Heraldry, Pt 3: Charges
Designing New Characters
July, 2006: Mischief
Handling Art Theft Gracefullyby R. Bail
Art theft is seen as one of the worst nightmares that an artist who posts their artwork on the Internet can go through. When people think of art theft they may think of protracted battles full of angry e-mails and flame wars in forums, often leading to a 'victory' that results in anger and hurt feelings on both sides, and often damage the original artist's reputation as the accused continues to let the world know of their poor treatment, even long after the rest of the world has forgotten the theft.
An art-theft scenario doesn't have to end this way, however. It is entirely possible and in many cases even easy to deal with art theft in a way that results in quick resolution and few hurt feelings. This results in much less stress for the artist and a better reputation for them on the whole.
Determining Art Theft
Before a single e-mail is sent, any suspected incidence of art theft needs to be determined as a definite case. Half-true accusations are the stuff flame wars are made of, and half an hour of research can save an artist or concerned fan a lot of time and embarrassment.
What is and isn't art theft isn't always clear-cut, and there are more things that art theft isn't than what it is.
What art theft is not:
- Rendering a character similar to someone else's character(s) in markings, coloring, and/or clothing. EXAMPLE: Two people having characters that are blue-skinned, silver-haired elves that wear Victorian dresses.
- Rendering characters in clothes similar to the clothes someone else renders her characters wearing. EXAMPLE: Jill Popular renders her characters wearing plaid skirts with straps. It is not art theft for Joe Wannabe to render his characters wearing plaid skirts with straps.
- Rendering a picture using the same pose and/or composition as another picture. EXAMPLE: Jill Popular draws a picture that has an elven woman dancing among columns of an old temple. Joe Wannabe draws a picture with a half-feline dancing in the same pose in a field, or the figure sitting among trees in the same position as the columns, or even a figure dancing in the same pose with trees in the same position as the columns.
- Using the same ideas or themes as another person uses in her artwork. EXAMPLE: Joe Wannabe draws a feline dragon that has cat ears and fur after seeing Jill Popular's drawing of a feline dragon that has cat eyes and a feline build.
- Using the same rendering techniques or styles another person uses to render her artwork. EXAMPLE: Joe Wannabe sees how Jill Popular draws eyes and starts drawing them in the same way.
What art theft is:
- Claiming a piece done by someone else as one's own. EXAMPLE: Joe Wannabe takes Jill Popular's drawing of an elf in a red dress, paints over the signature in a paint program, and posts it in his online art gallery as something he drew.
- Copying or tracing a piece done by someone else and claiming it as one's own. EXAMPLE: Joe Wannabe traces Jill Popular's drawing an elf in a red dress and posts it in his online art gallery without credit to Jill Popular.
- Re-publishing or distributing a piece without permission by the copyright holder. EXAMPLE: Joe Wannabe saves Jill Popular's drawing to his computer, and then uses it without permission as his character avatar in an online RPG. OR: Joe Wannabe uses Jill Popular's drawing as part of a flyer he makes advertising his new RPG store.
- Reproducing a piece for profit without permission by copyright holder. EXAMPLE: Joe Wannabe puts Jill Popular's drawing on t-shirts and sells them on his website or at conventions, but does not have Jill Popular's permission to do so.
Remember: Degree of similarity is key, and there are many gray areas. When in doubt, err on the side of positive judgment of the person you suspect. Also of note is taking into account that people with similar interests will usually have similar influences and come up with similar ideas independently. Finally, remember that it's your particular renditions of ideas, poses, and compositions that are protected under copyright, and it is stealing those renditions that is art theft. You may wish to familiarize yourself with the 10 Big Myths of Copyright to help familiarize yourself further on what is acceptable and what isn't.
Two special notes apply, however. One regards the use of style; if you suspect someone is copying your style in order to impersonate you, this bears further investigation. If you determine that the person is trying to impersonate you, this is identify theft. Identify theft is quite serious, and you should immediately contact the site administrators and possibly legal authorities. The second note regards unauthorized reproduction for profit; in these cases you are STRONGLY advised to seek legal counsel, preferably from a lawyer who specializes in Intellectual Property law.
Handling Art Theft
Now that you have a handle on what art theft is and is not, you need to know how to deal with it when you see it. Say you've come across a picture by a well-known artist on the gallery of a teenager who is definitely not that well-known artist, but claims that the picture is his. What you do then is determine that yes, the picture is really by the well-known artist or copied from one of their pieces directly, and then you look up the original artist's e-mail address and contact them with the URL of the picture and why you think it is stolen. If the artist is a part of a big company or is otherwise a big name and you don't think they would be able to deal with it directly, then you e-mail the site administration or abuse people with the URL of the stolen piece, a URL to point to proof of who the piece actually belongs to, and a statement of why you think this is theft.
And then you leave it alone. If it is not your artwork being stolen, is it not your responsibility to deal with it any further. Posting negative comments, e-mailing the thief, or posting about it at length on your blog or LiveJournal are NOT recommended--these actions can be seen as harassment and get you in trouble, and even if you don't catch heat for the actions, remember that the Internet doesn't forget and your actions may be archived for years. If you must post about the theft in semi-public to public places to determine the original artist or to warn others, endeavor to keep your tone neutral and your facts straight, and avoid responding to trolling comments. Remember that your actions reflect not only on you, but on the original artist as well, and they may not appreciate vigilante actions in their name.
If you are the artist who is being stolen from, you will have to take additional steps. The first step is to calm down. Depending on the nature of the theft, your feelings can range anywhere from mild irritation to full-out rage. In any case, you need to let those feelings settle down before you write any e-mails to anyone.
The second step is to write a polite but firm e-mail to the thief. It is important not to accuse or insult, lest the person take this as a reason to be stubborn and complain about how mean you are to the world at large, but it is also important to put across to them in no uncertain terms that what they did was unacceptable. This gives the person very little latitude to make excuses and drag the situation out. A good format is as follows, with the words in brackets to be replaced by the pertinent information:
[Name of the accused art thief],
I am the original artist of [name of piece], and I do not find it acceptable that you are claiming it as your own/posting it without permission, as it is a violation of my copyright. Please take the image/your copy/your tracing of [name of piece] down within [however many - a week is good] days, or I will contact the site administration/abuse team/your host so that they can take it down for you.
At this point you wait for a response. The response may be simply taking down the stolen piece; you may get an apologetic e-mail as well. You may, however, get an angry response, or one that is unhelpful. If the wording of this response is threatening, it is acceptable for you to contact the site administration right away with both the response you received and your stolen work complaint. Otherwise, wait until the time period you gave the person is up, and if they have not removed the piece by then contact the site administration to have them remove it. While in a perfect world the administration would take the stolen work down right away, give them time before you send them another e-mail; at least a week is appropriate, with two weeks being better for very large or busy sites. If you need to e-mail them again, do so politely but firmly.
In no case should you set your friends on a suspected thief, no matter how angry you are. If you tell your friends about the situation, make it clear to them that they are to leave the thief alone. You can't control what they might do or say, and dog piling onto the suspect is harassment and anything they do will reflect upon you, unfair as that might be. You should also refrain from posting publicly about the suspect or the situation, unless the case escalates to the point where you need to call for outside advice--even though your feelings may be quite hurt (and understandably so), it's still not the end of the world and having dramatics over it won't do your reputation any good and, unfortunately, may make you a tempting target for trolls who like to rile people up. If you need to call for help, remain as neutral and as factual as you can, and remind people you are looking for help, not assistance in harassing the thief.
Once the matter is resolved, drop it. It's acceptable and even wise to keep an eye on the thief, especially if they had taken more than one piece from more than one person, and even quietly warn other artists about the person, but other than that let the past remain in the past. Continually referring to a resolved case doesn't make you appear more sympathetic, but it does make it seem like you are out for sympathy and may invite flames from those involved with the person who stole the artwork in the first place.
Remember that politeness, firmness, and patience are the key to resolving a case of art theft with the least amount of drama. Applying these three qualities to your interactions with those who have stolen your work will increase the likelihood of a quick, satisfying resolution.
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