How to fight back after your art is stolen online

How to fight back after your art is stolen online

CultureMay 30, 2017 By Samantha Keller

It’s a Wednesday afternoon and I’m at work scrolling Facebook instead of sending an email I was suppose to when a photo I recently shot suspiciously appears on my timeline without my knowing who used it.

I’m a photographer, so it's not unusual — I’m friends with a lot of the people I work with. I almost thought nothing of it at first, even when I noticed the photo was being used to introduce an article I knew nothing about. Growing more curious about it, I finally click on the link to get a better idea why I’m seeing my photo there. For one, I’m hoping they gave me credit (fingers fucking crossed), but when I get there, an entirely different photographer's name is below the photo. Becoming more upset about it, I continue to scroll the article and see another image of mine with the same dude’s name underneath the photo. Now I’m outright pissed.

By the end of day through multiple emails later, I sort it out with the media outlet who posted it, let them use the images they didn’t ask for as long as they give proper credit moving forward. I let them get away easy, mostly because I was unaware what my rights are as an artist — a lot of us don’t know how to navigate the realm of copyright. Which is why it severely upsets me when I see other artists’ work getting ripped off on the Internet.

Sarah — also known as "Catface" — is an artist based in Denver, Colorado. She experienced something similar firsthand after a company in the UK stole her art off the web and plastered it on crewnecks and t-shirts. When her following caught wind of what was happening, there was an outpouring of support. What she did from there is still of growing conversation in the art world.

How did you discover someone had used your art without your knowledge or permission?

Thankfully one of my followers had notified me when they saw it and asked me if it was a collaboration ... which it was not. (Collaborations are normally when an artist is giving credit and acknowledge that work was created between the artist and the brand.)

How did you feel when you realized it was for profit?

Ripped off. They were selling each sweater for 85 Euros, which is about $93. That’s major profit. I struggle too much to let someone else cash in on my own work.

After you discovered what had happened, how did you handle the copyright process?

I’m still working on (getting a) trademark and copyrighting my work. Luckily, I do get help from my sister — who is way better at handling these sort of things — to lean in on these situations. She’s the logical one of in the family.

I’m no expert, but after reviewing Instagram’s Terms of Use and stance on copyright infringement, it appears they have a take-matters-into-your-own-hands type of policy and recommend you ask the user to remove content before seeking legal options. Do you believe there should be more in place to protect artists, or are we at a loss with the vastness of the web?

I wish there was a way to document and prove you own your work without having to go through some sort of legal process. If you created it, it’s yours. That wouldn’t be an issue if everyone was honest and original, but since that’s not very likely, sometimes I do feel like we are at a loss with the vastness of the web. Luckily, we have a wonderful community of artists, online and offline, to stick up for each other.

The hardest part seems to be getting compensated financially. Most companies aren’t willing to budge after they remove the content, and artists are left deciding whether to lawyer up or not. Getting a legal team involved is costly, especially when dealing with a company that’s located in another country and when you’re an independent artist getting ripped off by a larger business (ie. Tuesday Brassen and the huge conglomerate Zara). How did finances come into play in your own battle?

Personally, I want to avoid legal action at all costs, so the first step is doing whatever I can without it. I’d much rather use that money for my own business. I’ve had a lot of people suggesting that I sue for compensation or have them feel the clothing for a percentage but I’d rather just drop it. If I spent the money on a lawyer, I’m not sure I’d break even.

You had an immense amount of support on this. I saw a lot of comments on both your page and the company’s with people backing you up (with many trying to report it as copyright infringement). What does that say about the art community and about your support system?

I was really surprised with how much support I had and how willing my friends and followers were to help.They put them on blast, posting comments and sending them direct messages, emails, phone calls. The company definitely felt a lot of pressure. Most artists know and understand how difficult it is to be an artist. It’s not the type of skill that is easily beneficial for us financially. Which is why I think the community is so willing to jump in and help each other out. It’s a DIY community that we are building from the ground up and we are not going to let each other get walked on by bigger businesses when we are struggling to make our own dreams come true. I’ve met a lot of beautiful, unique and compassionate people online and offline through art in all its forms. It’s a wonderful thing. Probably the next best thing about art, besides making it, is the community and everything it has to offer.

While scrolling the comments, another issue was brought to light: people see your art online and they become inspired by it. They end up recreating the art (either identical to the original or with a few color/technique adjustments) and post it to their socials without giving proper credit. I know they say imitation is the best form of flattery, but this seems to have some characteristics of copyright infringement. Is this more of an insult or honor?

When I was a kid, I copied pictures of Sailor Moon and Pokémon in my notebook. I try to be understanding of these sort of things because I think back from when I was a kid and what I did to practice drawing. Most of the people are young and have access to the web and haven’t learned the proper way to post and credit artists. In these cases, it’s more flattering. Occasionally though, someone will copy work and claim it as their own. This is extremely insulting. But once again, this is why I believe we should be civil and communicate and hopefully educate one another.

There’s a right and wrong way to handle situations like these. Do you have any advice for artists and the people who support artists when they see other’s work being violated?

My first instinct was to put it out there what was happening. What I wish I had done was ask everyone to be civil. The company had told me they were receiving actual threats from people and I felt bad for that. So my advice is that we should try and be civil and communicate with one another.

Do you hesitate to post your art on the Internet when you go through experiences like these? Do the benefits outweigh the dangers of the web?

I honestly do think the benefits outweigh the danger. None of these situations have stopped me from posting to the web. I have learned how to take precautions, like posting in a low enough quality that the image cannot be saved and printed. Now I am taking the next step to trademark my name and copyright all my images.

Without the web, I would not have met all the amazing artists and art lovers I’ve made friends with these past few years, or have gotten the opportunities I’ve had so far. It allows me to grow my audience and to communicate with my followers openly and easily. It’s really a wonderful tool with so many benefits that I don’t think I will ever stop sharing my work, at least not anytime soon. It brings like-minded people together. This is one powerful way our community grows.