How To Deal With Online Art Theft

Published by Nela Dunato on at 23:40 in Tips for creatives

Reseller using an artist's illustration without permission
Not cool, man! Not cool!

"Art theft" is the term artists coined for redistributing art without giving proper credit to the original artist. There are different "levels" of art theft, and each artist decides for himself whether something bothers him or not.

I have plenty of experience with people using my work in ways that I do not approve of, so here is my advice on this subject for all of you who might encounter this issue.

Problem 1: People who just want to share images they love, and they think they're doing you a favor

This group people post your image without any bad intentions, but since they're not familiar with copyright law, they don't know they're doing anything wrong by posting your original image online without crediting you as original artist. Since original artist is unknown, the poster is unknowingly making it appear as if (s)he was the original author of the work. Most of the time things like this happen because the poster didn't even acquire the work from the original artist's web site, but some other channel (other people's blogs, Tumblr, Facebook...) where somebody else shared the image without credit.

If you are doing this, I am asking you to please consider adding a clause under the image with the name and the URL of the original artist. These days it's not difficult to find the source of a particular image, since TinEye and Google Search by image have developed algorithms for image recognition.

If your work has been shared without permission and credit somewhere, the easiest way to solve this issue is to post in the comment of the work that you are the original artist of this image, and that you would appreciate if they wrote your name and the link to your web site under the image. People often genuinely don't know what they did was against the law and unethical, and they will be happy to give credit if you ask them politely. Most of my experiences with webmasters and bloggers were very pleasant, and nice words go a long way.

If there is a watermark on the work, these people won't bother removing it. Having a watermark with the information "© 2012 Your Name", and perhaps a URL as well, is a good way to make sure people can find you even if your image gets lost in the interwebs.

Problem 2: People and organizations who use unlicensed images for promotional purposes

Some people might be using your work as their logo, or otherwise promoting their business with your image. They are not selling your image per se, but they're selling their products or services using your image, so it still counts as commercial use.

You can't just grab a picture off the internet for your logo or book cover, but apparently some people think it's ok. But by doing this they're diminishing the chances of you getting paid for legal use of this image. Someone might actually be happy to pay you, if there weren't other people already using the image.

But this is not just about stealing your work, it can also be damaging to your reputation. For example an organization you wouldn't want to be involved with may appear to be affiliated with you.

This is more complex than getting your image down from their site. You must inform the person or organization that you do not allow such use, and they must cease using your imagery. A polite but official sounding e-mail will do. For example, something like this:

Hello,
My name is Nela Dunato, and I am the original artist of the image named Phoenix, which may be seen here: http://neladunato.com/illustration/phoenix/

I noticed you are using my image for promoting your business on the following web addresses:
http://offendingdomain.com/
http://offendingdomain.com/products/
http://offendingdomain.com/about/

This is unlicensed commercial use, and you are violating my copyright. Please remove my image from all your promotional materials within 72 hours.
If you do not comply with my request in this timeframe, I will be forced to take this matter to your hosting company who is obliged to respond.

Sincerely,
Nela Dunato

They usually respond in a timely manner, apologizing and in some cases shifting the blame on their designer or webmaster. However, there is also a chance they will not respond, so you might have to take this matter further with their hosting company, as I describe below.

Problem 3: People who claim your art is their own

There is a strange breed of people who post other people's artwork as their own. This means posting it on art communities such as DeviantART or Flickr, but also posting it on Facebook in a way that is suggesting they've made it (for example in the album "My art", or alongside their own art).

I still haven't realized what makes people do this. My guess is it's a combination of ultra low self-esteem and weak sense for ethics.

Based on my experience, I don't advise contacting them directly. I've tried, and found communication with this type of people very stressful and disheartening (I blogged about one such experience on my sketchblog).

The most efficient way is to contact the service directly. Usually image sharing web sites have a way of contacting their copyright department, and following the instructions is the best way to have your images taken down promptly (this means using the exact wording they provided that is standard for DMCA notice, as well as supplying your accurate contact information). Sometimes this will require you to have an account on that service as well in order to be able to report the offending work.

Problem 4: People who want to profit from your work

And the final level are the people who want to make money off your work, without giving you a penny. They might re-sell your work on web sites that offer various goods like posters, mugs, T-shirts, iPhone cases, mobile wallpapers etc.

Do not even bother contacting the people who are willingly stealing your work and earning money off it. They don't respect you, and they don't care how you feel about this so e-mailing them won't make a difference. They know they have no right to do this, yet they do this, hoping you won't find out about it.

Find a way to report this copyright violation to the service they are using. If they're selling items on their own web site, contact their web host (I explain how to do this below).

They may be selling items with your imagery on eBay, in which case you're going to have a very difficult time to get it removed, because eBay is notorious for having a very complex way of reporting copyright infringement, and even if you manage to do it, it takes ages for them to respond, if they ever take action at all.

To make sure this happens less often, do not submit large resolution images of your work online. However, even small 800x600 image is sometimes enough for smaller items like mugs, phone cases and phone wallpapers, or as in a case that happened to me, the work can be traced into a vector and this derivative work resold.

Having watermarks will probably not deter people who really want to steal your work, as they can be easily removed in Photoshop and other software — but I still vote in the favor of having subtle watermarks on your art for other reasons.

How to report the infringing website to their web host?

The first step is to find the hosting service. Go to Whois Lookup and look up the offending domain. Check out the domain servers, or nameservers — it should be something like NS1.HOSTING.COM. Hosting.com can be either the hosting company name, or a different nameserver they are using. Just google the nameserver you found, and you should be able to find the company pretty quickly.

When you have found the hosting company website, locate their terms of service. Find the paragraphs concerning copyright policies. There should be an e-mail and physical address provided. Perhaps there will be detailed instructions on what your complaint must consist of, and usually it's the following:

  • your contact information
  • your signature (I attach an image with my signature, but it can only be your typed name)
  • link to where your work was originally published (on your website)
  • direct link to the infringing images, as well as pages where they are displayed
  • the statement: "I have a good faith belief that use of the copyrighted materials described above as allegedly infringing is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law."
  • the statement: "I swear, under penalty of perjury, that the information in the notification is accurate and that I am the copyright owner or am authorized to act on behalf of the owner of an exclusive right that is allegedly infringed."

If you feel unsure in your own ability to write a formal complaint, an example of a DMCA notice may be found here.

How to find copies of your art online?

I’ve already mentioned TinEye and Google Search by image.

TinEye has been very helpful for me in the past. Its interface is very usable, and if you register an account, you can save your searches for later which can speed up the process of locating copies of your work very much. However, their image database is nowhere near Google's.

Google's interface on the other hand is very basic, and doesn't offer much in terms of sorting, and often gives you a lot of results that are not relevant at all (for example photos that have the same color scheme as your work).

How to get infringing copies of your image down from Google search?

It's really annoying, and a slap in the face when someone else is ranking higher than you are on Google images search for your own image. You deserve that traffic, not them!

You can request that Google take this copy from its index by filling out this form. It will take a couple of days for them to get to your case.

Mythbusting: Preventing right-click is useless

This advice is circulating the artist communities often, yet it's completely useless. JavaScript won't protect your artwork. For example, I have NoScript installed on my Firefox and I don't even get to load your scripts if I don’t want to. Disabling JavaScript is very easy.
Also, right-clicking to save is not the only way to save the image. A person can save the entire web page on their computer, and then open the respective files folder where your image file will be, unprotected. They can also simply take a screenshot of the page.

Not every person who right-clicks your image is an art thief. People also want to save their favorite images on their computer so they can perhaps find and hire you later, and this is what you may be preventing.

Also, I've noticed Flickr has a trick where they set the photo as background, and put a transparent 1x1px GIF image in the IMG tag, so when you right-click the image, it brings up a save dialog for this tiny GIF, not for the photo you wanted to save. While this might stop less techy people, it doesn't stop me — I can override this very easy, and it takes me only one or two clicks more than if I were to save the image in a regular way. So basically, that's another silly attempt to protect your art that just doesn't work.

What was all that talk about Pinterest?

There was some controversy around Pinterest because their old terms of use stipulated they have the right to make money off submitted work, even though the service encouraged sharing other people's art and photos — which you don't own the rights to. This has made some people to implement a protective script that disables pinning on your domain.

Their terms of use have changed, so they no longer have the right to earn off your work.

I allow and encourage pinning, since I see it as the same as sharing on Tumblr, and I can't prevent people from posting my art to Tumblr. I dislike Tumblr in particular, because credits get lost very easily there, and you have to click through several re-blogged posts just to get to the first one that posted, it in hopes of actually finding the original source of this artwork.

Don't lose sleep over this

If you're any good, your art will inevitably get posted without your knowledge elsewhere in a way you may find inappropriate. If you tackle a popular subject as I did with the Phoenix, chances are even bigger. I'm not saying it's ok, I'm just trying to put things into perspective — you're never going to be able to eradicate all unauthorized copies of your work online.

TinEye and Google may come up with many websites for your search, but your time is too valuable to bother with all of them. These issues are a priority:

  • People selling items featuring your work
  • People using your work as their logo, or otherwise promoting their business with your image
  • Any image that is ranking higher than your original version on search engines

In cases where there is no damage done to your income, reputation or traffic, you may just let it pass and use your time to create another beautiful artwork instead.

 

Nela
Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

I run a boutique design consultancy that helps creative businesses evolve into premium brands and connect with their dream clients, by crafting extraordinary visual experiences.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...


Your comments

  • Laura

    Laura
    2012-12-05 at 14:30

    This is an amazing post! I've always had a lot of questions and concerns about putting my work up online, but this helped give me a better idea how to handle it. Thanks.

  • Nela

    Nela
    2012-12-05 at 15:28

    Thank you, Laura! I'm glad you found this post helpful. I know this is a burning question for most artists so I wanted to share my experiences.
    Legal options are often unavailable to us because hiring layers is so expensive, but this is something anyone can do.

  • Tammy

    Tammy
    2012-12-09 at 20:03

    We had an exotic painintg of the burning bush shrub in our filed from the above link and it got stolen. its all over the web but to trace it is impossible.

  • tacoma carpet cleaning

    tacoma carpet cleaning
    2012-12-09 at 22:04

    I find that often the threat of lawyers or a lawsuit will scare people enough that they will stop. Really helpful blog and useful info.

  • Nela

    Nela
    2012-12-10 at 11:57

    Tammy, perhaps at the time when this happened there weren't many tools available for tracking down stray images, but I think now it0s possible. But as I said, not every image is worthy of your time. The minimum you should do is make sure your competition isn't profiting off your work.

    Tacoma carpet cleaning, I'm against issuing threats you can't follow up on. I live in Europe, so suing somebody in the US is impossible for me, and hiring a lawyer is too expensive. Most people know this, and won't be easily scared.

  • kait

    kait
    2012-12-11 at 22:21

    Problem One - Yeah, agree, credit is nice. And most bloggers are nice, too. :)

    Problem Two - Wouldn't really care. If they want to be unclassy, up too them. XD

    Problem Three - Weeeeeiiiird. =/ I'd just ignore it haha. XD

    Problem Four - Hmm yeah basically the only way to prevent this is, as you said, to not submit high-enough quality images. Shrug. But I dunno, maybe if you market your work well enough, and offer your own products, more people will buy from YOU instead of the other person. However in some ways, I also don't really care if people are doing this. XD

    I haaaaaaaaaaaaaate watermarks. So um, yeah. I don't mind however if someone incorperates a signature or their website into the image in an asthetically pleasing way.

    Anyway, this is probably the best and most helpful article I've ever read for people who do want to take action against this kind of use of their work. :)

    And I really appreciate that you aren't going all moralistic or freaking out. It annoys me when artists do that, cause geez, if someone liked my work enough to sell it on a t-shirt, I'd be flattered. :P I don't even like art on t-shirts, so I wouldn't sell them myself anyway. But if others do, cool. And when you think about, it's not as though the people who are using my images would pay me if they weren't allowed to. *shrug*

    But anyway, just one perspective. :P

  • Nela

    Nela
    2012-12-12 at 10:52

    Thank you Kait, glad you think the article is helpful!

    I used to freak out a lot more when I was younger :D but I've learned to handle these things with class - being angry at people just makes me feel bad, and doesn't help the case at all.

    I know what you mean by being flattered. It's certainly flattering that people would even think your image has potential to sell. It's proof that YOU can sell your work too if you wanted to.

    However in my case (and I trust it to be the case with many artists), both my livelihood and my ego are tied in with my creative work, so allowing other people to profit minimizes the chances of me capitalizing my talent and being recognized for what I do.
    And of course, it just isn't fair to artists, and what annoys me the most is when things aren't fair (a double Libra, what can I say).

    I'm against huge watermarks over the entire image too, but I advise everyone to put a small watermark in the corner of the image just to make sure people who want to can find you.
    Phoenix was the exception, because when I saw how many people were already using it, I had to put a watermark more toward the center where it wouldn't get cut off (and still, some people do cut it off).

    Yes I agree, you should market your own products as much as possible. But when you're just another unknown striving artist, no one knows about you so you're easy prey.
    However I know of more famous artists that were victims of art theft as well - and let me tell you, it can get ugly when they unleash the wrath of their fans on the offender.

  • Ashley @ AG Photography

    Ashley @ AG Photography
    2012-12-20 at 23:03

    Thanks for the post. Just went and checked some of my images in Google and looks like I have a lot of sites to talk to about copyright infringement. Thanks for the share.

  • Nela

    Nela
    2012-12-24 at 21:06

    No problem Ashley, glad to help :) I've been sending quite a bit of DMCA notices lately myself...

  • kait

    kait
    2013-01-03 at 04:54

    Ah yeah, definitely get it. :P Copyright is a tricky think ethically for me work out in my mind. XD Haven't fully settled on an opinion about it (but I think creative commons is a pretty cool option for those inclined). However, I agree for sure that it's really not okay for people to sell other's work as their own, or without credit. =/ Hard to build a brand, if that's what people are doing to your work.

    For those artists who want to self-publish (or whatever it's called in the artworld), I could see a small print business that manages the printing, shipping, and payment processing of artist's work being really helpful. There are a few really great ones for comic and webcomic book artists, and I think it's brilliant. (This is one example: https://www.topatoco.com/merchant.mvc?Session_ID=c1e9868c953ac79d3be10cfa34e7d1d1&Screen=ABOUT&Store_Code=TO )

    I do see what you mean about having a watermark to help people find you. Not everyone links back.

    Hahaha. Every artist needs such fans. XD

  • Nela

    Nela
    2013-01-03 at 09:39

    Creative Commons is aimed at people who don't intend to earn money with their work - for example, they use the work for self-promotion, as I do with my free resources at InObscuro.com - they're all published under a Creative Commons licence. But no way I would ever give my personal artwork under a CC so that other people may do with it as they please - it's too personal. I think CC is a great system that enables and promotes collaboration (which is awesome), but it's not a one-size-fits-all solution.

    I don't think Copyright is a bad thing, because it enables me to make money with what I love to do.
    However the copyright laws that are pushed by publishing houses (not artists themselves) are getting increasingly restrictive, and are not helping artists in any way.
    I think self-publishing is the solution for this mess. And I think only re-sellers of pirated material should be punished, if you have it for your personal use - I really don't think lawsuits are necessarily.

    I know of Topatoco, there are others as well.. I'm still researching other sites I can offer prints from, because they all differ a little and fit some type of artists more than others :) Topatoco is great for comic artists, but I don't think it's a good fit for me.

    Hehe well yeah it sure helps when hundreds of your fans report a violation on a site (it gets resolved faster), but I'd rather do without all the raging emotions and insults :D

  • Anacaraka - ArtWear

    Anacaraka - ArtWear
    2013-03-18 at 05:58

    I'm agree with your post. But sometimes it's hard to copyright our painting if we paint about tradition (such as Balinese Tradition). You can check my website www.anacaraka.co.id/en/bali-barong-tshirt and check from search engine Bali Barong Painting, it is a lot of images with same design and same theme. No one can complain

  • Tina Lysfjord

    Tina Lysfjord
    2015-07-23 at 19:37

    thank you so much for everything you just wrote. i am ahving a hard time dealing with people who claim to own my artwork and characters lately and its been stressing me up alot. i have contacted the webpages and im crossing my fingers everything will be removed soon enough.
    This post really calmed my nerves alot and i wanted to just say "thank you so much" :)

  • Nela

    Nela
    2015-07-26 at 20:44

    Tina, I'm so glad that this post was helpful to you!
    That seriously sucks, and I'm very sorry that you have to deal with this.

    I have had good experiences with most hosting companies that I've dealt with, because they're obligated by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) to respects artists' rights.
    Fingers crossed! :)

  • Death To Art Theft

    Death To Art Theft
    2015-10-23 at 12:30

    Thank you for this informative post! I'm so glad there are ways to protect our art and I think a shift in perspective regarding the use of online art can help everyone, even art thieves.

    I am currently running a six-week media campaign as a third-year university student. The campaign is aiming to educate artists and non-artists alike on the effects of art theft and ways to deal with it happening to people. If it's not too much trouble, may I reference this blog post in an article?

    --VZ

  • Nela

    Nela
    2015-10-23 at 14:19

    Hello, VZ :)
    Glad you enjoyed the post! Feel free to reference this post, and good luck with your campaign.

  • unmeart

    unmeart
    2016-03-17 at 15:46

    Nela, i would love to hear your opinion about referencing and changing existing artwork to make it into a new creation (photo to drawing etc)

  • Nela

    Nela
    2016-03-18 at 10:22

    Hey Unmeart,
    copyright law states that reproducing the likeness of a piece in any way is a violation. But since you asked for my opinion (and I happen to use photo references in my work), here it is.

    When using reference to reproduce the work exactly (copy the landscape, portrait etc.) then the artist should first seek permission from the original author. The author is free to say no to the request.
    The only exception to this are stock photos which are made to be used this way. Crediting is necessary in both cases.

    When you're referencing a small bit from the photo, only to make sure that what you're drawing is correct (proportions, lighting etc.) and you're using a combination of sources for the artwork (your own photos, stock photos, googled photos, life..) then the contribution of the original photo to the final artwork is much smaller. Still, it's ethical to credit your sources.
    I don't have a habit of asking photo authors for permission, since the impact of their work on my painting is individually small, and I never use only one reference photo for an object – I look at multiple references and paint my own version, not an exact copy.

    So I would say it depends on how much the work influenced your art.
    If you were influenced by the color palette, but the subject matter is completely different, that doesn't require permission, but crediting your inspiration would be the ethical thing to do.
    If you copied the likeness of people on the photo, or the composition, then asking for permission is necessary, since this is essentially the same work reproduced in a different technique.

    When in doubt, ask the original author if they mind :)
    And if someone copies your work, the least you can do is ask them to credit your work as the source.

  • Christine aka stine1

    Christine aka stine1
    2016-05-11 at 11:35

    Arrgh, yes I do hear you.
    I am myself trying to fight image theft on Amazon with stolen photos from Zazzle - MY photos :-(

  • Nadia Reckmann

    Nadia Reckmann
    2016-05-13 at 11:39

    Thanks for the great article, Nela! Both artists and image users need to be educated on this topic. And hopefully, the more the public is aware of infringements and artists' rights, the more complicated it would be for them to just get away with "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't know!"

    I also wanted to add another tool to your list - Pixsy (https://www.pixsy.com/). It can both track the use of the images online and go after the infringements in artist's stead. Full disclosure: I work there and I love it :)

    If you'd like to give Pixsy a try, let me know -- I'd be happy to walk you through the process!

  • Nela

    Nela
    2016-05-16 at 17:25

    Hey Christine,
    that sounds like a horribly frustrating thing. I've never dealt with Amazon, but do I hope they're more responsive to artists than Ebay. Good luck!

    Hello Nadia,
    thanks for sharing about your tool :) The fact that you also offer the support of legal professionals to help artists is awesome. Most of us don't have the cash to afford legal fees upfront.

  • Nicole

    Nicole
    2016-10-16 at 04:02

    Such a great post! I have been looking through shopping sites since I read about Zara and Aliexpress and have seen art stolen from artists which were sold on shirts and such. I even try to find the artists and contact them, but there are so many stolen (especially on aliexpress) and I'm unsure if I should write to the same artist everytime I find their work on something. However, I can't find every artist whose work I see, which is frustrating.

  • Nela

    Nela
    2016-10-17 at 13:12

    Thanks, Nicole!
    Yes, that's super frustrating – I've been reporting eBay (back in the day when that was the biggest copycat marketplace), but the marketplaces themselves don't do a lot to discourage and penalize art theft, and emailing everyone just wasn't possible.

    Reporting art theft when you encounter it is great, but artists themselves can't rely just on their fans. They need to either take matters in their own hands, or give up pursuing this issue altogether (there are some folks that choose to do so).

  • Sophie

    Sophie
    2017-01-28 at 03:01

    This was a very enlightening article. I have a few more questions, i would love to hear your opinion on these:

    I am part of an up and coming Art community. In due course of time, I have developed a better sense of art, recently I observed, that many famous artists in the community, download images from the internet, recolor it/trace /paint over it and call it their own, and even get more famous with it.

    I have reported this to the admin of this community, but though their policy is strictly against tracing or stealing copyrighted image, are reluctant to take it down. When pressed for answer, they say, the artists have recreated the image or art in their own style, so it will not amount to stealing.

    I have argued that its, unfair to use someone else's creative work without their permission, altering it and calling it your own. The stolen images are from commercial sites, which sell copyrighted art or photographs or art works from google, which always carry a tag that the image might be copyrighted.

    Does this count under art theft? How can it be addressed? How do I communicate to the admins, that stealing someone else's art and manipulating is wrong?

    Sorry for the length of the question. Would love to hear your inputs on this

    Thank You
    Sophie

  • Nela

    Nela
    2017-01-31 at 12:08

    Thank you, Sophie! :)

    You are right that the situation you describe is a copyright violation, and fits under what we commonly call art theft.

    If the artists were to take an image shared under the Creative Commons license which allows modification, there would be no problem. With copyrighted work, and one that's offered for purchase at that, it's illegal.

    What a lot of artists and art communities argue is the "Fair Use" which permits using someone's work as a basis of your own work in very special cases. Here's more information on the factors judges use when determining whether something is Fair Use: http://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/fair-use/four-factors/

    If your community admins didn't listen to your arguments so far, I'm not sure they would in the future.
    But there's one thing that could shake them up a bit: if the original authors contacted them with a DMCA takedown notice and threatened lawsuit. Websites are responsible for removing all copyright violations from their servers, even if the users have uploaded them without their knowledge. That's why every community and website hosting service has a way to send copyright violation reports — they have to cover their backs.

    If you already know the sources of the original work, email a couple of the authors and draw their attention to their rights being violated. Let them know that you tried to address it personally, but that the admins didn't listen to you, and maybe they would listen to the original authors.

    That's what I do when I encounter such a thing, anyway.
    I hope this helps.
    If you decide to do it, let me know how it works out!

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