Content note: The links in this essay may contain NSFW artwork or ads, or animated icons.
One of the artists I follow on FurAffinity was recently surprised to find out someone had taken on the persona of an incredibly popular character he designed, on Twitter. He didn't explicitly say (in the journal) that he disapproved of this, but soon afterwards the Twitter account vanished.
As far as I know, the person on Twitter did not credit him in any way. He also did not mention them making money off of his persona. He, on the other hand, has sold commissions of people's characters posing with this character.
I used the phrase "taking on the persona" rather than "impersonating," there, because I'm not sure I see anything wrong with what this person did besides not crediting him as the artist. I'm not even sure one should need to ask permission for something like this.
If someone looks at our avatar, and has the same feeling the-part-of-us-that-is-Rei did when she watched Evangelion for the first time, I don't want to take that away from her.
I don't want to pretend it's impossible that she exists.
I don't want to tell her that what she is feeling is wrong.
I don't think she should be able to tell me not to be upset, when she posts transphobic nonsense on her Tumblr. But I don't think that should be illegal because of an exclusive "right" that I have to this character. I think that it should be outlawed because it's hate speech.
I personally feel the whole system of ownership is designed by and for rich people, usually rich white hetero cis men. The whole system of "property" seems designed to transfer as much social and financial wealth to them as possible, at the expense of fans and indigenous peoples. Then, after they "own" everything, they license or rent it to everyone else, including in some cases the people who made it.
The first victims of "property rights" on this continent were First Nations people. My understanding is that many of them didn't know just how evil the men they were dealing with were, until they found out that they'd "sold" their lands. And that they continue to be victimized in this way today, by "copyright" laws which allow capitalists to exploit their oh-so-exotic designs for profit and ignorant white people to use their designs without attribution.
But try to sell your Final Fantasy fangame, or publish fanfic without attaching this to it:
I DO NOT OWN THIS! All characters (c) by Square-Enix
And watch the legal and/or popular reprisal.
People self-police on this stuff, in the parts of the web that I go to. I think some of that is okay. You really should attribute the original creators. You shouldn't impersonate them or imply their endorsement of your work, whether you're drawing fanart or explaining religious beliefs.
(Don't get me started on the irony of Christians getting mad at Mormons for appropriating Christianity.)
But a lot of the policing goes on along lines of oppression. Corporations sue fans for making things that were inspired by the work of another person just like them, just because the people in charge have the money to say that they "own" that person's work. And people who had the lifestyle and ability to allow them to create artwork tell people who don't that they aren't allowed to have refs for their RP characters.
When I start creating a new character, like the one that I played in D&D Encounters, the first thing I do is look up other people's interpretations of that idea (or ones like it) on DeviantArt and Bing image search. I've never been able to draw very well, and I don't feel that being able to do so should be a requirement for having a personal character. I don't feel that having money should be a requirement.
I don't feel that agreeing with the creator should be a requirement, either.
Just look at the "genderbent" fanart on Tumblr. The feminist appropriations of characters originally meant to be male fantasies. Hell, Christian Sonic the Hedgehog is how I got into writing originally. And I may write elaborate backstories for my characters, but the more popular my writing becomes the more likely it is that someone will draw them as her lesbian love slaves.
(Plz send me links if you do.)
Sometimes, I feel this is wrong. That I do need permission, and that everyone who disagrees with us should have the right to shut us up. Or at least the people in the social justice world, or whatever we look to for morals and purpose these days.
But the thing is, if I had to get permission from everyone whose ideas I use, I would have to throw out two-thirds of my identities and all of my essays about them. What should I ask them for, anyway? The right to exist? To use the words that they say to mean what they say they mean?
Does the word "dysphoria" stop meaning what transgender people say it does, when a trans woman who's also an otherkin uses it?
I'm not claiming to be an albino Asian girl because I want to make a statement about albinos, Asians, or young women. I'm not saying it to pretend, or insult people, or make money from others' hard work, or make an intentional political statement. I am saying that because it is part of who I am.
I don't care if otherkin hate fictives, trans women hate otherkin, radical feminists hate trans women, or the patriarchy hates radfems. I don't care if everyone agrees that "transethnic" and "transability" are not real things, and that the only people who say they are those things are posers. I don't care if an actual, Asian, albino young woman thinks I'm making fun of her, and I wouldn't care if someone we all agreed was the actual Rei Ayanami told me to please cease and desist.
Even the-part-of-us-that-is-Rei, quiet and compliant as she is, could not do that. Because she can't help but believe that this is who she is, the same way we all agree we're female. She could stop talking about it, stop claiming to be it, or prepend "I believe" to statements she knows to be true. But the people who would ask her to do those things have the privilege of not having to do any of them, theirselves. And if the person she feels she is has less privilege along different axes than we do ourselves, well, maybe that isn't her fault.
I don't think it's right not to credit creatives, and I feel copyright laws should protect them and indigenous peoples from misattribution and capitalist exploitation. But I don't feel that anyone can legitimately gatekeep someone else's access to a myth or an identity. Whether their "ownership" of the "intellectual" "property" comes from being the artist, hiring the artist, or being a person who has been hurt or oppressed, on account of believing in that myth or having that identity.
"Fake geek girls," represent.
Trans women, represent.
Trans everything, represent.