Wolf in Acrylic
Interview with Jenny Heidewald
Stop! Thieves!by Ellen Million
In my last article about DPI, I mentioned that size alone could not protect a piece of artwork from being stolen, and hinted that the topic of keeping your artwork safe was the topic for a completely new article. And lo, here is that article!
Who are the thieves?
First, let's look at what art thieves are and what they do, so we can understand what they're looking for in a file to steal.
Some people will lump a whole lot of different kinds of people into the category of 'art thief,' including people who are merely collecting artwork files to look at or share in a folder or on a webpage; they rarely print anything or produce a product with the files they collect, and don't charge anything to the people they share them with. While irritating, presumptuous and borderline illegal, these offenders are usually not actively trying to profit off of your work, and can often be stopped with a firm email. It generally isn't worth hiring a lawyer to do more. Some of these misguided people even insist that they are doing you (the artist) a favor by sharing your work, claiming you will get more of an audience, and become more popular.
This is by far the most common -- and the most harmless -- kind of art theft. The biggest problem with this is that thieves of more harmful kinds tend to gather work from these collectors.
Going for Glory
Insecurity makes people do funny things, and one of them is claiming to have created work that isn't theirs. Whether an aspiring artist finds doing their own work too hard, or just isn't satisfied with their own skills, sometimes you'll find someone displaying your work and taking all the credit. This sometimes happens with a piece of artwork, unaltered, and sometimes an artist will make minor changes or copy a design by hand. Sometimes they will be selling prints and products of it.
Pretending to have a skill that one doesn't rarely ends well, and this kind of art theft is fairly rare and doesn't often last long.
Modern-day, small-time pirates, these individuals tend to look for high quality print files that they can make prints and products off of. They will take smallish images and make teeny products like jewelry or mini-prints, and are looking for generic work in hot-selling topics (fairies, dragons). They also tend to use the artwork of big-name copyright holders, like Disney, with equal disregard for copyright. Some of them sell discs or printable collections to crafters who will incorporate these designs into commercial works. You can usually spot these people by the fact that they don't list artist names with the products they are selling, or acknowledge them in any way, and they have a wide range of work that isn't cohesive in style, though it may be broken up by subject.
This kind of theft has seen a distinct upswing as the Internet grows. There are enough commercial platforms where one can build a profitable audience that it's easy for new thieves to look legitimate. This is a regretfully common kind of art theft now. Generally, these thieves rely on the fact that they have a big catalog of work to turn a profit, rather than making a lot of money on an individual design.
Big and Scary
Every so often, a big (or big-looking) company will get their mitts on a design and do a run of derivative products like statues, blankets or other merchandise. They don't deviate far enough from the original source material that you wouldn't recognize them, side-by-side. They often go through an agent or other cloaked individual who finds them work... and they don't look too closely at where it came from.
It often takes (and is worth!) a lawyer in cases like this, and fortunately, this is not nearly as likely as the first three kinds of art thief!
Each of these kinds of pirates will require different handling, but the prevention of each of them is pretty similar:
Size of File
As mentioned in the previous article, size of your file is one way to limit some kinds of uses. If you keep your total pixel size less than 700-800 pixels on a side, the image can't be used to print quality prints or large products. It can still be used for teeny prints, though, and jewelry or small crafts.
Watermarks are the best front-line warriors against art theft that you can employ. Watermarks are usually semi-transparent, and sit right over the artwork. There are a number of tutorials online for applying watermarks to your work, but here are a few tips:
Can't a thief just remove a watermark?
This is another question I've seen a lot. Yes, a dedicated thief with a good art program can remove some watermarks from some artwork -- especially if the background of the watermark is a solid color or easy-to-mimic pattern. The more detailed the artwork, and the fancier the watermark, the harder this is to do, and most thieves are not in the business to do a lot of work themselves. A complex watermark (more than just text) will help with this.
Registration is an option that I feel obliged to mention, but do not actually recommend with any enthusiasm. Copyright registration is a service that you pay for, to catalog the official recognition of the copyright to your work. There is a lot of misinformation swirling around about registration, so here a few of the bullet points:
So, what if a thief continues to claim that the work is theirs? What if they try to register your work before you can?
This is the oddest of my recommendations, but hear me out.
Be transparent with your work -- show glimpses of your creative process and some of the steps you go through, as well as some of your progress pieces. This establishes a body of work, a progression of style and offers pretty irrefutable proof that you've done the work to get the final piece. If you can point to a public blog or Facebook post from two years before your foe's copyright showing the sketch and ink stage, that's going to go over well in a courtroom.
Hiding your work from view may feel like a good way to combat a thief, but the opposite is true! If your artwork, under your name, is available at several popular sites, people will begin to recognize it and associate it with you. If you have no way to show that you created something, it's going to be harder to prove.
Other things that don't work
With luck, these tips will help prevent your artwork from being stolen!
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