The Wild World Web & Copyright Protection

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It has increasingly become common for people to feel as though the images of creative work is fair game for use on their own sites.  The increasing use of these sites have led to a lot of problems for artists and creative types.  For example, Pinterest, which is a “pin” board for images people find interesting enough to share, is a kind of visual social media.  However, there is little that is being done to protect the artist or originator of the image from copyright infringement.  Facebook is similar and there have been cases where work by creatives has been taken and actually sold as visual content.  When someone takes an image from your web site and pluncks it down on Pinterest, for example, it can then be pinned by others, effectively shared across a vast network wherein it becomes hard to track down who originally lifted your content and provided no attribution for your work.  For some people, it all sounds like a tempest in a teacup, but let me explain why this is simply not true.

Let’s say that you are a potter and you make a bird house.  These birdhouses are actually your very best seller. It gets published on a few sites, including a gallery web site as well as your own site.  Someone shares the image on a place like facebook, Instagram,  or Pinterest without attribution and someone sees it, likes it, and lifts the design in an effort to please a boss who is working on developing ceramic designs for a production company in Haiti. The pieces get made and the potters sales drop through the floor. It takes months to find out why this is happening until the culprit is discovered.  By then, the damage has been done. A bird house made that sold for $75.00 domestically in the U.S. is now being sold for less than $20.00 through a Haiti production company and the design is being sold through multiple catalogs.  This market has now suddenly been destroyed through cheap recreations and now the potter, with fewer resources than before, has to find a new next best design in order to help sustain the studio.  Yes, it is theft, and yes, it is not right, but the burden is on the artist to prove infringement and thus pay  the lawyers fees in order to take such a suite to court.  Often, it isn’t even worth it, unless the artists operation is a big one, and most often these are small family run businesses.  The story I have just described to you actually happened to a family pottery whose work was stolen by a Department of State official in the U.S. and given to a production house in Haiti, which then used the concept in total to make their own work, all in the name of economic development.  You can see how some small misplaced impulses wind up creating big consequences for the small guy and gal.

Sites that make it better for protecting work are Tumblr which have an online protection policy and also a way to track images that are shared across its network.  This is very good, but it also means it is only traceable through their site and not others, which can happen.

So what are some solutions for artists? One is to make sure that your images that are posted online contain embedded watermarks.  These watermarks serve to degrade images that are copied, revealing a watermark that will most often identify the artist or maker in some way. Other options are to also have your images contain your name and the © symbol.  However, anyone bent on stealing is going to brush this away with Photoshop in a matter of moments.  The other option is also to make sure that you document your images so that they have dates tied to them, which often are the case with digital media. You are, as the maker of your work, granted copyright for all of your work.  It is automatic.  However, getting others to honor your copyright can be another matter.  One solution also is simply contacting the company and explaining to them that the work is yours and explaining that surely this was all a misunderstanding, and try to go from there based on that.  It is possible that the offender is not aware of the infringement and might agree to pay you.  It is also possible that your inquiry is ignored, in which case the only alternative is to go the legal route.  Give them some time, though, to respond.  What is reasonable?  Two weeks would be more than reasonable.   But try the first route always because most people don’t intend to steal.  It is important not to make people feel defensive, but simply present a clear and firm explanation of the details with supporting information with a plea that the matter be settled amicably.  And hope for the best.  The next step is a letter from your attorney which is called a Cease And Desist Order which helps pave the way for going to court, if it comes to that.  This letter explains the nature of the infringement and asks that the activity stops.  By documenting the steps that you take from the beginning with registered mail letters to the parties involved, then cease and desist requests, and then court action, you have provided magistrates with the necessary information about your efforts at resolving the matter prior to something going legal. And in the end, I think most issues can be cleared up without ever having to use “court” so don’t do that unless you have to.

One resource worth mentioning if it comes to needing to work an issue through the legal system is www.imagerights.com who pursue copyright infringement and intellectual property rights with no upfront costs to you. It is founded by an artist and their profile looks good.  They seem to understand the issues very well based on personal experiences that led the founder to create the company to begin with.

Most often as artists we need to keep educating the public about the importance of proper attribution for creative work.  The more we do, the better people will understand and act on it.  Sometimes something as simple as raising awareness is all that it takes.  When that is not enough, consider talking with imagerights. Are there solutions that worked for you?  I would love to hear about them!


  • Hmmm. it’s toughie isn’t it? A creative can’t keep their work hidden and exposure will certainly lead to dissemination without attribution. The copyright thing is the best solution.
    I’ve had work stolen, after a while you learn to live with it, especially as some negative exposure can still bring attention to your new work.

    • It is. And it isn’t simple. I once had a glassblower claim I was stealing or copying his work. I had never seen this guys work before. And yet, I understood what its like to have work stolen. It happened to me in a very clear and identifiable way at a high profile wholesale show where an exhibitor took my work and made his own version….I had some vendors confused over whether it was mine. He had come to the booth to look at the work in question. I hear stories of people shooting images as they walk through booths to copy later in other countries or studios. Really? So this is all over the place, And yet, it sucks to have your work stolen or lifted because the work that goes into a new piece can be significant. For me, the developed work had been improved on over several years. I once spoke with someone who worked for a shoe seller and she explained that the main designers would get all of their popular designs outright stolen because everyone is copying the previous years’ work. The first year the designer gets to make money on their work, but after that, it goes into the public domain for all intents and purposes. And then we have China where a high official from the PLA who recently said corporate espionage was a part of their national security plan. Yep; stealing made legal as a way to make money. Piracy on the high seas! Wow!

      Thanks for your two cents worth. What work did you have that was “lifted”?

      • I’ve had batches of songs stolen. I’ve also been flicking through websites enjoying an article about something or other and then I pop up! Although in this case the stories may be flattering, the pictures of me are there without permission. Pictures that I also own the copyright to. It is easier for me to accept 1. because on certain things in life I’m just not going to sweat it – I do believe cream sometimes rises even with all the knock backs and thievery, so one focuses on breaking through and finding the recognition that one deserves. Don’t misdirect creative energy fighting the unfightable.

        And 2. because those things are not nearly as labour or cost intensive as what you have mentioned, so it is easier to shrug and move on to the next exciting creative endeavour.

        But each artist must find the way that makes it do-able for themselves. Stealing is going to happen. So maybe hold back certain things for presentations only and copyright everything – just in case a situation IS worth going after etc. But don’t let it kill creativity! That would really be stealing from someone.

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