Like countless other faces in the deviantART crowd, Nina “SpaceCoyote” Matsumoto was an aspiring artist. Laid off from a job as a florist, she managed to make ends meet for a few months by taking commission requests. Before resuming her job search in earnest, though, Matsumoto decided to take advantage of her free time to draw as many “fun” pieces as she could. A long-time fan of The Simpsons, Matsumoto drew a picture of the show’s cast in her own manga-influenced style – something she’d been meaning to do for a while – and uploaded it to deviantART under the title “Simpsonzu.”

The reaction was something that she could never have imagined. “Simpsonzu” became a hit quite literally overnight – from the front page of deviantART to Digg, and from Digg to everywhere else. Matsumoto woke up to find that she had become an internet celebrity, and it only got bigger from there. Magazines and newspapers picked up the story, including U.K. publication ZOO, which wondered if the picture’s popularity could be bad news for its artist, claiming Simpsons creator Matt Groening was “notoriously litigious when it comes to any of his ideas.”

Not only were ZOO‘s predictions unfounded, but exactly the opposite happened: Within a week, Matsumoto had been contacted by Groening’s Bongo Comics to bring her manga style to the official Simpsons comic book. ZOO‘s skepticism wasn’t without precedent – some creators struggle with the idea of fan-made derivative works. The issue isn’t limited to art, either: Anne Rice, for example, has barred Fanfiction.net from hosting stories based on her vampire novels.

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Other creators welcome them. After Buffy the Vampire Slayer went off the air, creator Joss Whedon encouraged fans to read and write fanfiction based on the series. Though different creators and copyright holders have their own viewpoints, sites like deviantART and Fanfiction.net allow anyone with the time and inclination to publish his own take on someone else’s story and characters. With anybody and everybody able to mold someone else’s creations as they see fit (and find an audience for it), it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the creator’s rights end and the fan’s rights begin.

Matsumoto is one of a small group of artists who have experiences on both sides of the story. “Simpsonzu” earned her a deal with publisher Del Rey, and the first volume of her original Japanese mythology-inspired manga Yokaiden hit shelves back in November. Like Nina Matsumoto, both Nathan Maurer and Jessie Lam have also seen both sides of the issue: After winning Tokyopop’s “Rising Stars of Manga” contest, Maurer drew the full-length Atomic King Daidogan, while Lam does freelance work – most recently as the color artist of dinosaurs versus humans comic Neozoic. How had their experience as creators affected their attitudes as fans – if at all?

Whether it’s a 10-year-old drawing Wolverine on his schoolwork or a 25-year-old drawing the cast of Street Fighter and uploading it to deviantART, making fan art in no way infringes upon a creator’s right to control his or her IP. It’s “just what fans do,” argues Maurer, who goes by the name captainosaka on deviantART. While Matsumoto agrees, and in fact enjoys seeing fan art of her work, she points out that the situation gets much trickier when money is involved.

Go to practically any convention – from large events like Comic-Con and Otakon down to locally-run gatherings – and you’ll probably be able to find a dealer’s room where you can find individual artists selling prints of their artwork, often of characters from popular series like Final Fantasy or Naruto. “Technically speaking, it’s illegal in North America,” says Lam – also known as axl99 – since when it comes down to it, these artists are making money off of copyrighted content.

But is it morally wrong? The profit margins on selling prints are often so small that companies rarely see the point in getting involved – and many artists only aim to make enough money to cover expenses. For Matsumoto, the morality simply comes down to a matter of permission: “If someone did fan art of my work and asked for permission to sell it, I would say yes.” Without permission, though … well, she’d feel slighted at the least. Maurer, on the other hand, feels that it’s a matter of profit – the little guy who just wants to cover the cost of getting to the con is one thing, but once someone tries to start a genuine profit-making business out of someone else’s original creations, they’re crossing the line.

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Sometimes, though, the money isn’t changing hands just for a print of a picture, but for the image itself. Many aspiring artists allow others to commission artwork from them. These requests are often from people who can hardly draw a straight line, but who would like to see their favorite character(s) come to life. Commissions highlight the question at the center of all of this: How much is a picture worth?

Pricing a commission is tricky work, Matsumoto admits, since so many factors go into it. Whether the artist is drawing on a tablet or with consumable items like markers and colored pencils, supplies cost money. The piece itself takes time to draw – and more than that, the artist’s experience comes into play. To illustrate her point, Matsumoto paraphrases an anecdote where a customer demands to know how an artist can charge so much money for a drawing that only took him 15 minutes to do. “Because,” responds the artist, “it took me 15 years so I could do that in 15 minutes.”

Even if a picture isn’t commissioned, it still has value, as it cost the artist time and materials. It is something he could well have gotten paid for; it is something that took hours, even days to complete. Essentially, for artists who can turn a profit on commissions, posting a picture online for everybody to enjoy is like working for free. What benefits do they find in posting their work on sites like deviantART?

For Matsumoto, it’s an online presence, “like a musical artist who will have a few MP3s available for free download on their site to help spread their music. Not to mention the experience I gain from it. When I do art for fun, usually I’ll experiment with some new techniques to see how it turns out.” Circulating fan art through their respective fandoms generates valuable word-of-mouth advertising – as seen through the breakaway success of “Simpsonzu.”

Lam agrees that one of the most important benefits of drawing fan art for pleasure is the experience. For her, it’s “mostly practice, the chance to blow off some creative steam for fun. I find reinterpreting a visual style an interesting challenge from time to time.”

Maurer, whose largest recent project has been “Double K,” an ongoing fan comic that reimagines super robot anime Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann as an ’80s cop show a la Miami Vice, also cited experience as a prime benefit – letting him get pages under his belt as a comic book artist without the pressure of a publishing deadline. However, for him, it went beyond that – above all else, Maurer says that he loves “knowing that people are looking at the crap I put out there and laughing and enjoying it, partially because I’ve tried to make it funny and well-crafted, but mostly because, deep down, I am a gigantic fanboy nerd and, like all the other fans, want to see my favorite characters running around and having adventures again. That’s seriously worth every minute spent working on this kind of thing.”

Whether it’s for the experience, the joy of the community or maintaining an online presence, there are certainly quite a few people like Matsumoto, Lam and Maurer showing off their fan art for free on the internet. On deviantART alone, seven million of the approximately 75 million “deviations” are classified as fan art – as are 11 of the site’s 100 most popular images of all time.

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The strength of sites like deviantART, Fanfiction.net and YouTube – that anyone can be a creator and receive instant feedback – is also their weakness: Anyone can be a creator. By Sturgeon’s Law, “90 percent of everything is crap.” Does the free nature of deviantART help budding artists, or does it just make it harder for the talented to stand out?

Both Maurer and Lam agree that while it’s easy to get lost in the noise, the truly talented have a way of somehow standing out of the crowd. “Either an artist is known for their work, or they’re known for how they interact with a community, or both,” says Lam.

On the other hand, while Matsumoto concurs that the community aspect of deviantART makes it “a great way to get your work out there,” she doesn’t know if “Simpsonzu” or her other works would have done so well without the fanbase she’d accrued on her own via her old webcomic Saturnalia. “I had the advantage of making some sort of name for myself online first with my webcomic. I don’t think I would’ve gotten so many people to follow my artwork if it wasn’t for that. Maybe the Simpsons piece wouldn’t have even been so widely circulated if I didn’t have a fanbase.”

First with Saturnalia and now with Yokaiden, Nina Matsumoto is no stranger to having other people do fan art of her own work, and in fact finds it rather flattering. The sentiment is shared by Lam and Maurer. While Matsumoto thinks that it’s certainly crucial for aspiring artists to work on their own original creations, she won’t stop drawing fan art anytime soon. Her latest piece to be circulated around the internet was immediately after the U.S. Presidential Election, featuring Barack Obama as Okami‘s Sun Goddess Amaterasu. (Capcom’s blog fittingly dubbed the piece “Obamaterasu.”)

On average, there are eight new submissions to the Fan Art category on deviantART every minute – that’s 480 per hour, or roughly 11,520 new deviations ever day. Some of them are posted by people like Maurer, Lam, and Matsumoto, who have found success on their own. Some are posted by artists who just want to show the doodles they’ve done of their favorite characters off to their friends. Then there are the hopefuls, the aspiring artists who are waiting for their one big break to come along – their “Simpsonzu.” Until that time, though, they’ll keep on drawing and posting their fan art, whether for the experience, the fanbase, or because that is, indeed, just what fans do. Neither Lam nor Maurer plan to call it quits either – “partially because,” laughs Maurer, “like most artists who put stuff online, I’m kind of an attention whore.”

John Funk can draw a straight line – if he uses a ruler.

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