How To Deal With Online Art Theft

Published by Nela Dunato on 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 themselves whether something bothers them 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

These people post your image without any unsavory intentions, but since they’re not familiar with copyright law, they don’t know they’re doing something wrong by posting your original image online without crediting you as original artist. Because the artist’s name is not listed, the poster is unknowingly making it appear as if they were 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 had previously shared the image without credit.

If you are posting other people’s art on social media, please add the artist’s name and website link in the description. (And their social handle, if applicable.)

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 comment on the infringing post 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 on the internet.

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 a book cover, but apparently some people don’t know that. 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: https://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 may 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. They’re 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 don’t know what makes people do this, but it requires a skilled therapists.

Based on my experience, I don’t advise contacting them directly. I’ve tried, and found communication with them to be very stressful and disheartening (I wrote about one such experience on my sketchblog). These people are often repeat offenders, stealing other people’s art left and right, and are not remorseful when they get caught.

The most efficient way to handle this issue is to contact the platform 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).

Some of these services will require you to have an account on that service as well in order to be able to report the offending work.

Only you or your legal representative may send a DMCA report. You can’t send reports for other artists (unless you’re their legal heir after they’ve passed away).

Problem 4: People who want to profit from your work

The final level are the people who want to make money off your work, without giving you a penny. They might be re-selling 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. 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).

If they’re selling the item on Etsy, they have a form to report copyright infringement.

Here is the Amazon’s form to report copyright infringement.

To make sure this happens less often, do not submit large resolution images of your work online. However, even small 800×600 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 image-editing 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. You can use the Hosting Checker tool which will give you the hosting company name when you enter the infringing domain.

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.

If unauthorized copies of your work hosted on another website appear in search results, you can also report this to Google, and they will remove the page or image from their results. This will not remove the website itself (only the hosting company can remove it), but at least it won’t compete with your original art in image search.

You need a Google account to report infringement. But the great thing is that if you have a Google Webmasters account, you can see all your copyright infringement reports in your dashboard so you can keep track of websites you’ve reported, and whether they’re still hosting your art. (I don’t have a personal tracking system for this, so this is very useful.)

Google has lots of services, so the exact method of reporting may differ for each one. Their help page has a form where you can select a service (like Search, or Images) and proceed from there.

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).

Pixsy is a service that is supposedly automating the image lookup and DMCA notice process, but it requires a monthly fee. You can still find matches through Pixsy, and then send the reports yourself.

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

If unauthorized copies of your work hosted on another website appear in search results, you can also report this to Google, and they will remove the page or image from their results. This will not remove the website itself (only the hosting company can remove it), but at least it won’t compete with your original art in image search.

You need a Google account to report infringement. But the good thing is that if you have a Google Webmasters account, you can see all your copyright infringement reports in your dashboard so you can keep track of websites you’ve reported, and whether they’re still hosting your art.

Google has lots of services, so the exact method of reporting may differ for each one. Their help page has a form where you can select a service (like Search, or Images) and proceed from there.

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 load any scripts if I don’t want to. Disabling JavaScript is very easy.

Right-clicking 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.

Lots of image-sharing websites set the photo as a 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 with Inspector (a browser function), 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 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:

  1. People selling items featuring your work.
  2. People using your work as their logo, or otherwise promoting their business with your image.
  3. 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

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

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

Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.


30 responses to “How To Deal With Online Art Theft”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. 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/ )

    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

  8. 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

  9. 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” :)

  10. 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! :)

  11. 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

  12. 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)

  13. 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.

  14. 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!

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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).

  18. 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

  19. 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!

  20. Nela,
    Thank you so much for this article!!! You’ve calmed me after finding one (so far) of my artworks all over Google Images and elsewhere without my logo or credit. There are websites from simple blogs, foreign blogs, articles and most disturbly ~ businesses, a radio station and a .Org website All displaying a giant hi-res image of my painting without ANY consideration of my rights or credit/link to me.
    You helped me to address the bigger ones and not freak out about the bloggers so much. Now I have a TON of contacting to do and all I really want is to paint!
    You are awesome! You’ve helped me to be calm, attack this in an orderly way. I will be reading all your art info in future. If you’d like me to promote you thru my new website or link 2 you, let me know, I really want to start promoting/helping, and working with superior artists and writers.
    Thanks again,
    Sandra T. Gale

  21. Dear Sandra, thank you for your kind words!
    I’m so happy to hear that my post has helped ease the anxiety around protecting your work. Finding out that other people misuse your art is terribly unpleasant! I’m sorry you have to deal with this.

    I’m super grateful when people share articles that were helpful to them in whichever manner suits them, as it helps reach more people who might need this information. If you feel so inclined, I appreciate it a lot, but please, do not feel any pressure or obligation :)

    P.S. I’m always delighted to meet other artists who love fairies! You have a lovely gallery :)

  22. Thank you so much for discussing this! I have a great respect for people who make any type of art/writing and I want to make sure they get the credit they deserve if someone happens to steal from them. Also, I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to use your blog as a source from my college English paper about copyright laws in the art world!

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