Just like the movies they promote, posters are considered intellectual property in a visual form, and they are covered by copyright law. That means you are limited in how you would use them in videos or by creating similar images to promote your own entertainment product.

Think about it for a moment. An artist has taken a concept and used their energy and creativity to develop an original design. That defines intellectual property in a vivid example. Copyright protects that expression of an idea. 

That means you cannot copy the work, but you can copy the idea within the work. Yes, it sounds like a gray area, which makes it tricky.

Here you will find my interpretation of copyright and how it applies to movie poster art. Yet, I do want to disclose that I am not an attorney, and this is not legal advice. If you are serious about making your own fan art or art based on movies and intellectual property not created by yourself, you will need to consult with an attorney.

If you are curious about copyright law in the united states you may want to check out this government-run website, copyright.gov.

Oh, and we should mention that because NFT art has become more mainstream, we are seeing many copyright issues beginning to arise. This article goes into way more detail concerning NFT and copyright.

Movie Studio
Photo by Christian Joudrey on Unsplash

Who owns the copyright?

You can hang a movie poster to promote a movie, as many stores and theaters do. But you cannot take the same design and insert the faces of actors from another movie, change the names, and hope that people will see you on par with the major film company.

First of all, it violates the copyright. Secondly, you do not want to engage in a legal battle with an industry giant such as Disney, which diligently protects its copyrighted material.

Essentially, you can enjoy having a poster and admiring its artwork, but you cannot derive an economic benefit from its intellectual property. That second right belongs to the creator (as in the artist) and the company they work for (since they pay the artist for the time to create it).

If you are generating intellectual property – whether it’s a drawing, a story, or even a sculpture – for a client who is paying you, it would be wise to establish copyright in a written agreement. That way, it is clear who can use it and where.

In some cases, publishers will only want a copyright on an item for a limited time, such as the month after a magazine comes out, then turns it back to the writer. That way, you can sell the same story or sketch elsewhere, but the initial publisher had the opportunity to use it first.

Infringing on a copyrighted property can be a pretty major problem, and there are plenty of other mistakes that can be made, and that is preciesly why we made this article:

Why do movie studios care?

Often, movie studios defend their copyright on images since this is a huge revenue opportunity for them. They want to limit the number of knock-off items that competitors would make then sell to movie fans.

Studios benefit richly from licensing agreements with partners who create movie-related merchandise. Remember, the studio invested heavily in creating the characters, the sets, the storyline, and all the other elements of a movie. This is one way they can get some of that money back, often making as much or more from the swag as so from the film itself at the box office.

Akira IMAX 2020

What about fan art?

Let’s say you are at Comic-Con or some similar type of convention where you find rows and rows of fan art. Are these artists infringing on copyrighted material? Most likely, yes. Is it legal? Not really. (Unless they have a license, which some artists do get.)

However, It’s a blurry line as these artists are spreading the movie’s word, you know, promoting it and creating a fan frenzy.

In a way, it benefits the movie studio and bolsters the fan base. Can a major movie studio go after these artists selling copyrighted fan art posters and other material? Yeah, they could, and they have.

Yet, over time, with fan culture’s popularity, it seems they have been more lenient. Because fan art is such a touchy subject, we went a little deeper with this article:

Are there any free copyright posters?

Just when you thought you had this figured out, you can turn to fair use provisions. This means that a movie poster can be copied in ways that ‘transform’ it by adding something new or using it for a different purpose or character (no, not as in another movie character).

Rather than swapping in other images to steal the idea, you take it and create a further creative expression or use it for a pragmatic purpose. This may mean when you use the image for a spoof, an homage, or simply cataloging it within an archive.

There are four exceptions for fair use to keep in mind as you weigh your options:

  • How closely does it copy the original artwork?
  • Are you using it to profit or with a non-profit educational intent?
  • Are you copying a small piece of the poster (such as a font) or the full concept?
  • Are you undermining the studio’s potential market share or value with your version?

You may see your approach as fair use, but the studio executives and their legal team may not agree. To be safe, you have a few options:

  • You can ask permission to copy the work, with low expectations of getting a ‘yes,’ since the studio likely already has licensing agreements in place.
  • You can seek legal advice and see if your version meets the fair use exceptions or not.
  • You can create your own amazing artwork and not worry about potential violations at all. That is the safest option of them all.
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Learn the art of poster design

Now that you have a fundamental understanding of posters and copyright, you may want to venture into the world of poster design and illustration.

The cool thing is that our website is dedicated to all things posters. In fact, we are currently producing an online curriculum to teach you how to create professional movie and rock posters. Our teachers are real-world art directors and creative directors, not some professor who has never stepped foot in a movie poster design agency.

If you want to learn the movie poster industry’s ins and outs or just want to make fan art, I highly suggest you sign up for our newsletter. As soon as our courses are made available to the public, you will be notified.

Plus, the newsletters have some very informative material that you will most likely enjoy.