I substantially changed the look of the characters. Finally, we can agree that publishing this infographic did not affect the potential value of Marvel’s work.

The field of copyright law is not black and white, but the best we can do is keep it in mind and by try our best to be respectful of other people’s work at all times.

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