There’s not much point to art theft: you can’t pay the bills with upvotes. And it’s not very sustainable over the long term, either: pretend to be a master long enough and people will notice no one’s ever seen you actually draw. And for the people who profit off it: First of all, you’re the worst. But secondly, is what little you’re probably making worth knowing the truth will get out someday?
…But it’s still rampant online. Plenty of people think everything on the internet is in the public domain, and they’ll take what they want, no matter how it affects you. In the words of Deviantart, disabling right-click downloads is like “putting a padlock on a paper bag,” and despite how many artists take issue with their stance, that part, at least, is true.
However, there’s still plenty you can do to make it harder on thieves, minimize the damage, or even make it work to your advantage.
An Ounce of Prevention
Reverse Image Search
Google’s reverse image search is your best tool in stopping art theft early: Make sure to occasionally search for your best or most marketable images so you can catch illicit shares before they take off.
It’s been said countless times: watermark everything. Make sure to use something legible, but not big and obnoxious enough to ruin it. Transparent watermarks laid over the image do both, with the added perk of being very difficult to edit out. For that reason, it’s also an effective canary in the coal mine: if someone removes it or adds their own, you know you’re dealing with a serial thief, and you need to take drastic action immediately.
A Pound of Cure
Take pictures and save them immediately. There’s a good chance the thief, when called out, will just pull it down and pretend it never happened. You’ll need your own evidence.
If your work has been reposted somewhere that allows comments, the next step is to politely let the audience know that you’re the artist and you’d like them to take a look at your other stuff. Most non-malicious sharers—the ones who just don’t know or care about who made it—will allow that, or even be grateful for it, giving you some sweet free advertising.
The other kind of art thief, however, will get nasty. Expect to see your comment removed, reported, or responded to with verbal abuse. And if your find yourself suddenly unable to access the site, they may have blocked your IP address. Check on another computer.
All of these are no big deal, though: that’s just your cue to move on to the next step…
Demand that the Thief Take it Down
If this is some random internet fool, send them a strongly-worded email or direct message letting them know you’ll take action if they don’t remove the image. Or you can just skip to the “pillory” step. But if this is a business or someone with a website, see if you can Google up their phone number, then call them up and tell them to knock if off. They might just hang up, but at least it’ll be much more unnerving than text communication.
If talking to them directly doesn’t work, take to social media and let as many people as possible know what happened, who did it, and not to trust that person. Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, art communities… Blast it out to any audience you think may be likely to patronize the thief. Be enthusiastic enough about this step, and a theft that could have hurt you can actually turn into a great promotional opportunity for your work.
Send a Cease and Desist Letter
If everything to this point has been ignored, you’ll have to let them know you’re willing to take legal action. (Even if you’re not, threatening it might be enough.) One search will bring up countless templates for these, but if you’re seriously considering legal action, then before sending it…
Get Legal Advice
Copyright law is weird, and what might seem like an open-and-shut theft case can be way more complicated than you imagine. So, at this point, there’s not much else that a blog article can do for you: you need an lawyer: an intellectual property lawyer, specifically. Most lawyers will have a general knowledge of copyright law, but for a case thorny enough to need a lawyer anyway, you’ll want one with a specialty in that field.
Martindale.com and Lawyers.com allow you to search for lawyers with a specific education in copyrights and patents, and Avvo.com lets you search for ones who specialize in copyright matters.
This article deals with the direct theft of images or designs, tangible things you can clearly point to and identify as yours. If you’re concerned about the theft, or possible theft, of a concept, we have to recommend you jump directly to the final stage. That is, if you think it can cost you enough to be worth the potential legal fees.
How do you deal with art theft? Leave us a comment.