I'm planning on doing a bit of a web app project, but worried that it may be in a legal gray area and looking for some clarification and perhaps warnings on what not to do. The project outline is more or less the following.

The web app will allow users to 'roleplay' online through writing, acting as one or more characters. These could be based on some artwork they've seen, a movie character, or some other fictional being.

Now, I do want my users to be able to upload image 'references' to these things. But again, I'm afraid this will fall under copyright infringement.

However, I've also heard about something called 'transformativeness'. Does writing a story or using artwork as references for roleplay count as 'transformative'?

In the Wikipedia page about it, link here, it says:

In United States copyright law, transformativeness is a characteristic of some derivative works that makes them transcend, or place in a new light, the underlying works on which they are based. In computer- and Internet-related works, the transformative characteristic of the later work is often that it provides the public with a benefit not previously available to it, which would otherwise remain unavailable. Such transformativeness weighs heavily in a fair use analysis and may excuse what seems a clear copyright infringement from liability.

And I'd argue that putting a history, personality, setting, and acting those things out among other roleplayers would count towards both putting the artwork into a new light as well as bringing a new benefit for the public that wouldn't otherwise be there.

In addition to the above. Would anything change if I were to use Patreon to support the development and maintenance of such a site?

Either way, I would like to hear anyone else's thoughts on the matter. And I will probably signup for safe harbor never-the-less.


Fortunately, you are not in a legal grey area - what you are proposing clearly violates copyright and trademark law

Transformitiveness under copyright law involves commenting on, criticizing or parodying the original work - you are not doing that.

In addition, fictional characters have trademark protection - you cannot use, for example, Mickey Mouse, Sherlock Holmes or Captain America without the permission of the trademark holder. Trademarks do not need to be registered to be protected.

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  • Sherlock Holmes is a poor example, as most of the character is now public domain. – Nij May 24 '19 at 7:26
  • @Nij but he could still be a trademark – Dale M May 24 '19 at 8:50
  • Using the name of a PD character to refer to that character is not going to be remotely near infringing a trademark, any more than using the word Apple to talk about the magical fruit of Christian myth or McDonald's to talk about the farm owned by an old person could. – Nij May 24 '19 at 9:01
  • @Nij but the OP appears to be talking about fan fiction wrt the character – Dale M May 24 '19 at 9:05
  • Does the activity (barring the upload of copyrighted pictures) on OP's site not fall under the same fair use policy as fan fiction does? To what degree is the website owner responsible? There's are many Movies.SE users whose username and/or avatar is from a copyrighted franchise; are they violating copyright and trademark law? – Flater May 24 '19 at 12:06

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