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What to Do About Online Art Theft & Plagiarism

Suzanne is an artist and writer who enjoys designing, crafting, and upcycling. She helps artists understand their rights.

What should you do when someone steals your art online?

What should you do when someone steals your art online?

Has Someone Stolen Your Art or Design?

Are you sick of your artwork, design or photography being stolen by commercial enterprises or small businesses and used to generate profits you will never see? Often these companies employ graphic designers or "artists" who aren’t receiving enough pay or time to deliver original designs, hence they hop on the web for inspiration and “borrow” (in other words, steal) ideas for artwork.

Frequently, the original artists will be angry at the graphic designers of these companies, but sometimes it is not entirely their fault. They are rushed, stressed, inspired by your designs and trying their best to please all parties in five minutes. Though they shouldn’t do it, the blame lies with the companies themselves, who employ people in factory-like conditions and do not vet concepts, designs and artwork throughout the design process. Then, there are always some well-paid rogue designers who cannot stop stealing and will not provide original concepts and a design trail. How do you stop the madness and redeem your earnings? Here, I provide a step-by-step guide to recovering your right to your own work:

  1. Find Out Your Country's Copyright Laws
  2. Prepare, Monitor and Protect all Artwork Online
  3. Locate Stolen Artwork Online
  4. Consider Potential Gains
  5. Gather Evidence
  6. Send a Cease and Desist Letter
  7. Class Action Lawsuit

Theft vs. Flattery

There's an old adage that suggests copying is a form of flattery, but where does all this thievery help you, the artist? While the internet is a great tool for sharing, it is not meant to be used to generate profits for multinationals off the backs of working-class creators. This article provides some potential solutions that can help creators get back some of the payment they are due.

Many artists worldwide use the process below to generate money from their artwork (I will protect their anonymity by not mentioning names here). Some of them make millions of dollars. Instead of chasing buyers, they chase the companies who copy the designs. It is quite a legitimate form of compensation and doesn’t cost much too much to achieve.

First things first: Take steps to understand to what extent of the law you and your artwork are protected.

  • You need to find out the definition of a copied artwork, which may be given as a legal description or as a percentage of the total concept or surface cover (e.g., more than 20% copied constitutes copyright infringement, whereas less than 20% does not).
  • You will need to check your country’s copyright laws to determine if copyright infringement has indeed, taken place in each instance of theft.
  • 100% duplicated copies usually do constitute copyright infringement (except for the "fair use" clause, which includes personal use, education, satire, critique and other non-profitable activities).
  • Remember, you automatically own all copyrights to your work from the moment of creation.
  • Also note that copyright law does not protect ideas, only the end results of ideas. For example, you cannot copyright a style or a subject, only an actual artwork.

If you live in the United States, you have the option of registering your artwork with the United States Copyright Office within three months of creation. This does not “protect” your artwork any more than a copyright symbol does, but it can make a huge difference in getting attorneys' fees and statutory damages covered by the infringer.

Statutory damages are a set amount of money by law that you would receive, instead of having to prove in court how much profit you lost and being paid a potentially lesser amount instead.

Registering artwork can get expensive quickly if there's a lot of artwork to register, but it is worth it if you are becoming a prominent artist and people seem to keep stealing your artwork.

Alternatively, if you are not in the U.S., contact your country's copyright office to see what benefits they might offer. The World Intellectual Property Organization has a list of copyright offices per country.

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Step 2: Prepare, Monitor & Protect All Artwork Online

These technical elements can prevent your artwork from being stolen. Disabling viewers from downloading and seeing the details of your work keeps potential thieves from copying the unique aspects of your work.

Low-Resolution Images

It’s important to use only low-resolution images on the internet. When you “save for web” in Photoshop, it automatically converts your image to 72dpi (dots per inch). Use images that are 72dpi and 600 pixels in height and width (or less). If you post a bigger image or a 150dpi – 300dpi image, people can use it for quality commercial printing and upsizing, and you don’t want that! Adjust the sizing when you save your image to your hard drive for upload, whether it's Photoshop or another image editing platform.

Watermarks

Watermarking images is not always the best answer, as it can detract from your artwork and people can easily take the watermarks off in Photoshop. Graphic designers can still copy concepts, even when they are watermarked. Watermarks only deter the general public who might not have access or knowledge to remove watermarks. A subtle copyright watermark is useful for stating your rights but doesn’t stop theft.

No Right Click

Using a script to prevent users from right-clicking on artwork is a great way to stop the general public from stealing images. However, with simple keyboard techniques (that I won’t reveal here), No Right Click can be worked around fairly easily by those in the know.

Here are some resources for how to implement the "no right click' function:

Best Practice

The best way to protect your artwork online, apart from never putting it up in the first place (and that’s no good to you), is to prepare artwork appropriately, monitor artwork on the internet and respond to all copyright infringement as it occurs while extracting money from offenders.

Spot the stolen owl - Ashley Percival's designs also featured without permission on tops from Chinese clothes retailer Yesstyle.com.

Spot the stolen owl - Ashley Percival's designs also featured without permission on tops from Chinese clothes retailer Yesstyle.com.

Locate all work that may have been compromised online.

Locate all work that may have been compromised online.

Step 3: Locate Stolen Artwork Online

There are a few different ways to detect if your artwork has been stolen online.

Google Alerts

Google Alerts allow you to tag a phrase (or your name!) associated with your artwork and receive notifications about its use. Google can have a bit of a user learning curve, so check out this article on how to set up alerts. Aside from Google Alerts, there are a few other ways to find out if your artwork has been illegally reproduced.

I designed this final logo concept for a client. He didn’t even wait for me to put colour in before he said it was finished. He then refused to pay, took the low quality jpg to another (free?) designer and got them to replicate it.

I designed this final logo concept for a client. He didn’t even wait for me to put colour in before he said it was finished. He then refused to pay, took the low quality jpg to another (free?) designer and got them to replicate it.

I threatened him with a top-of-Google blog post (featuring his company name) and he eventually paid up, but needless to say, I have blacklisted him as my client.

I threatened him with a top-of-Google blog post (featuring his company name) and he eventually paid up, but needless to say, I have blacklisted him as my client.

Install the Google Chrome browser and open it. Then go to Google and type in something in the web search box, then click on “Images” at the top of search results. Get a jpg of your artwork from your computer and drag it onto the search bar where you’d normally type in something. You will see a new window open and put your image where it says “Drop Image Here”. Google Image Search will upload your photo and provide URLs and similar results, which you can then inspect at leisure. You can also go here and do this!

TinEye is the first image search engine on the web to use image identification technology rather than keywords, metadata or watermarks. Upload an image (or a URL) and TinEye converts the image into a digital “fingerprint” and compares it to all other images in its index (tens of millions are added every week), then gives you the results. It finds exact matches, not similar images (unlike Google Image Search) and can find matches that have been cropped, edited and resized. There are even different TinEye extensions you can add to your web browser.

You can try searching in Google Images for your artwork by topic, then add additional details like "cushions", "clothes", "mobile phone covers" etc. For example, I found Ashley Percival's artwork was copied because I typed "painted owl cushions" into Google and viewed the images to find them, though TinEye didn't find them and neither did a Google Image Search.

An artist's worst nightmare: Colorado Artist Carol Cavalaris' painting of "Cat In Easter Lilac Hat" was stolen by AliExpress and is now being sold as a kit so that anyone can reproduce it.

An artist's worst nightmare: Colorado Artist Carol Cavalaris' painting of "Cat In Easter Lilac Hat" was stolen by AliExpress and is now being sold as a kit so that anyone can reproduce it.

Artwork Reproduction & Manufacture

If someone’s commercially reproducing your designs, you are entitled to get compensation and justice.

It might help if you think of the offenders as customers who haven't paid yet, who need to be "educated" (i.e., threatened) or negotiated with in some way to make them pay for using your product. Apologies are not good enough. Removing the product is not good enough. They used it, and they need to pay for it. After all, you don't borrow and use THEIR products for an indeterminate timeframe and then apologise and return it, do you?

Consider all aspects of the theft and what you can gain from it.

Consider all aspects of the theft and what you can gain from it.

Step 4: Consider the Potential Gains

Think about the ramifications of the use of the artwork by the infringer and how best to deal with it.

Small Company

For example, if someone has stolen your artwork and put it on a T-shirt in an online community store like Threadless or CafePress, the best way to deal with it might be to contact the site owners and get that person’s account banned and the T-shirt removed. The reason this method should be used is that the site owners might not know it was stolen artwork and would no doubt have third-party liabilities excluded from their legal responsibilities, so a lawsuit (or even a threatened lawsuit) would be useless.

Large Company

However, a much bigger site like Alibaba or eBay, that houses hundreds of companies that reproduce stolen artwork on a massive scale deserves the full force of the law, as do stolen artworks entered into design contests with a high cash prize, or clothing companies who sell many clothes with your design on them.

Consider How Much Profit the Offender Has Gained From It

There's no point in being satisfied with an apology if they sold hundreds or thousands of items (you should be getting financially compensated) but it is silly to conduct a lawsuit over five sales. A reasonably sized invoice (with extra fees for unlawful use), along with a cease and desist Letter from a lawyer is enough to scare most of them.

Adelaide Photographer Harmony Nicholas finds businesses keep stealing her designs and putting them on T-Shirts, like this one from UK T-Shirt shop Unique 93. Unfortunately, she has no way of telling how many have already sold.

Adelaide Photographer Harmony Nicholas finds businesses keep stealing her designs and putting them on T-Shirts, like this one from UK T-Shirt shop Unique 93. Unfortunately, she has no way of telling how many have already sold.

Step 5: Gather Evidence

Grab some screenshots of the stolen artwork and note the date and time of your discovery. Note the URL of the website and (if you can find it), the date that the webpage was published. You will need the evidence later on, so get it while it’s still there! You might want to check if there are any other instances of the artwork with Google Image Search and TinEye too.

Did You Know?

If you are an artist, any expenses incurred in dealing with stolen artwork may be potential tax deductions. Check with your accountant for full details.

Send a cease and desist letter.

Send a cease and desist letter.

Step 6: Send a Cease & Desist Letter

Here’s the fun part – where you can take action about copyright infringement. You will need to choose if you will be using a law firm for a cease and desist letter or if you will be dealing with it yourself.

What Is a Cease & Desist Letter?

The purpose of a cease and desist letter is to legally state that you would like the infringer to completely stop using your artwork without your permission, and to remove it from the public eye in all mediums, otherwise further legal action will be taken against them. Include an invoice or notes about how they can compensate you for the unauthorised use of your artwork to date.

Should I Use a Lawyer?

The benefit of using a law firm is that your letters will be taken much more seriously (and therefore compensation might be more forthcoming), plus a lawyer can correctly input the legal text with the right threatening tone that you might have trouble with yourself.

If a letter does lead to court action, the paper trail that the lawyer collects is bound to be more official than your own. But not everyone can afford a lawyer, so it’s best to determine what costs are involved before making decisions.

Find yourself a reputable or well-known law firm. It’s hard to impress anyone with a threatening letter if the law firm appears to be a backstreet outfit.

Phone the law firm up and ask for a short consultation (hopefully for free) to discuss getting a quote on some work. In the first consultation, explain you are an artist and that you need a C&D letter, sent along with an invoice, that you can use over and over again (with details slightly changed) in order to threaten companies who have infringed your copyright.

Explain that you don’t have much money and would not be pursuing legal action unless it will be very lucrative to do so. Have a look at the costs. I know from experience that a letter like this (not art related) in Australia cost me $100 but it worked and I got my money back and then some! If you only have six letters to send, then paying the lawyer for a form letter might be an option.

If you have hundreds, then you might want to do it yourself or pay for the first C&D letter from a lawyer, then create your own after that, using the right legal text on your own letterhead. Alternatively, if you have a friend who is a lawyer and they would be open to assisting with a recyclable form letter, this is the time to call them.

Don't Recycle the Lawyer's Letterhead

It would be illegal to get a lawyer’s form letter and reproduce the letterhead without their permission. Do not do this or you will have a big legal problem because the recipients of the letter will contact the law firm and they’ll find out. However, you can use the text in your first paid C&D Letter to formulate your own at a later date (on your own letterhead).

Include an Invoice

Always send C&D letters to CEOs or heads of companies, not other people. They are the ones who make the decisions and understand the ramifications of adverse publicity. You may need to research or phone them anonymously to find out who they are and their contact details.

Choose whether to include an invoice with it, or word the letter to be open to negotiation on compensation. Price the unauthorised use of your artwork accordingly.

As a guideline, some people like to charge four times the full-priced rate of the work as a sort of "fee" for the infringement.

Writing DIY Letters

Examples of sample C&D letters can be found online with a Google search.

If you are doing the C&D letters yourself, you will need to decide if you will enclose an invoice for a specified amount, or if you will be open to negotiation about compensation. If you send an invoice, make sure that, to the best of your knowledge, they can afford to pay your invoice. If they are a small corner store, do not ask for $10 million unless they've made $10 million from your artwork.

Making sure that it is a reasonable amount they can pay means they will be more likely to pay. The same advice goes for making it too cheap. If you're writing to a multimillion-dollar corporation, be realistic. If you are open to negotiation about the amount (i.e., you don't know how widespread the damage is) then threaten them in the letter and put the "open to negotiation on a settlement for the unauthorised use of my artwork" comment at the bottom of the letter, so they can see it as an easy way out.

Make Your Case

A good way to show the head of a company your proof of infringement is to create an image and print it onto a photo. Put your artwork on the left side of the image, with “Original” typed on it, and put the infringing art on the right side with “From [url of offending website] [date screenshot was taken]” typed, so the CEO can immediately compare the artwork.

Also, create a separate photo showing a screenshot of the web page with the offending item, so that the URL and their company logo can be clearly seen. They may need to be A4 photos.

The idea is to scare the CEO with good-looking hard evidence, so using photos instead of a grainy home colour printout is absolutely necessary. Make sure all materials in the envelope look serious and professional, otherwise it will be a waste of time. Recreate any sloppy-looking invoices, use business envelopes if possible and make that C&D letters look like you are serious!

Send the letter by registered post. There are two reasons for this – firstly, you need to know it has been received at the other end (after all the time you’ve put into it), and secondly, it’s another scare tactic for the CEO. He/she gets this professional looking letter, which is tracked and with slick evidence inside, a seriously threatening C&D letter and a businesslike invoice. They would have to be pretty callous to ignore it.

Relax . . . Or Not!

After all that hard work and the unleashing of your anger on poor, unsuspecting CEOs (most of whom won’t know about the infringing artwork before your letter arrives), it’s time to relax. You’re probably going to get a certain rate of return on your own letters, while lawyer C&D letters get a much higher rate of return (the CEOs get scared you will pursue legal action, after all, you’ve already contacted the lawyer).

If you don’t hear from anyone in a reasonable time frame, then you can take other actions to make yourself feel better about the whole distasteful episode:

  • If it was a widespread infringement and a large amount of compensation could be obtained, it may be wise to pay to take further legal action.
  • Contact a variety of media organisations and offer your story to them for a fee. You’d be surprised how many hungry journalists are looking for stories on this.
  • Write an article about your experience and share it all over the place, as well as using SEO techniques, so it comes up in search results when people look for the company online (this can scare them into paying too, I’ve done it and it’s worked!) But you have to take down your articles after being fairly compensated, though no other blog or news outlet needs to.
  • Write on public forums about your experience so that it pops up in search results for the company too. Remember, it isn’t defamation if it is the truth, and you have the evidence to prove it.
  • Create new artwork about the experience and sell it. For example, Eddie Colla hit back at Walmart with his new, limited edition print and a message for Walmart included on it.

See two examples of how artists Lawrence Richmond and Nancy Framer handled plagiarism below.

Example 1: DIY Bootlegger Style

Here is another type of DIY, based on the "don't get mad, get even" school of thought. You have to applaud Paul Richmond's style in dealing with an eBay seller Cai Jiang Xun, who was mass manufacturing his paintings. Richmond catfished his copier into giving him all the evidence of fraud he needed and more.

Californian Artist Eddie Colla had his artwork stolen by Walmart and sold as a “Banksy” print. In order to reclaim his artwork, he created a limited edition print called “It’s Only Stealing If You Get Caught” to fund legal fees in the case.

Californian Artist Eddie Colla had his artwork stolen by Walmart and sold as a “Banksy” print. In order to reclaim his artwork, he created a limited edition print called “It’s Only Stealing If You Get Caught” to fund legal fees in the case.

The original artwork which was stolen by Walmart.

The original artwork which was stolen by Walmart.

Example 2: Nancy Farmer vs. Wendy Marani

Wendy Marani is a Florida-based "artist" made now famous (shamefully) for her remanufacturing of the works of several artists. Nancy Farmer has not received the justice she has sought yet.

Organize a class action lawsuit.

Organize a class action lawsuit.

Step 7: Class Action Lawsuits

If you notice that there are lots of other artists having their work stolen by the same company, you might like to consider a class-action lawsuit.

Basically, it involves contacting the other creators, getting together to have a lawyer consult on the matter, and getting a quote on costs. Then, you proceed as the group agrees.

The benefits of class action lawsuits are that lots of publicity can be generated around them, so the company is more likely to pay up, plus costs are less per person and returns are greater per person. All creators should log details of infringements and gather evidence in preparation for these kinds of lawsuits before they become too public.

Conclusion: Take Back Control of Your Work

All of this may sound like a lot of work, but as previously mentioned, it can be very lucrative and is definitely worth a try. There’s nothing quite like finding out your original creation has been taken without permission and used to generate decent profits for others while all you are left with is anger and resentment. Don’t destroy your creativity with negative feelings – take action, feel better, move on and keep creating with your soul feeling the way it should!

Resources

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2014 Suzanne Day

Comments

Suzanne Day (author) from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on September 15, 2020:

Hi, unfortunately I don't know of anyone who could help, other than international copyright lawyers. Hopefully someone who sees this might have more information for you.

supporttheartist on September 10, 2020:

Hello, I'm trying to do research right now on how to help some of my favorite Korean webtoon artists from having their comics being illegally posted on pirated sites as well as on social media, like Instagram. By any chance do you know of any organizations that assists international artist on filing lawsuits against individuals who steal their art from overseas? My brother has told me about certain organizations that do that, but he is not fully sure about it. If by any chance, you know about it or have another solution that can help me help these Korean artists, it would be greatly appreciated! Please and thank you in advance!

AR on July 02, 2020:

Greetings Miss Day,

I wanted to thank you for this article. As I am helping my daughter start and develop her own clothing line. We are finding that a lot of the places who have stolen the other artists works in this article are stealing our artwork and unique styles also and the line has not been made public yet. There is alot of deception and thievery with the graphic designers at these organizations they are stopping artists before they get started. Enlightening post.

Warmly,

AR

Peter Evans on June 15, 2020:

Not only do I have every change to artworks over the 17 years, dated. I too have from the retired person whom I created the artwork for, a letter stating my artwork written about a year ago to clear this matter up!

It is as written above Willful Plagiarism.

My first two solicitors rubbish, indeed second one told me to wait 6 weeks with my Rolls Court stuff. That six weeks timed me out!

Suzanne, This is UK, whilst I now have a very good lady representing me, an IP Pro Bono, so free. In theory we can't loose, just a matter on monies now. But this is UK. When I protected a young lady from being sexually attacked. Mr Went attacked my party four times. Police attended twice.

I lost in the end 80% of my business? Plus was warned weeks before that I was about to loose my business!

I could go on and on about the corruption in my home town.