Cosplay, Replicas, and Royalties

Cosplay is absurdly fun, potentially big business in itself, solid free advertising for the franchises being copied, and kind of, sort of… not legal.

“What?” you say. “Not legal?” you ask. “Madness!” you exclaim.

It’s true. And I think it’s a problem that everyone wants fixed.

Most producers of media, be it movies or comics, have the right to decide how their intellectual property is being represented, which I broadly think is proper. When an individual makes a costume or a replica prop, they are basically copying the original without the permission of the creator. It’s the equivalent of doing a cover of someone else’s song, but without a royalty agency like ASCAP or SOCAN to move money.

Just like covering a song, you can make a costume yourself or for friends and that’s fine. (I think it is anyway, I’m not a lawyer by any stretch) but as soon as anybody might be making money off of it, or it’s being presented to a public audience, then it’s stumbling into potentially actionable territory. With music, there’s a system by which you can pay for the rights, with costumes and props there isn’t. I rather think that there should be.

You might say that this is silly, that nobody is going to sue over costumes. Sue, not likely, but I’ve heard more than one costumer say that your first cease and desist is a right of passage. Some guys, with a brilliant idea to make “hotel camouflage” at Dragon*Con got hit with one for sharing the pattern.

Also, I have spoken with several people at conventions that make their business off of selling unlicensed replicas of props and costumes from movies. They have unanimously been enthusiasts for their craft but their volumes are too small to be able to actually negotiate a licensing fee with the film studios. They’re willing to pay, but the lawyer fees on both sides would far exceed the profits that anyone ever expects to earn and there is no way that a studio is going to spend hours on every person that want to make a couple blasters. What I’ve been told when I ask how they stay in business is “stay under the radar, and don’t mess with the mouse.”

I, personally, make costumes and props. I try desperately to avoid doing cosplay because I don’t want to get into a legal mess. I have had a couple of requests for costume pieces from people willing to throw money at me because they can’t actually buy the thing anywhere else. There is no way for them to buy a licensed replica. it doesn’t exist. I’ve emailed the producers of the series to see if I could somehow pay for the rights to make them and I have had no responses. None. Not even a no.

This makes complete sense. They can’t give me permission because it sets a precedent and they don’t want to stop me because they know it’s good for them to have people in their costumes at events. Regardless, I’m stuck wondering if I’ll get sued someday if I decide to take the commission, even though I would be happy to pay a percentage.

The problem here is that there are people willing to pay, but they can’t. There’s money to be made, but no channel. There’s a black market that would happily be a white one.

I would really like to see someone set up a system for paying royalties for replicas similar to how the music industry deals with covers. Wanna make a couple dozen of something? Here’s the fee for each. Want to try to build a business selling something? Here’s the flat (large) fee for the unlimited license. Also, here’s the website of the middleman organization that handles the interactions so that the studios can just set their rates and get back to making more movies.

If there are any lawyer/entrepreneur/cosplayer/programmer teams out there that want to solve this problem for me, I’d be much obliged.


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. “Don’t mess with the mouse” — but remember, now that means no Star Wars! Can anyone imagine an SF con with no Star Wars cosplayers?

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