Characters Belong to their Fans, Not their Creators
In this heavily debated world of Intellectual Property rights and their seemingly direct conflict with consumer creative expression, it has become my belief that the rights to fictional characters or worlds become property of their fans rather than the traditional rights holder as soon as they become popular. Content owners, instead, should have claim only to the franchise/series and canonical story-line.
Fictional people, places and sometimes things assume an existence in the minds of the consumers separate from the created work, obtaining a "life" of their own. This is exhibited when fans are inspired to create fan-fiction stories and artwork about a particular character, or even to create an amateur video mini-series set within an existing fictional universe. Motivated by passion alone, creative fans produce high quality content for the enjoyment of their fellows, completely free of charge.
These people are not committing malicious infringements on the intellectual property of the show or book series that they adore: On the contrary, they aim to celebrate it by contributing their creativity and talents!
And yet modern "common sense" regards these individuals as criminals, people to be sought out and intimidated by large companies who can afford expensive lawyers and write legally-backed Cease and Desist letters. These fans have neither the resources nor reason to take on such corporate bullying, and as a result most back down (arguably denying every fan and the series as a whole valuable creative works).
With both parties believing themselves to be correct, and with presumably no malicious intentions on either side, where is the disconnect? Obviously, consumers value their beloved series, and can even cause quite an outcry when the "rightful owner" takes it in a direction destructive to the fan perception (as seen in the Jar Jar Binks/Hans Shot First outcries), so are not the fans the true curators?
(This post is about nonprofit derivative works only)