Part 2 of an article written for Ann Kullberg’s From My Perspective colored pencil e-zine on my experiences with online theft of my drawings — and what I did about it. The full article is posted here in four parts:
- Art Thieves in the Digital Age: The Changing Face of the Art Thief
- Art Thieves in the Digital Age: My Tip of the Iceberg
- Art Thieves in the Digital Age: Lessons Learned
- Art Thieves in the Digital Age: Still Learning – Vigilance without Paranoia
Part 2: My Tip of the Iceberg
Apparently my pet portraits have become a tempting magnet for image searchers – who can resist puppies and kitties, right? Not a week goes by when I don’t get one or more requests to use my work for all kinds of purposes: charitable, commercial, and downright silly. These honest folks at least ask first. For inappropriate uses I simply say “no.” Others usually disappear when I explain that there is a licensing fee to use my art.
From the volume of honest folks who ask permission, I suspected many more just appropriate the images without asking and, of course, without my knowledge. Unfortunately, my suspicions were well-founded. This is my story of how I found out about at least three instances of infringement and what I did about them. Hopefully, some of my lessons learned will help other artists.
Digital Vandalism Reported by the “Neighborhood Watch”
The first infringement I became aware of appeared on the Flickr.com photo-sharing site, where I share my drawings with other artists and animal lovers. One day, I received an email from another Flickrite, whom I’d never met before, telling me that someone had taken my “Persian Cat” drawing from my website, altered it, and posted it on Flickr with her signature. She never bothered to remove my signature, apparently assuming that altering and publishing was OK. I hadn’t even posted this drawing on Flickr, but this kind whistle-blower noticed my signature and realized she had seen it on other drawings I’d posted. She went to my regular website, found the original there and emailed me.
This screen shot of the infringer’s page shows the garish color alterations she made and then had the nerve to sign! You can read what I wrote to her in the comments on this page to prove that the work was mine, explain why it was infringing, and demanding that she take it down.Meanwhile, I looked up Flickr/Yahoo’s “Copyright/IP Policy,” easily accessible from the bottom of each Yahoo-hosted page (Yahoo owns Flickr).
It gives very clear directions for reporting infringements and their policy to remove any infringed image under the provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). I wrote the appropriate email to Yahoo’s Copyright Agent and within hours the vandalized “Persian Cat” had disappeared. I have no way of knowing if the infringer read my comment and removed it on her own or if Yahoo deleted it. Either way, no one contacted me except for Yahoo’s automatic “We’ve received your email…” message. OK, don’t expect an apology, I guess!
The infringer hasn’t stopped altering and reposting other people’s images, but she has learned at least to post a notice that her images are alterations of others’ work.
An Offline Infringement
Another Good Samaritan brought the next incident to my attention last December. The phone rang while I sat at my drawing table, furiously working on last-minute Christmas commissions. I almost didn’t answer it so I could keep working, but I was intrigued that the caller ID displayed “Quebec.” On the line was the owner of a business that prints custom t-shirts (I was told he does most of the official work for the World Wrestling Federation!). He explained that a customer had walked in with an ink-jet print of my Golden Retriever drawing from him to transfer to a t-shirt.
Luckily, this is a copyright-savvy businessman who pays licensing fees to the WWF, so he was suspicious. This time the infringer had erased my PetsPictured.com watermark, but neglected to erase my signature. The printer googled my name and “golden retriever” and up popped the infringed image, my drawing! That’s when he picked up the phone and called me to ask if I had given his customer permission to use the image. I assured him that I had not and thanked him profusely for taking such pains to get in touch with me.
Then he asked me if I was interested in licensing my work, as he often gets requests for certain breeds of pets on shirts. He usually uses royalty-free clip art, but liked my work better. I explained that I was interested in licensing my work eventually, but needed to do more research so … he finished my sentence “we both make money.” “Exactly,” I replied, “Since I need to make a living and don’t want my work to become just more clip art available anywhere.” We agreed to stay in touch and I thanked him again.
In March, my mother read a USAToday article about Zazzle.com, a print-on-demand competitor to Cafepress.com, where I have a shop featuring my pet portraits. Always on the look-out for ways to keep me out of the poorhouse (er, I mean, promote my artwork), my mom surfed over to Zazzle to see if they offered any advantages. Scoping out the competition, she put the names of a few popular dog breeds into their search box. Ouch – up popped products featuring my drawing! My mom emailed me immediately and, like only an offended mother can, set out with a vengeance to find out if other images had been stolen by systematically searching for every breed that I had posted on my site. Unfortunately, she discovered that several Zazzle members had helped themselves to my art!
This time, I was really angry! The previous two infringements could be construed as “fair use” by people not familiar with copyright law. But this was different: At Zazzle, people set up stores with merchandise whose main selling point was my work! They fully intended to profit from their enterprise without sharing the proceeds with me. It was outright theft! To add insult to injury, these thieves accepted rave comments left about the “cute pictures” as if they had done them!
This time, I knew what to look for and found Zazzle’s instructions for sending a “Take-Down Notice.” I angrily fired off the appropriate message to make them delete the work (preferably kick out the offending member) and reminded them than any profits from sales of the work rightly belonged to me (by the terms of the DMCA, not just common decency). I received the expected “we-aren’t-responsible, but we are deleting the product” canned email response from Zazzle. The products were deleted without apology, much less remuneration.
Then I suddenly remembered that, in my anger, I neglected to take screenshots of the offending Zazzle pages. After a moment of panic, I remembered that Google caches web pages, so I googled “zazzle [breed name] [zazzle-member-name]” and was able to track down cached pages for every one of the infringed images. Whew! That was a close call, because screenshots or print-outs are critical for proving infringement!
The next installment of this article is:
©2008 Susan K. Donley. All Rights Reserved.