Friday, October 21, 2016

Stealing Art

by 
Greg Ruth

We live in the Age of the Image, and for we who make and express ourselves through imagery this is a great time to live in. However, the downside of this, with all this image sharing, the line between celebrating or paying homage to, and outright theft can blur... a lot. More often than not, the crossing is obvious, clear and unmistakable. It happens to everyone who makes and shares their art online and in print. It comes from all places and fronts, both high end and low. But there's a common response that can put it to an end, all it requires is that we stand behind each other as artists to make it work.

Part of existing, thriving and growing one's ability to live and pay for their lives as artists today relies heavily on coordinating and exploiting the massive revolution in social media and online exposure. It can and does, mean the difference between 20-60 people seeing your work in a gallery versus hundreds of thousands and upward. There are ongoing arguments of which is the better way to show and see work, but I think that relies upon a false premise- both have assets that can make each other work better. As a student or kid starting to look to a life in art, being able to have access to online images, WIPs, blog posts, FB interactions and information on new work and even live meet and greets is a gift beyond measure. (I would have lost my MIND to have had such a resource growing up as mine was largely rare visits to museums, the occasional art book for xmas, and whatever our Britanica might have offered up). It provides a resource and can help a young person copy practice and study a vast array of work and technique like never before. I get dozens of personal letters with some of my original pieces copied by kids or students of art, tattoos of my art, and more and I love each and every one that comes by. This is homage. It's pure fan motivation, and comes from a place of love and respect in a way that is so blush-warming and encouraging. This is the fantastic push-back from putting yourself out there in the world and especially online. I don't think I know of any artist who does not feel as I do about this.

But there's a dark side too. What can get passed off as homage, is really basic exploitation and outright thievery. And it's dangerous and very bad not just for us as individual artists, but for our entire community. I recently had an episode with a t-shirt company called TEEZILY.COM, who had taken one of my sumi drawings from the online 52 Weeks Project original portrait of Toshiro Mifune from Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. I posted it online and it's available to be seen cleanly on my very own website. This company took this as permission to screen grab the image, and launch a line of clothing featuring this on its front. Despite repeated requests to pull the page down, they continued to list the item and fulfill orders. I've had other poster companies do this and offer up prints of my work in similar fashion and even found one company in China that was mass producing hand painted canvases of some of my originals. I can barely count on one hand the number of professional artists I know who have not had to deal with this at one time or another. The big companies hide behind their massive corporate power to essential use might-makes-right to do what they like and require you, small individual human artist, to somehow wrangle the resources to take them on. Resources like the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and other groups have been instrumental in helping to inform and assist artists suffering from these events, but it is still an uphill battle at best, and these companies know this. Sometimes even worse, your publisher, or agency may have business ties to the studio or film stealing your ideas for their campaigns or films, and you're cries against the theft are sacrificed for their own larger financial goals. (This has happened to me at least once already and there is no greater betrayal of integrity than having one's own publisher and defender, step over your value and sell you off cheap like this). Other smaller fly-by-night online places... t-shirt shops, poster companies, etc... are working on essentially a smash and grab approach: hit hard and fast and sell as much as they can until they are made to stop. They still win, and they do it enough times as part of a broader strategy and now you have a viable business model.

 So why is this bad?

Unlike say the reverse argument that fuels fan art culture, these companies big and small are not in any way celebrating or even crediting the artist from whom the rob, and in fact are not only standing roughly on their shoulders to save time and money for themselves, they can at worst end up co-opting the imagery so successfully as to make the artist seem as if it was in fact he or she who copies THEM. Despite what many have gone out of their way to tell me on these occasions, even alongside true empathetic expressions of dissent from this practice, this should not be seen as a "compliment". It is not in my view anything of the kind. Art inspiring enough to copy as a fan or to learn is not the same as art that is inspiring theft. If an image is worth inspiring the act, it should inspire honoring the artist. Grabbing someone's original concepts or art to then make money from doesn't mean you're so good you're worth copying, it just means you aren't worth paying and aren't even worthy not to kick over and steal from. For some of who don't make products out of their work on purpose, it demeans their work and commodifies it against the foundational wishes of the artist who may be expressly trying NOT to do this. And god forbid you do run your own shop on your site for prints and shirts, or sell through something like Society 6 or other online retailer sites, because now you're losing actual business to someone else who is grabbing money from your pocket directly. And no, "exposure bucks" still don't buy you poop-diddly in this circumstance any more than they do any other time.

We as individual artists are not large corporate entities, or big pocketed studios for whom this kind of marginal fringe parasitical behavior is simply the cost of doing business, or even beneficial in terms of exposing others to their own shops or properties. It means they taking from you, is having a outsized financial impact upon your ability to make a living as an artist. They are abusing the sharing and open-armed nature of how social media and online communities work. Personally it makes me feel violated when I see this, and I feel it too when I hear it happening to others- and it happens far more often that it should or that we deserve.

So... what can we do about this?

Simple Cease and Desist notices can often work, but really only on small scale violations or other pop-up type business. What these all have in common as a point of exploitation, can be used against them in a more effective and immediate way. But it requires us all to stand together to make it work. These are thefts of marketing and profit, and as such require participation from customers and potential customers to contribute to the theft by buying whatever the thieves are selling. I suggest making that work against them by publicly shaming and calling out such acts of deception loudly and widely. As they use online tools to harvest stolen work for their personal profit, you can use it to poison the well against anyone buying into the scam. By and large I have found that most people when made aware of a stolen piece of art, no matter how much they may want the shirt or poster, will disengage from buying it. If a company is going to steal your work and try and sell it online, stand right next to them and reveal even more loudly, the practice these companies are engaging in to make this sale. Let the customers decide what to do and 9 times out of 20, they will turn on the company. Now you've made what was a profitable effort into one that has become a promotional nightmare and the best dividend from this can be they may think twice next time before ripping off another artist. It's a cost effective community based solution that be a powerful weapon against how our community is exploited.  Even the most selfish and narcissistic of us can reap the benefits of this by being less targeted by this practice in the future. There is no real downside to this approach. More so... by shrugging your shoulders and letting it go, you are in fact giving tacit approval of this practice not only insofar as how it effects you, but your peers for whom it could hit harder.

The community in which we all participate, share, and engage with each other in does require of us at times, to give back to the group in this way. It makes the community a stronger place, it makes the internet a safer place to share and promote work. It simply states to those that would tell us as artists otherwise, that we have a value and we are willing to remind you of how loud that value can sound should we be given the opportunity. The power they acknowledge by stealing from you is still your power, and you can use it against this kind of act effectively.

There will undoubtedly be at times a need to go lawyer- but most cases do get sorted by simple Cease and Desist forms. The truth about lawsuits is that they cost EVERYBODY. So leaping to one as a solution first thing, is not a wise path. For me personally, my goal is to end the practice and see it end. These t-shirt companies and other p.o.d. operations that do this consciously can only do so off the permission we give by our collective shrug. If we're not well known enough, then it seems even more daunting. I propose at least as a first measure, is to take that cause and make it our own as a community. You see someone getting their art pilfered like this, stop, gather folks to the issue and use the social media platform these companies rely upon against them. Make what was a publicity tool for them into a publicity disaster. These folk are not feeding a noble cause- it's about quick money. Take away the money they'll stop this nonsense.

16 comments:

  1. Great post Greg and i feel you pain. I've dedicated alot of time to my Viking Art and since the show "Vikings" has come, it seems the bootlegging is non-stop. It's almost to the point now, where i don't even want to create images of that type for fear that some Jackaloon in Malaysia will put it on a T-shirt. Cease and Desist works occasionaly, but i've found for every one i stop, three more pop up. Makes me long for the days when there was no internet...

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    1. It is EVERYWHERE. Like the worst game of Whack-A-Mole in the history of all time. That's why I think if we all start standing up before this loudly and using the same media streams they use to advertise, we can at least make it less profitable and hopefully start shutting down some of this nonsense. We'll never get rid of all the scam swipers out there, but less is more in this case I hope.

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  2. Since you suggest we should stand up and publicly shame the company in question, I have a question - We artists have been told more than once (here, on DearAD, and in other places) that we shouldn't be badmouthing companies, no matter if they deserve it or not. Is this the exception to the rule? I'm really confused here.

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    1. It's a great question. And Lauren is absolutely right. But I think this isn't the same thing. Bad Mouthing a company you had a negative experience working with is simply unprofessional and bad form, and not to mention, only really harming yourself as a professional person reputation-wise. Calling out a company that is only linking itself to you or other artists in order to steal their work is a wholly different animal. There is no professional relationship here, nor an ethical issue here in question, this is merely using the same platform they are utilizing to exploit artists, and reversing the stream on it. It is us saying no loudly to a rotten practice, not with a vengeful intent in mind, but a tactical social media wall that makes them think twice before doing this. If the social voice we can bring together can chase this kind of behavior into the dark completely, then the result is a community wide positive- even if it seems clothed in the same sort of negativity used to troll your boss online. At least that's my perspective on it.

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    2. I don't know, if hena referred with the question to your example of your publisher / agency betraying your trust as their client, that you mentioned in your article. How should artists handle such a case? Is there a category for such publishers on the PACT artpact website to caution other artists of those black sheep?

      Thank you for this article! Just yesterday I came across @shoparttheft on Twitter. It's an account there, where such copyright infringements by companies are listed. I noticed that since July they are still trying to stop a certain fashion company from selling plagiarized pin designs from indie artists. Right now it seems that that company just gets tweets they don't like deleted and continues to sell their copies of the pins.

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    3. That makes sense, thanks for your reply!

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  3. Great read! The responsibilitiy of eradicating this practice rests on us as artists. We must consolidate our resources and put a stop to this!

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    1. Thanks- yes, just a couple of clicks with the keyboard from each of us, and we can make it hard to keep doing this business.

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  4. Great article Greg !

    i was wondering if you could give any advice on selling fan art if you draw it yourself?

    i have done it in the past to a certain limit , i normally send out an email to the company first who have the rights to that character/designs, roughly 80%+ never even reply but i have had the odd few say yes and no.

    big fan of you're work and i love the star wars ones , just curious is there a limit or guild lines to selling fan art?

    thanks and keep up the amazing work

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    1. Well you as an artist can draw or paint anything or anyone you like. When you turn it into products that's when you're technically committing a copyright violation. Keep to that rule and you can steer through it fine. There have been instances where a major corp has gone after folks for making fan art originals, but the law is not behind them, and they attack only as a chilling effect to the practice. Unless you are turning it into hats or shirts or whatever. Largely the smart companies don't tend to shoot down and waste legal teams on chasing individual fans doing this, but sometimes they like to make an example as a scare tactic.

      It really comes down to using people's art to make products and then sell those products. That's where these companies who steal work get it wrong, and it's where fans who do this get in trouble.

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  5. What about tattoo artists? They clearly steal art everyday and make a great living at it.

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    1. I love tattoo art and I am always deeply honored when someone posts a pic of my work on them. It's more about people who steal art to promote a product or to create products themselves without crediting or asking for permission of the artist, and then profiting from that at the artist's expense. To me tats are about love and appreciation.

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  6. And again, reaching out, getting permission or a license, that's always the best route to take if the intent is to make things rather than art. And not all licensors hold the rights to all aspects of a given property. For instance, you may have the studio own the title and credits and their respective logo, the estate might own likenesses- separate for each estate, and some equity form could hold some other level of property rights to a given subject. it can get deep0weeds tricky.

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  7. I've heard different anecdotes from other artists victimized by this. They all seemed to have found the theft by accident. Are there ways to check just in case it is happening and has yet to be discovered? My viewership is low, so I don't expect myself to be a target. But, anything is possible.

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  8. I think the theft is overall fairly democratic. it's less about known names and more about simply grabbing an image they like and not bothering to check and track down who it belongs to, and if they can acquire permission to use it. I think "theft by accident" is sort of impassible. Anyone taking a piece of art that isn't there's to use and uses it to make a product to make money for themselves knows exactly what they are doing. Even so, teaching them to behave is less important than seeing it stop. I think smaller lower profile artists are most vulnerable, then itdips and rises again for slightly well known, then falls off until you're ripping off superstar work on a high level at scale. Most of this stuff happens around the middle and down- those of us simply working everyday to make work and make a living.

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  9. I've found my art tattooed on chests and my work on coffee mugs. The one I'm not sure of is a logo I did almost thirty years ago. The company has gone out of business but now the logo is featured on clip art. It was work for hire and it seem that the company would be the only one who could take any action. But I cringe every time I see it now. Its the logo for a dozen schools which I'm OK with. Its the martial arts schools, the travel agency, its all the other strange uses the I kind of wish I could have a little control over. I keep a file of all different uses.
    Any Ideas?

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