You've spent days creating some awesome artwork and shared it with the world - as all beautiful art should be. Later you find it's been stolen! Used on a site or product without your permission. This is not right, fair or legal. It shouldn't be that some unscrupulous seller can just come along, harvest the fruits of your labour and convert it into their own personal revenue stream.
In this article I'll discuss the topic of art theft and what you can do to minimize the chance of falling victim to it.
Not a new phenomena
The topic of online image theft has been on my radar since the late 90s. I've since become an expert on the matter.
In my late teens, I created my first art portfolio website back in the early days of the web. The sole purpose was to share what I'd been working on with like-minded people. Having my own website was great. It started as a hobby project and went on to generate many fantastic opportunities. It allowed me to become a professional, paid artist which, would have otherwise remained a pipe dream.
I recommend everyone has their own site!
Although it was and will always be true that where there are creative people offering quality content, there will also always be poachers looking to take advantage of the fact.
The internet was a much smaller place 20+ years ago, which meant fewer 'web surfers' and smaller potential audiences. This fact didn't stop a handful of image thieves from discovering my art. Looking back, my early work wasn't particularly amazing, but good enough to inspire a few fans. And wherever there are fans, they will unfortunately be thieves.
I remember several occasions between the late 90s and early 2000s whereby I'd spot wannabe artists who'd taken a few pieces of my work and were passing it off as their own. Sometimes it would be a straight-up Copy + Paste from my gallery to theirs. Other times they might colourise the image or add some small detail to it in order to make them feel as though they were its author.
I remember at the time being furious to find someone out there was taking credit for the art I'd created. I'd email them; complaining, either asking them to credit me or take it down. Most of the time they'd just take it down. The shame of being found out was normally enough to make these people comply.
What do these people have to gain?
There are 3 different types of art thief- some amateur artists copy your work, others who take the art and pend it's their own, and criminal thieves or infringe on your copyright to turn a profit.
Tracer/ Copier Art Thieves:
Years ago, the main concern from artists would be having their art copied or traced by another amateur and simply not giving credit. This still happens, but these days it typically doesn't worry me. A lot of the time it's just kids online wanting to emulate art for fun and aren't necessarily looking for trick anyone or profit from the endeavour.
Pretender Art Thieves:
Then there's those who steal another's artwork and pass it off as their own for kudos. If someone wants to fake being better than they are by trying to fool others, they are doing themselves more harm than they think. This type of art thief subconsciously reinforces the fact that they are a loser who's too lazy to put in the work themselves, so resorts to shortcuts- leeching off others and being deceitful in an attempt to gain external validation. Being that way will not get them far in life. They might get a few 'likes' on social media, but then how sad to feel as though your self-worth is tied to a social media platform's 'like' counter?
The damage this type of thief does to their own sense of self worth is often much worse than damage caused to the artist they've stolen from. My advice to this thief is to learn how to draw as good as the artwork you've stolen and taken credit for. At least then you wont have to know that deep down you're a cheat who's incapable of achieving great things. If you the reason you're stealing is because you simply can't draw despite many years of trying, then perhaps find something else you can get good at and focus on that instead.
Criminal Art Thieves:
Lastly there is the type of thief who wants to exploit and profit from an artist's efforts. These people frustrate artists the most. Especially commercial artists who understand the financial value in their work and want to be the ones profiting from it themselves.
Insane amounts of art Piracy!
We're more than two decades into the 2000s. The internet has become a big part of everyday life for most people. Art theft is hitting record numbers. Now, us artists do not have to simply concern ourselves with the occasional amateur taking credit for our work, but hundreds of illegal businesses could potentially be making huge amounts of profit via our art and designs.
I don't want to scare anyone to the point where they don't feel safe in posting their images online. As I say, I think everyone should have their own website and share their beautiful art with the world. To inspire others or evoke emotion from one's creative endeavours is one of the most virtuous acts one can perform.
However, we need to be realistic about the world we live in. Even during the last few years alone, I've discovered several hundred instances of my work being used on websites or products without my consent. I almost can't keep up! For every new artwork I create, there are multiple sellers seemingly waiting to pull it off the web and sell it on dozens of products. Clothing, cases, accessories, wall art or basically any item that can be printed on to. I've somewhat come to terms with it being part and parcel of being a successful artist. But that doesn't mean I don't take measures to protect my art or actively fight against the piracy of my work.
Why is there more art theft?
Here's a few reasons. I'm sure there's many more.
1. The internet has grown
According to Internet Live stats, In 2000 there were 17 million websites. Now there's close to 2 billion! Simply, the more sites and people using the internet, the more opportunity for web crimes to occur. There's now more art than ever to potentially profit from, and more thieves hoping to make a quick buck.
2. More countries have online access
Certain counties such as China do not share the same respect for intellectual property. Sellers in China do not need to battle with the moral or legal enforcement issues we have in western countries. And so for these people, the internet becomes one big buffet to pick from and exploit. Individual sellers in China can now access the west's online retail space via sites such as Ebay, Amazon, Alibaba, Wish or AliExpress. These sellers can afford to work for less and produce physical items at a lower cost. Therefore, making and supplying printed products has become a lucrative business.
3. The rise of Print on Demand
Print on Demand isn't new, but really began to take off between 2015 and today. Rather than need to print, stock and then sell hundreds of products in one go, companies now offer the production of single items at a reasonably affordable price. A seller doesn't need to risk printing 100 pirated t-shirts with the fear of losing the ability to shift them all if their operation gets shut down or their product is banned [Note- Retailers such as Amazon or Shopify do not typically ban blatant pirate sellers or their operations. Rather, they ban copyright infringed items and only when such items are brought to the attention of these platforms].
"Where there are creative people offering quality content, there will also always be poachers looking to take advantage of the fact."
10 Ways to Protect Your Artwork Images from Being Copied Online
At this time, there is no way to completely prevent your art being taken, reproduced or replicated unless it never makes its way to the web. A tiny percentage of artists might decide they won't ever share anything online and that's fair enough. But if your goal is to sell your work, promote yourself or services through your online portfolio and web presence, then posting your art is a necessity.
My feeling is that the more barriers and obstacles you put into protecting your work, the better. Some thieves will simply be deterred and instead go after images that are easier to attain.
1. Limit the size of your images
Smaller images can look fine on a screen- especially mobile devices. They only print small and when enlarged they become pixilated and grainy. This makes them unsuitable for printing onto products. Another advantage to uploading smaller images is that they load faster, taking up lass space on your hard drive or SD card.
Image size is determined by its dimensions and measured in pixels. For example, 400 x 600 px (pixels). An image's size can be described as it's 'resolution'. A high resolution image is one with large pixel dimensions such as 1000 x 2000 px or more. An image's pixel per inch (ppi) value can affect the print resolution of an image, which will be explained later.
How big should my online images be?
It depends who's viewing them and where they'll be used. If you've put together a slick, full-screen, online art portfolio to show clients, you might want to consider slightly larger files compared to something shared with the general public on social media. Consider who will have access to your art and who's likely to find it. If it can only be found via a direct link and your work isn't popping up on a Google image search despite your best efforts to find it, then it's safe to say that thieves will struggle to find it also.
◾ If the art is just going on social media, something like 700 x 700 px will suffice.
◾ When your work is featured in video content such as a Youtube video at high-definition 1080p, then you'll want to consider a bigger image to fill this 1920 x 1080 px resolution frame. At this time, stealing images from Youtube screenshots to later use on a printed product isn't common.
◾ For online use, I generally try to keep the widest part of an image at 900px - 1200px maximum.
2. Lower the print resolution of your images
Not to be confused with screen resolution, when an image is printed, it's pixels per inch (ppi) is taken into account to determine its print resolution and level of quality. [Note- for the sake of argument, I sometimes use the terms 'ppi' and 'dpi' (dots per inch) interchangeably]
Pixel dimensions and ppi are somewhat interlinked. If saving art in Photoshop, you can modify its dimensions and amount of ppi independently and under the setting: Image -> Image Size.
Lowering the image size and resolution before putting it online is one of the best ways to prevent art theft. However, some thieves will still attempt, and in some cases succeed, in selling low-res printed products to unfussy customers. As a consumer, you should always expect the artwork on any product you buy to look sharp as a knife. If it's not, ask yourself- Is this product counterfeit? And if so do I want to support counterfeiters? Less demand for low quality, stolen 'toot' = less reason for art to be taken in the first place.
Also, it's worth being aware that A.I. software exists which can attempt to up-scale low-res art into high-res sizes. It's not perfect, but something to consider.
3. Compress your images and save as JPEG
Most images shared online will be saved as a compressed JPEG file. This typically uses .jpg extension at the end of the file name. Even a large, high-res Jpeg won't be suitable for print if it's been super compressed.
You can vary the amount of compression applied to a jpeg. But the more compression, the uglier it looks on a display. You want to find a sweet spot where the quality will drop by a few notches but the image still looks decent on the screen. A Jpeg should still look fine on screen at 60-70% quality and also benefit from a smaller file size. Certainly, 100% quality shouldn't be shared online.
If I'm saving a jpeg for the web with Photoshop, I'll typically use it's 9 out of 12 quality setting.
4. Add a Watermark to artwork
Your digital watermark could be a logo or signature. Watermarks usually cover a portion of the art with a semi-transparent logo or word which makes the image less useful without totally obscuring it.
I've found a 50-50 split with some artists advocating watermarks, while others think it degrades the quality of their work. Sure- a watermark will always somewhat interfere with the beautiful artwork beneath, and that's the point.
It's worth noting, anyone selling products containing watermarks is making use of 100% stolen art. Again, as consumers, we should resist the temptation to purchase these products so as to not support the pirates.
Amazingly, I once saw a stolen, watermarked artwork with a huge DevianArt logo over the top being sold on a garment by a printed hoodie business. The audacity to openly commit this act of fraud was remarkable. I would often troll their social media account asking why they steal all their art and don't pay artists for the privilege. It was an attempt to shame them into stopping the practice. Sure, they'd delete my comments and attempt to ban me, but when I see things like this, I can't ignore it. I don't like to see other artists being taken advantage of, whether they are aware of it or not.
How do I know if I should watermark my artwork?
I've noticed certain styles and themes of artwork are more likely to be stolen. And so the need for a watermark is more important. Do you create fan art? Paint celebrities? Draw actors or characters from popular culture? Is your subject easy to cut out and paste on products, e.g. a character on a flat, plain coloured background? If so, consider watermarks. Something like a generic boat sailing on the ocean or a nice looking photograph of a local landmark is less likely to get swiped, even if it's a good piece of art.
5. Add a copyright notice or website address to images
Similarly to adding a watermark, you could add a copyright notice to your image. By default, any artwork created by an author grants them automatic copyright and ownership (other than in work-for-hire or other contractual relationships). However, adding a line of text to state the artwork has an owner may deter a few thieves and make people aware of the image's author.
Adding your website address to the bottom of an image could also deter and, in some cases, work as an extra benefit to the artist. If it's the type of art that could get shared around a lot on social media, it could potentially earn you a few new site visitors. Or at least it gives no reason for anyone else posting the image to not give you credit for having created it.
6. Let people know you're the artist
Rather than adding copyright info or a web address to the image itself, you can always add this to any web page you post your images to. On social media, add hash tags including your name, company or brand in the description box. This helps mitigate the damage from social media shares where people don’t give credit.
A lot of people don’t understand the importance of giving credit and not stealing ideas. Add reminders explaining how giving credit helps you as an artist. These can be added to social media posts discussed on your blog or website. Anywhere you might post your intellectual property. No need to moan about it. Be professional and let people know why crediting artists is important.
7. Don't share the full image
You could decide to post just a cropped version of the full image you have. This isn't necessarily a great solution and the crop still has a chance of being taken, but in a few select cases, it could work as a deterrent.
8. Only post photos of your art
Particularly for digital artists and photographers, one thing to consider is printing out your work, then taking and sharing photos of it. It can be taken at a slight angle by tilting the work, placed in a frame or held up to the camera. Any ambient shadows or lighting stops a thief from being able to download a clean version of the image suitable to add to products.
I see this from a few Instagram artists I follow- they add overlapping pens or paintbrushes to their art before taking a photo. It looks cool. Or they shoot their work in different environments- perhaps with plants or other accessories surrounding the image.
9. Disable the right-click function
If you manage your own website and have some coding know-how, you can disable right-clicking on your images. Therefore not allowing the option to save them. Or you can make images only downloadable 'webp' files which means they'll only open in a browser. This makes it a bit harder for some people to save your images to their devices.
However, there are still several work-arounds to this. These include saving using a screenshot, searching through the website's source code to find the unprotected image location, or searching through their browser's cache of temporarily downloaded images.
10. Be easy to contact online
If you make it easy for people to contact you, they’ll be more likely to ask for permission to use your work. Mention your web address or how people can contact you on the sites you post on. If you don’t want to grant permission, you can still politely decline. On my site, the Contact page even has a drop down heading for 'Usage rights' so that I can address this topic more efficiently.
"As a consumer you should always expect the artwork on any product you buy to look sharp as a knife. If it's not, ask yourself- Is this product counterfeit? And if so do I want to support counterfeiters?"
Battling Art Theft
I appreciate the war on theft isn't the most uplifting of art-related topics. There are many articles and websites which promote posting your art online to gain exposure, or e-commerce sites promoting ways to display and sell your artwork with relative ease. However, it's worth being realistic and spending some time considering the 'dark side' of putting your work on the web.
How do thieves find my artwork?
You've created an amazing image and want to share it with the world. For the majority of web users, this will be limited to friends, family and a few strangers picked up on the way. You might share it on social media platforms or art-related websites. Most artists, or at least, aspiring artists, won’t need to worry about their work being ripped off because they're simply not famous or easy to stumble upon.
If you've managed to not only create beautiful art, but gained notoriety, fame or followers as well, Congratulations! You've made it into the upper echelon! But unfortunately, now you're a target.
Is your work is east to find?
Perhaps you’ve considered Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) for your personal website? Or maybe you’ve shared it on a site which increased its findability with its own SEO? If your creations have proved popular with lots of shares, likes, sales and so on, they'll likely rise up and become easier to stumble upon. Is your work ranking high on a Google Image search? Or perhaps it is one of the first items to appear via a Pinterest search? Great! It's not easy for one’s art to gain that level of exposure. However, thieves now know it exists too. They also know that the cream of the crop rises to the top, so they're far more likely to see value in your digital offering/s.
The prime targets for thieves, however, are existing online stores. Thieves pay attention to the best sellers on each platform to determine which art will more likely award them higher profits later on. If you’ve been successful at selling your work on retail sites like, Red Bubble, Zazzle, Fine Art America, Society 6, Etsy, Amazon and Ebay, then you’ll need to understand the artworks on those products are at higher risk of being taken.
Some of these sites will put some measures in place to prevent art theft. After all, it’s in their interest to not have to compete against their own offerings on alternative sites. Unfortunately, for me personally, their measures have been insufficient. Most of my work is typically taken from various other retailers I’ve licensed with.
Thieves using their stolen art to sell their own products is only half the story. The other half is made of thieves re-selling artwork to other manufacturers or Print-On-Demand sellers.
Many sellers don’t even realise they’re effectively handling stolen goods when they buy a ‘digital image pack’ containing hundreds or thousands of popular images they can make use of on their products. Well, I say they don’t realise, but you’d have to be pretty naive about copyright law to think a nominal price for a huge collection of royalty-free professional art is legit.
I give a tiny bit more leeway to sellers who buy existing products already containing your artwork from sites like Alibaba in China. It’s funny how such a huge corporation can float on the stock market despite being a huge hot-bed of blatant illegal activity. Don’t take my word for it; just search for your favourite, popular IPs and franchises to bring up pages of unlicensed goods for sale.
There isn’t a solution to the whole 'being found' issue- we want our artistic efforts to go noticed. And we want our art-based merchandise to become the next hot seller. If it does, art theft is simply an inevitable consequence.
Should I always bother protecting my artwork?
Some things aren't worth bothering to protect. For example, thumbnail images for your online gallery will be too small to do much with.
Quick sketches, work-in-progress images or idea posts don't have a lot of commercial value, although the idea of having a link back to your site or including a web URL on these may still be worth considering.
Realistically speaking, is your art good enough to steal?
For most of us, we wouldn't even bother sharing our art if we didn't see at least some value in it. But while we may love our creations, would an on-looker sit up and take notice? After all, there's already such a huge buffet of pre-existing, quality content floating around on the internet. Perhaps there's no need for concern if you're just starting out on your artistic journey. Maybe wait until your work is good enough to steal or you've found it's been stolen before you worry about putting in more measures to protect your portfolio.
Your art may be good, but could still be safe if there's already something very similar ranking high on search engines. Or other art that already has a proven track-record of generating sales on other online stores.
It’s a waste of time to even worry about art theft
When it comes to taking measures to avoid art theft, such as adding watermarks to your art, it will be up to you to decide if it's worth the effort. Some artists just want to post their artwork online, then move onto the next thing. They don’t want to hang around, wasting time to consider if or when it could get stolen and used without their consent. This is fair enough.
I understand that life is short and we don’t necessarily want to worry about the dodgy, objectionable practices that take place within our global society. It can be a waste of life if you’re forever chasing thieves instead of moving on to your next exciting creation. Many artist friends of mine say the battle against art theft is too emotionally costly. The stress that comes from seeking out instances of theft or taking steps to resolve these infringements is too upsetting and not worth the distress.
Therefore, ask yourself, is it worth your time to take measures to avoid art theft? Is it worth your time to resolve an instance of copyright infringement? And do you have the mental fortitude to engage with the stress it causes?
Speaking for myself, my sense of justice and fairness is baked into my personality such that I can’t let artwork theft slide. Despite the mental toll it takes to deal with these instances, it’s even worse for me to do nothing while I know there are people out there profiting from the fruits of my labour. Also, if I am to sell my artwork on a print, canvas or product on Amazon, for example, I don’t want to have to compete against other sellers who are illegally offering the same art and product type, albeit of a lower quality.
There is an argument I've never understood - "Why is this so bad? You should feel flattered that your work was good enough to steal". I understand there are many non-artists out there who'd love the ability to create good art. Art so good that it's noticed and appreciated. So much so that it warrants being stolen! However, they do not understand the effort and commitment that has gone in to creating the art.
Artists have developed their craft over many years to get to a point where they have become competent professionals. It has taken passion, effort and a degree of sacrifice (such as time) to have reached their level of ability. And with each artwork, a small part of them goes into its creation. An artist's knowledge, preferences, tastes and loves have been distilled into their work. It's personal.
But for thieves, it's not personal. It's business. The business of exploitation. This isn't something to be encouraged or thought of in a positive way.
Perhaps, for some, the theft provides a little boost of self-esteem? It makes them feel their efforts have value and so they are of value. I understand. It's nice to know we have something positive to offer the world, but that's not what this discussion is about. It's about acknowledging an injustice and considering what you can do to battle it.
Where do thieves sell my artwork?
Sometimes you'll stumble upon an e-commerce site making use of your work. Other times, a friend, follower, or good Samaritan will notify you so that you can take action. But if you are prepared to see if your work has been taken and is currently being sold online, there are a few sites you can use to assist:
Google Image Search - Upload your art / image and search for visual matches via Google.
Tiny Eye Reverse Image Search - This works in the same way and can bring up matches from alternative sources.
[Note: In testing these sites while writing this article, I unfortunately found 7 instances of my artwork being used on Diamond Painting Kits and Jigsaw Puzzles by Amazon sellers. They've since been reported.]
In addition, you may want to try manually searching for products containing your art on sites like Amazon, eBay, Etsy, or Print on Demand Stores like Red Bubble. This is easier if your work is more niche. For example, if you've painted a blue fairy riding on the back of a toad- you might try searching for "blue fairy on toad", "blue fairy on toad art", "blue fairy on toad canvas" etc. It may yield product results. It may not.
If you'd previously listed and sold your artwork for sale on a site like Red Bubble, a thief may have also found it. You might try searching sites for the same title you'd used on the original product listing.
What to do when you find someone has stolen your art
Many instances of theft are by kids or naive idiots taking your image to use as a wallpaper, avatar or perhaps an album cover for their stupid little song. Over the years, I've found my art posted on forums, in signatures, as a Youtube thumbnail or Ad banner, as a logo for a tattoo shop. I've also discovered it on several hundred different retail products and can still find them being sold illegally today. Typically, an artists work will be taken and used to sell posters, canvases, shirts, mugs, or any product where 2D printed artwork can be applied.
For non-profit use, I typically don't mind my work being taken and shared online. However, I have a problem when I find it's been stolen and used for profitable gain.
If that's the case, firstly, try not to get too upset and know that it happens to a lot of artists.
From there you work out:
- Who's taken it?
- Where is the individual or business located?
- To what extent has the art been used?
- What will you do about it?
If it's an offender in the USA, Europe or English-speaking world, there's usually measures in place to potentially take legal action. But you may simply want to request the art/product be taken down. Contacting a site owner / seller, explaining the situation and threatening further action is often enough for them to take down the product.
On bigger sites, there's usually a form you can fill in if you want to request a product be removed which infringes on your copyright. I'll list a few of these below:
◾Etsy has an official Intellectual Property infringement report you may want to submit. I once submitted a report against a seller who was illegally using my work. The seller then issues a counter-notice to declare they had permission (a lie). They would obviously never win if the case was brought to court, but Etsy then requested that I submit evidence of taking legal action in order for Etsy to take down the infringing product. It made me realize, sellers can game the system if they are ballsey enough to deny their crime.
◾Pinterest - You can fill out a take-down request. I usually just do these if the Pin is pointing towards a for-profit site/product.
◾Amazon - You will need to have an account with Amazon to use their infringement form. You may find instances of infringement on multiple Amazon territory sites- i.e. Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk and will need to submit reports to the appropriate site. Years back, Amazon often sided with Chinese counterfeit sellers when it came to infringement reports, but thankfully, things have changed. These days they've usually been pretty good at dealing with the hundreds of reports I've submitted over the years, with the exception of Amazon Germany, often siding with the thieves for reasons unknown.
◾Red Bubble has an IP Report form. As do many of these large print-on-demand websites.
◾Shopify also makes you sign up to their platform in order to submit a copyright report. I'm not impressed with them as a company. I've contacted their trust and safety team on 3 separate occasions to report a seller who uses their platform. This seller frequently steals my art to sell on their products. Everything they sell is blatantly stolen from many different artists, but Shopify refuses to take action against them.
Issuing a complaint
Here are some examples you can copy and modify when registering a notice of copyright infringement via email or web forms to sellers:
My name is [insert name] I originally created the artwork on this [insert product] and its copyright belongs to me. I have not authorized the sale of or reproduction of this work and therefore it is a crime for it to be sold. I would request it be removed from your store immediately.
If you fail to comply, I shall be taking legal action against you and any other sellers attempting to profit from this or any other product containing my artwork.
For more information about me and my work, you're welcome to check out my site at [your website].
[insert your Contact Details]
Hello. One of my followers informed me that my artwork is being used and sold on your listing:
[insert URL of your art]
I appreciate this product was likely bought from or will be drop shipped from a counterfeit seller based in China, but as I have not given permission for my artwork to be used on this, I would like to request it be removed.
If you would like the rights to use this artwork however, let me know and a licence can be arranged. Costs start from [Insert Fee] per design.
[insert your Contact Details]
Details about Claim:
THIS IS A COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT CLAIM. The manufacturers of these products are illegally reproducing my intellectual property on this product. The products feature artworks of which I am the artist and copyright holder. The use of my artwork on these products infringes my COPYRIGHT. I have not licensed or given permission for my intellectual property to appear on these products. Therefore, these physical products include unauthorised copyrighted images. As a result, these products infringe my copyright under International Law and I require that they are immediately removed.
What to do when you find another artist's art has been stolen?
If you can spare 5 minutes, contact the artist. I'm sure a few artists would rather be blissfully ignorant about the fact, but overall, I feel that making the artist aware, at least gives them a chance to take action.
It's useful if you're able to supply:
- Who's taken it?
- Where is the individual or business located?
- To what extent has the art been used?
And then it's up to the artist to decide what to do about it. I'd imagine most artists aren't going to care if their work was used, for example, as someone's personal avatar on a website. And consider that perhaps the artist has licenced the artwork to be used legally.
Personally, I might not mind it if some mid-sized company blatantly rips me off so that I can potentially sue for a hundred grand!
When should you find a Lawyer?
I use a site called Pixsy. It's purpose is to find and tackle image theft on your behalf.
You upload your art or portfolio of work and they will display websites they find which make use of it by finding visual matches online. After that, you have the opportunity to allow Pixsy's legal team to chase any unlawful seller for damages or fees to continue using the art by officially licensing it's use.
If you've been selling your art and images online or licencing your work for some time, it might be worth signing up to see what they find? It seems most suited to digital artists, illustrators and photographers.
Over the last few years, I've asked Pixsy to chase several offenders on my behalf. You put in a no win - no fee claim, so there is no risk.
One claim netted me a few hundred dollars after Pixsy took their cut of fees. Another claim allowed Pixsy to register one of my artworks with the USA Copyright office on my behalf without needing to pay a fee up front in order to chase a compensation claim.
However, it is often the case that they are unable to recoup damages as the companies/sites using my art have been small-time 'pop-up' stores which don't list a business address and info you'd need to pursue a law suit. Similarly, they find many instances of infringement, but are unable to pursue sellers in countries they don't have jurisdiction in.
Other than Pixsy, you may want to contact an independent lawyer who specializes in copyright infringement. There are also lawyers who specifically focus on online image or art copyright infringement. It's worth noting there will often be fees to pay up front and know that any legal battle will be lengthy and stressful to deal with.
"with each artwork, a small part of them goes into it's creation. An artist's knowledge, preferences, tastes and loves have been distilled into their work. It's personal. But for thieves, it's not personal. It's business. The business of exploitation"
What to do when a seller reaches out to use your work, or has used your work
In the event you have a genuine customer interested in using your work- well done. If its for use on a product or service, this is your chance to sell it's use for a licensing fee. If its for the promise of "potential" profits or "exposure", I'll often decline it's use.
Any business or serious individual will expect to pay you for the right to use your art. If they've scoured the net looking for the perfect image, and your art is it, then that puts you in a good bargaining position. Don't sell your work short. Of course, you'll then need to determine who exactly the buyers is and exactly what they want to use your art for before giving a price. I'll leave the details of how to price your work for another time.
If a seller has already taken your work, applied it to a product for sale, then at a later date asks for permission, again this is a chance to charge a usage/licencing fee. Of course, this puts you in a bind as you will be going into this new business relationship without having had the opportunity to negotiate terms up front. You may otherwise want to refuse a licence to use the art and potentially sue the seller for using your artwork to begin with.
I had this happen on an occasion and decided to charge a relatively small licensing fee for the art already used. I thought it was better than nothing, compared to over-demanding more than the seller could afford. And at least the seller realized the error of their ways and wanted to put it right by later finding me and paying for usage. It highlighted the problem that, with so much art floating around online, it can be hard to find the original author. And so, can be tempting to simply just use the art for one's project without investing time trying to find the original creator.
Will people still be stealing your digital art in the future?
The online space is still very much the wild west and in it's infancy- there aren't measures in place to deal with digital crime or to cope with the vast amount of counterfeit sellers abusing the systems that currently exist.
For many years I've speculated about the internet changing in a way to safeguard digital content. Around 2010, I dreamed up an idea to publish or share images online via blockchain technology which keeps a ledger of ownership or transfer history. Funnily enough, NFTs started becoming popular with artists a few years ago and although owning an NFT isn't going to prevent it being stolen and used on products just like any other image, the concept at least has the potential to develop.
With A.I. now able to reproduce "original" art based on existing image data, I suspect it will become easy for many sellers to profit from these derivative artworks as an alternative. Less art may get stolen, although it means artists will need to work harder than ever to promote themselves and their 'brand' over and above creating glossy professional-looking artwork, after such work continues to flood the internet.
Ultimately, it's important for artists to take proactive steps to protect their work, but it's also important to recognize that it can be difficult to completely prevent online theft.
If you found this post insightful, please share it a link to it. The more we can do to highlight this stolen art issue, the better.