In a community that likes to share their art to promote and hopefully sell online, often times there’s a darker side to the process — art theft. High-resolution previews that allow viewers to appreciate the nuances of the piece are often big targets for stealing.
Simply saving, dragging and dropping any image found online can allow an art thief to repurpose it for stickers, canvas panels, logos, shirts and more. So what is an artist to do when they find that their work has been swiped and used without permission or credit?
How to Handle Art Theft: Document It
Once you’ve noticed your image is being sold or used without your permission, document it. This becomes one of your best defenses when you’re hot on the heels of art theft. That means taking screenshots, noting the day and time of the posting, recording the URL of the website and the specific page your work has been posted to. If available, visit the About pages of the website and take down names of owners/admins/contributors, their email addresses and any other pertinent contact info. If possible, record the IP address of the site and/or posters.
If information is scarce on the website itself, find out who owns the URL by visiting whois.domaintools.com and entering the website address. This may provide you with a wealth of public information, including domain provider, site owner and their email, the site’s server location, and other business information. Keep in mind, though, that this information can be made private at the owner’s request.
Contact The Seller and Assert Social Media Pressure
After information is retrieved and art theft has been documented, the obvious next step is to contact the seller. A strongly worded cease and desist (C&D) email like this sample indicating your ownership of the artwork, including the offending URL as well as proof that you own it, should put the kibosh on the issue rather quickly. That is, assuming the hosting site/eCommerce platform is run ethically.
When Daniel Davis, the creator behind Steam Crow, noticed one of his characters being repurposed as a logo for a design community in India, he got his fans involved. Dubbed “Crows”, Davis’ tight-knit community found out about the theft within two weeks within of it being used and notified him. Davis asked his Crows to comment on the site and in social media to have the art removed. With help from social media pressure, it was pulled down within 6 hours.
Use all social media channels at your disposal, especially Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+. Any platform where you have friends or a following is a vehicle for your message. And when your audience gets active defending you, chances improve that a wider social media presence will become aware of your plight and help boost your signal.
File a Complaint with their Hosting Company
When the above steps have been taken and there is still no resolution from the offending party, it’s time to file an official complaint. Starting with the hosting company, send an email that includes all steps taken as well as evidence of theft. Parent hosting companies based in the United States must abide by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a law that governs providers. However, if the suspect website is not in the U.S., unfortunately the DMCA has little power.
Major retail sites like Etsy generally have in-depth policies and steps for reporting copyright or intellectual infringements. In addition, image-hosting sites like Flickr and Photobucket have strict policies that help protect their users.
If you feel you’ve lost measurable amounts of income that’s going somewhere other than to you, it’s time to consider using a lawyer. While there are many avenues of recourse available to you as an individual (with the power of research and Google on your side), when your time, ability and income are impacted, you need to call in the professionals.
While legal fees are daunting, free legal help is available for artists via Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.
There is no surefire way to prevent someone from saving or scraping images and content from any website and reusing it for nefarious purposes.
The first and easiest step is to include a watermark. But even then, thieves with average Photoshop skills can often find their way around that roadblock.
Use an online reverse image searcher like TinEye to see if your property is showing up where it shouldn’t.
Use website analytics to your advantage. Unusual traffic spikes or page views can reveal suspicious activity. According to comic creator/infographic artist Paul Horn, he was able to quickly locate the culprit who linked to Horn’s artwork and used it without his permission to promote a real estate venture.
Daniel Davis’ advice is to make your art as distinct and recognizable as possible, and to build a fan base who cares about your success.
The internet is a necessity to promote and distribute your work. But be vigilant and always be wary that theft can happen anywhere, at anytime, with one keystroke!