With websites such as Pinterest, Etsy and DeviantArt, the Internet provides boundless opportunities for artists and designers to showcase their work, find clients, and sell their creations. Unfortunately, using online art marketplaces comes at a hefty price: the distinct possibility of having your work stolen.
Most online thievery amounts to little more than flattery—teenagers swiping a graphic for their band’s concert poster or an amateur game designer grabbing fantasy images from an online gallery.
These cases of “light” intellectual property (IP) theft are so widespread that, beyond sending a simple email to the art thief, taking action against them might not be worth the time and energy.
It’s another matter if offenders are attempting to profit from the unauthorized distribution of your creative work—or passing it off as their own. That kind of IP theft can damage your reputation and your brand, not to mention your revenue stream.
How to defend yourself from image theft online
When it comes to online image theft, the best offense is a good defense.
Ideally, every artist should legally copyright his or her work, but at the very least, write “Copyright [year] [your name or company]. All Rights Reserved” at the bottom of your creations and portfolios. Known as a “poor man’s copyright,” this notice informs the general public that you care—though it doesn’t mean art snatchers will.
More effective is an enforceable copyright, and for that you must file a copyright with your nation’s copyright office. The cost of filing a copyright is low, and the benefits are persistent. If a battle with IP thieves really heats up, a registered copyright can be your heavy artillery.
There are also a few other steps that can help safeguard images of your work online.
Watermarking may dissuade the casual “borrower,” though a determined image manipulator can strip the watermark with little trouble. Moreover, watermarks can cause more harm than good by deterring prospective clients from passing your work around.
Uploading low-resolution images might be a better option, as thieves are less likely to steal something they can’t alter or effectively incorporate into another work.
Copyright enforcement for the visual arts has traditionally been too costly for individual artists, but that’s changing via companies like ImageRights and PlagHunter. Both claim the ability to track works online and employ constant reporting of potential violators to their customers.
Letting would-be image thieves know that you use one of these services may give them pause—just include a notice on your website or portfolio that says “All works on this page protected by [copyright enforcement service].”
If you do intend to put your work out in public, consulting with a small business attorney knowledgeable about IP issues can be very useful as well. Even if you only show in galleries and craft shows, your hard work—your livelihood—can still be pilfered and copied. A lawyer can help you understand the full extent to which your individual expressions are protected.
Has your art been stolen? Report it and go public
Sending a polite note is often enough to get copied art taken down. Sites that host creative assets in a seemingly anonymous atmosphere, such as Alibaba and eBay, are prime venues for art appropriators to peddle stolen work. These sites have strict enforcement policies and will always remove copyrighted materials when asked to (this is when having those officially registered copyrights really comes in handy).
Other instances of IP theft are more difficult to handle, and require a more aggressive strategy, such as issuing a DMCA take-down notice to the website’s owner and legal counsel.
You can find templates of DMCA take-down notices and cease and desist letters, prepared by attorney and visual artist Linda Joy Kattwinkel, on the American Institute for Graphic Arts (AIGA) site.
Von Glitschka, a celebrated graphic artist, constantly struggles with IP theft.
In an interview with Envato, he says, “I run into copyright infringement of my work all the time. At least once a month on average. . . Two of the situations last year I had to get a copyright lawyer involved in and one I’m still wrangling with because they continue to infringe.”
In one case, Glitschka compiled DMCA complaints for each infringement, sent them to the offending website’s legal representation with an attached invoice, and ended up receiving payment for the work that had been stolen.
Art is a free-flowing and often deeply collaborative endeavor, but artists shouldn’t be shy about asking for and receiving proper recognition for their efforts. So if you’ve had your art copied online, take action! The resources above are a good start.
Special thanks to Seattle-based writer Jonah Gruber and Avvo (the leading online legal marketplace) for contributing this article! Avvo provides on-demand legal services for a fixed cost, to make legal faster and easier.
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