The Blue Bawl: Karmine Corp fans are raging on Twitter about others adapting their org’s artwork ahead of EU Masters, but is it theft or fair use? We asked a legal copyright specialist

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X7 Esports made history on the weekend when they became the first esports organisation from the Isle of Man to reach the EU Masters, but their celebrations were marred somewhat on social media. Fans of French LFL organisation Karmine Corp argued an image posted on Twitter by X7 members and other teams was ‘stolen’ from Karmine and adapted without their permission.

Debate and confusion ensued, and we thought it’d be useful for organisations and the LoL esports community to understand the legalities around image copyright to prevent such ire in the future. ENUK editor Dom Sacco spoke to Marks & Clerk LLP registered and chartered trade mark attorney Michael Shaw to get an expert opinion on image copyright.

First of all, the image in question, posted by several people including X7 head coach Nias:

https://twitter.com/nias_lol/status/1505297919255142409

Some Karmine Corp fans were quick to pounce on those sharing the image, saying it’s an adaptation of a stolen piece of artwork that Karmine Corp had originally commissioned.

An artist known as JoWanna had apparently produced the original emote image, depicting a fan of Karmine Corp holding a flare (KC are a popular French LFL side also known by fans as ‘The Blue Wall’, whom Rekkles currently plays for). This kind of character has also been used on KC co-founder Kameto’s streams for some time.

Now, there’s some additional context needed here, because in recent years, fans of teams in the League of Legends EU Masters have been showing their support on social media by adapting an old flag-waving feels man image (aka the ‘wojak flag’ meme).

Here is an example of that image:

ago rogue flag meme image

The very first non-flag wojak images are said to have emerged in around 2009 on a Polish imageboard named vichan, but its origin is not entirely clear. Pepe the frog images have also been similarly used.

It’s generally accepted for any esports team to adapt the team colours and logos on the above flag image, to allow fans to share it and show their support on social media. The same feeling of acceptance seems to have been adopted by teams around the newer image, but this feeling has not been reciprocated by KC fans.

While there are some similarities with the KC artwork, there are many noticeable differences too. The flare, the blue wall, the more detailed style and a character that appears to be based on Monkey D. Luffy character from anime series One Piece, according to several observers on social media.

So, who’s in the right here? Is it fair use to copy and alter KC’s artwork, or is it theft, as they claim?

Is this copyright infringement? Here’s what a legal expert says

Michael Shaw, a legal copyright expert who works in the entertainment and creative space as a registered and chartered trade mark attorney at Marks & Clerk LLP, shared his views:

“Your query does raise some interesting issues. Copyright is a right that subsists in an original artwork, and gives the owner the right to challenge any unauthorised reproduction of that artwork. An “original artwork” means any graphic work that is a work of independent creation, that has not been copied from any existing works.  In particular, the work in question does not need to possess any artistic merit; it merely needs to be a work of independent skill and effort.

Monkey D. Luffy is wearing a red jacket with a straw hat, blue jean shorts, yellow sash, and sandals.
Monkey D. Luffy from One Piece

“If it is the case that the Karmine Corp flare-waving character was created independently by an employee of the organisation in the course of their employment, then the copyright in the character should be owned by Karmine Corp itself. If, however, the character was created by someone else, such as a third party design agency, then ordinarily the third party will own the copyright unless a separate agreement has been entered into whereby the parties agree that the copyright will be owned by Karmine Corp.”

(Esports News UK has reached out to Karmine Corp and the artist in question for details of the agreement, however they have not responded to us as of yet).

Michael continues: “This assumes that the Karmine Corp character is itself an independent work. I note that the character may have been inspired by Monkey D. Luffy and an existing flag-waving image. The question here is to what extent the character amounts to a reproduction of those earlier works, as opposed to merely being inspired by those earlier works. 

“If the Karmine Corp character was copied from an image of Monkey D. Luffy, then arguably copyright does not subsist in the Karmine Corp character since it is not an original work. If, however, the Karmine Corp character is merely inspired by Monkey D. Luffy (through the inclusion of a straw hat and black, spiky hair protruding from beneath the hat), but is in itself a work created through independent skill and effort, then copyright will subsist in the Karmine Corp character, despite any conceptual similarities with Monkey D. Luffy.

“If the KC character was copied from an image of Monkey D. Luffy, then arguably copyright does not subsist in the KC character since it is not an original work. If, however, the KC character is merely inspired by Monkey D. Luffy, but is in itself a work created through independent skill and effort, then copyright will subsist in the KC character.”

Michael Shaw, Marks & Clerk LLP

“If copyright does subsist in the Karmine Corp character, the next question is whether the reproduction of that character by others amounts to copyright infringement. If the image itself has been reproduced, with only minor changes being made such as the colour of the shirt worn by the character and the colour of the flares, such reproduction is likely to amount to copyright infringement. 

“Such unauthorised reproduction can therefore be challenged through copyright infringement proceedings by the copyright owner, although in practice it is common for copyright owners to use copyright collecting societies to enforce their rights and secure licence royalties from individuals and businesses wishing to use existing copyright works. 

Marks & Clerk LLP recently spoke on a podcast with DotX Talent about trade marking and copyright for gaming influencers

“In the UK, the Design and Artist Copyright Society (DACS) is the collecting society commonly used for artistic works such as Karmine Corp’s character. If the work is licensed to DACS, anyone can reproduce the work provided that they pay the requisite royalty to DACS (who in turn will pass on this royalty to the copyright owner). Collecting societies are national, and so for companies operating in France we’d expect them to use the French equivalent of DACS.”

So there you have it. It’s a bit of a grey area, and depends on several factors. The question is: To what lengths would KC be willing to go to defend this artwork if they argue it is 100% original?

It’s unlikely we’ll find out, as people are making other alternatives for teams and fans to use as I type this (see below).

‘Thieves, swindlers and fraudsters’ – how KC fans and the wider LoL community reacted to the images on Twitter

Those using the adapted image were branded ‘thieves, swindlers, fraudsters, looters, profiteers’ and other names, with KC fans using colourful French language on Twitter to make their feelings clearly known.

KC fans tore into LoL journalist and content creator Lee Jones below, who dared to criticise their actions, and the NLC (UK/Ireland/Nordics league) account removed the image after posting it, as confirmed by KC co-founder Kotei.

Even the charming Keanu Reeves of UK League of Legends, Nymaera, was not safe from the wrath of the KC ultras, as seen in this thread (scroll up).

Now, some have told me that these similar flag images may have been posted to purposefully antagonise Karmine Corp fans.

Whatever the intention, KC fans were not happy. The original artist even made some new artwork, attacking fans of Ultraliga’s Team ESCA Gaming and others:

Others have questioned KC’s use of Pokemon like Charizard, a property owned by Nintendo/The Pokemon Company, in their artworks.

We could go on with more vitriol and antagonism, but we’ll end the article with a display of unity.

Badlyyga, a Polish player in the Ultraliga for Gentlemen’s Gaming, who posted a series of variations of the artwork for different teams to use, said he took down this tweet after receiving death threats.

He will instead make different original mascots for teams to use:

Some have said he purposely antagonised KC fans, however, and claimed he ran a stream titled ‘making French people hate me’.

Another artist known as Hanni has also created ‘Flag Cat’ mascots for teams to use too:

After all this, KC, you can have your mascot, and other teams can have their own different ones.

Roll on, EU Masters, and may the best team win.

Further reading: LoL community questions number of NLC slots in the EU Masters once again, Caedrel bemoans ‘ridiculous seeding’

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