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  On the Legality of In-Game Portraits [Updated]  
Posted 2005-11-07 by Tony Walsh
Much like there was a bit of a business in portraits for tabletop game characters during the 1980s, it appears that players of today's online games are interested in immortalizing their digital avatars. Alice of Wonderland points out that a World of Warcraft player is offering professional-quality digital paintings of in-game characters in exchange for virtual gold. Elsewhere [I can't find the link right now], real comic book artists are offering to sketch your City of Heroes or City of Villains characters*.

While the idea for in-game portraits had struck me in the past, what stopped me from pursuing the idea was the fact that the imagery being created and sold belongs solely neither to the player nor the artist. Even though players customize their own characters, they don't own their creations. These are instead owned by the game developer or publisher (depending on the terms of service). When an artist paints an in-game character, they are painting a copy of a corporately-owned character. In-game portraits are, in my limited legal understanding, a black market commodity. Does "fair use" apply? Any lawyers or copyright experts care to comment?

*Update1: This isn't the link I was looking for, but it will do. It seems there's a company that does an official City of Heroes comic book, and that one or more of its artists were offering to sketch player characters during an official tour. One assumes this is "legal" as seen by NCsoft, makers of City of Heroes. However, that World of Warcraft business is still iffy.

Update2: This is the link I was looking for--thanks to a reader for pointing me in the right direction. Again, this is an NCsoft official sketching event.
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Comment posted by Jos 'Hyakugei' Yule
November 7, 2005 @ 3:33 pm
Unfortunately, even if it falls under "fair use" rights, those rights have been effectively nullified by corporate entities which have much more money to engage in "nuisance" suites, which most individuals can't afford to defend. What then happens is most people stay clear of anything they see is "potentially" infringing, ie self censoring. Which is kind of sad.
Comment posted by J-at-NC
November 8, 2005 @ 7:35 am
Here's a better story about the City of Heroes sketching; in just over a week's time, organised by NCsoft, comic artists will be sketching characters at a comic expo in the UK.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
November 8, 2005 @ 8:58 am
That's the one I was looking for, thanks J. If you're from NCsoft and can comment about the IP issues involved, I'd be interested to know who owns rights to the sketch the artists render. Is it NCsoft, who owns all the game characters, the artist who executes the rendering, or the consumer, who used NCsoft's tools to create a unique character of their own design?
Comment posted by J-at-NC
November 8, 2005 @ 9:04 am
I'm afraid I'm not placed to comment, but I will see if I can find someone who is :)
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
November 8, 2005 @ 10:27 am
Cheers, J.
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