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.
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.
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.
Founder/president of the innovative reference publisher The Archive LLC, Tom Streissguth has been a self-employed business owner, independent bookseller and freelance author in the school/library market. Holding a bachelor's degree from Yale, Streissguth has published more than 100 works of history, biography, current affairs and geography for young readers.