What is plagiarism?
Plagiarism, which is technically art theft, comes in many forms. The correct description for plagiarism is: ‘The act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person’ however, it doesn’t stop there. To plagiarize, one can still give credit to your art, and take it for his or her own use without permission, which is still stealing.
From stealing your art to removing your signature and claiming it as their own piece, which often is the result of some form of jealousy or the need to prove oneself, knowing he or she can’t make something like your art, to just innocent kids, thinking they can just cut out your signature and use it for their own banners, avatars, and other fun projects. They come in all shapes or forms. But this is one of the least harmful situations. You may miss out on exposure, or have trouble with people who think you stole the piece instead of the other way around, but this is only the tip of the iceberg.
There are also those that go above and beyond to make money from YOUR art. They steal your beautiful art piece and sell it on places like Etsy, Displate, Redbubble, and other similar websites. Or worse even: They take your art to fulfill a personal commission from someone that paid big money for a one-off piece. It’s a very common practice, seen on Facebook art pages, but also on professional websites like Fiverr. There are even professional companies out there, that simply take your art to promote their new game for example. However, with things like these, we get into the realm of copyrights.
How is an art copyright infringement different from plagiarism?
Copyright infringement is the act of unauthorized or unlicensed copying of an artwork, subject to copyright. When your art is stolen, there may or may not be plagiarism in play. But there is always copyright infringement. When you make art, it’s copyrighted by default, you don’t have to do anything for it. When your art is stolen, this is enough grounds to make work of it.
But my art is not good enough to have plagiarism or copyright infringements happen to me!
It’s easy to think of ourselves as imposters, cause you may think we are not ‘good enough. It tends to be in our nature to think that our art is not worth its money in time, but let me say that YOU are worth your money in time, and so is your art. Always remember that nobody sees the ‘flaws’ in your art the way you do and that your own demons are always waiting for you to tear you down. We have all been there, and we go back there every now and then. Still, generally speaking, your art is considered to be WAY better than you think it is yourself.
Don’t ever think you’re immune to it. It will happen, and it will happen sooner than you think. The chance of this happening to you is a lot bigger when you’re starting out and didn’t really make a name for yourself yet than when you already are a big name. Stealing will still happen, but it will decrease because everybody knows you and your style. People who scam tend to be actively called out by the large interconnected art community.
So, how do I protect my art against plagiarism or copyright infringements?
Well, the bad news is: You can’t, really. If someone really wants to plagiarize or infringe your copyright, and that someone is a bit handy, it will happen. I’m not gonna explain the more elaborate schemes as I don’t want to give anyone ideas who may hop by here, looking to cause mischief. But we all know the more streamlined scams:
- Removing watermarks
- Removing or cutting away signatures
- Using your image or a part of it to photo bash
- Tweaking your art to make it look a bit different
- Tracing and duplicating your art by hand to look (nearly) the same as yours
- Changing the hue/color/saturation of a piece and warping or flip it to make it look differently
This all is considered copyright infringement and plagiarism. I’ll be blunt, it sucks when it happens, but there are ways to reduce the chance of your art being plagiarized.
Reduce the DPI
DPI or Dots per Inch refers to the quality of the art piece. 72 DPI is normally considered to be ideal for the internet. A computer screen doesn’t show a higher resolution ánd it saves space on whatever platform the art is posted. This is especially interesting when you are running your own website.
When you make art for prints, you draw on 300 DPI most of the time (This may vary, larger pieces may be printed on 200 DPI or even lower, as you look at it from a distance anyway). Just don’t EVER post art on a high resolution, and when you want to sell your art online: Make sure you do that throughout a channel that doesn’t share the original right away, and only shows a thumbnail or a low-resolution version before the sale.
You may even choose to reduce the DPI to lower than 72, but this is not recommended. You want to sell quality to your followers, or those that are interested in your art, so it’s wise to show crisp images when you post them online.
Reduce the size
This is a no-brainer. If you made an art piece of say, 1 meter x 80 cm: Don’t post the large version on the internet. Reduce the size and post that one instead. Make sure that it’s large enough to fit within whatever requirements the website or app has that you are using, while also keeping it as small as possible.
Reducing the size makes using your art less interesting, especially when the art needs to be displayed on, for example, a background, a poster, a t-shirt, or anything else that’s quite big. The more the image is stretched, the less quality will be left.
This one is a bit controversial. It’s probably the most effective way to stop people from stealing your art. Anyone that isn’t at least adept with a program like photoshop, won’t be able to plagiarize, cutting out a large chunk of potential scammers, but using watermarks also means you potentially cut into your following. Art is to be seen and many people will simply scroll by your art just because it has a watermark.
You may want to use watermarks as an exception, and not as a rule.
Always sign your art. This can be done with an actual signature, a logo, or text. It can be removed of course, but if you place your signature strategically, it will be hard to do so.
- Put the signature near your main subject, or even in it. Many people who can’t use programs like photoshop won’t be able to get rid of the signature because, when cutting it away, it will also cut into the main subject.
- Put the signature in a textured area near or in the main subject. This makes removing it even harder. One needs to know how photoshop works really well, may even need a tablet to make it flawlessly disappear, and it often takes them too much time to edit, so the chance they skip by your artwork increases significantly.
- Make your signature nearly invisible. Like this, your art may still be stolen, but will still have your signature on it. It’s easier to call out fraud that way. Make sure it’s within your main subject, very small but still readable when pointed out, and use colors or opacity to make it stand out even less.
Post your art publicly
This may be a no-brainer as well, but there are closed communities everywhere. Facebook for example, where you may share your art and get stolen right away. You are the one that posted first, so you can still prove it’s yours. But for anyone not in that community, including websites that check the source of images, it’s very hard to tell. Of course, it’s not always possible, and it’s not the first step to take to protect your art, but it really helps to have your art out publicly on for example Instagram, DeviantArt, or Artstation, so you can always point out the date and the source of the artwork.
So, what if my art gets stolen after all?
Sooner or later it will happen, for whatever reason. The best thing to do first is to see it as a compliment, apparently, your art is worth it to be stolen. The next step is to contact the person who actually stole it.
Be kind and educative, it might just be a 12-year-old trying to illustrate a profile in her favorite horse game. Mention the problem, explain it’s plagiarism or a copyright infringement, and ask for it to be taken down. You can also ask the person to post the original (with signature) and link to your website or social media page.
Approaching the person in a kind way may work to your advantage. Some people simply have no idea what the rules are. Others got your image from a website that claims its rights-free. Educating those people will not only increase your chance of them taking the image down or referring to you properly, but you may also be able to find out where they got the image from.
Art theft and copyright infringements by companies
This is a nasty one. Imagine, you made this amazing artwork, a true masterpiece, one of your best works ever. Instead of hiring you, someone simply steals it and slaps it on every advertisement for their new game. What do you do?
Art may be protected by default, but when it comes to things like this, you are largely on your own, especially when the company stealing your art, isn’t in your demographic area. If it’s a local company you may stand stronger, but you will need to check that out yourself as the law dictates what steps to take. If it’s a company abroad, this is one of the ways you may be able to retrieve what’s yours.
Let the company know they’re infringing the copyright of your art
Every company out there knows the rules. Don’t go off on a tangent, that won’t help anybody. They know they were doing wrong and they clearly felt it was worth the potential hassle. Also, many larger companies have money, LOTS of it, if you start throwing with lawsuits across countries, well… The odds are you will not win that one.
What you can do instead though is simply point out that they’re committing a copyright infringement by using your art without your permission, insist they take down anything containing your art and add a deadline, so they feel pressed to respond and take action. You may want to mention a lawsuit, even if it’s a bluff. Also, ask for a reimbursement for lost revenue. Just make sure you do this all in a professional way, this will really help you be taken seriously.
In case of no response
If they don’t respond to this, you can send them a message again. Add the previous message to your new one (it may have ended up in a spam box, or left on a desk somewhere) and make them understand that, when the art is not taken down and reimbursement isn’t made, you will call them out publicly on social media.
This usually is enough reason for them to respond and take down anything containing your art. They may not reimburse you, but at least they won’t make money from your art anymore. Social media is very powerful, and a bad reputation is devastating for any company.
Make sure that, if they claim it came from a free service, or they bought it from a stock website, you double-check that. This often is not the case, but if it is, you need to contact these websites and the person that made the post as well.
Ask help from the art community
There are many cases out there in which people aren’t heard, for one reason or another. So far the best way to call out ignorant companies like that is to post your problem, the images ánd the background information (what steps you took before you asked help from the community), at, for example, a Facebook group with people in it that have a passion for art. They will do your work for you. Ask them to post complaints on the Facebook profiles of these companies and to do the same on places like Instagram, google play, Tumblr, and whatnot. Have it out in the open. If the people behind that company can’t be reasonable, you don’t have to be either.
Asking for a reimbursement
All the hours spent on your art have been shamelessly taken from you by a company that makes big money from your image. So, when asking for reimbursement, don’t be shy. Don’t count your own hours or your potential lost revenue. Instead, inform yourself about how much you would have charged if that company would have approached you about your art in a decent way, and add some extra, simply because they took it without your permission. After all, you had to spend hours on end to resolve the problem. Not to mention the stress it may have caused you.
Many companies just want the problem out of the way and will reimburse you, others won’t. Don’t let that opportunity slide.
Note that, when they bought it from a stock website or got it from a website that claimed the art to be free, it can’t be helped. You can try and get a reimbursement from the said website or the user that posted it. However, any reputable company that plans on making money from an image, will make use of reliable websites which charge money for the use of the art, just to cover themselves.
Giving permission to use your art
Some companies may ask you if they can still use the art after the refunds. It’s up to you to decide if they can or not, just make sure that you are clear from the start about what’s okay and what is not. Don’t allow yourself to be thrown off guard when they make you think they actually bought the rights to the art after they refunded you. You need to give permission, that permission isn’t given by accepting a reimbursement.
If you get in a situation like this, expect companies who steal your art, to try and take as much advantage from you as they can. They probably spent thousands of euros, or maybe even more, on creating the ads and buying slots throughout several different online, and maybe even offline channels. They pay upfront, and they pay big. Having to take down such campaigns is really painful in the pocket. But! Don’t let that stop you from making them stop using your art.
Should you give permission at all?
I’d like to emphasize how IMPORTANT it is to NOT sell your rights to companies like that! Because you are selling it to a company that has NO respect for you, your art, the art community, and even their players. They are just trying to save their ads bucks by trying to shut you up with the money. They will just laugh behind your back, your art will be even more exploited, and the rest is history. This way you are empowering them to steal more art, because, who knows, someone may knock on their door, and go away for a few bucks, or they get lucky, and nobody starts making a fuss.
If you are fine with a decent reimbursement, make sure it’s clear they cannot use the art ever again. If you decide to make a fuss but are cool with them ending up with the rights: Go big, go as big as you can, and go home with a huge chunk of money. Make them bleed because they will want to save whatever ad expenses they had already, and, most importantly: They will think twice before they pull a joke like that again.
Either way, make sure they feel it, either because their expensive ads are taken down, or because you walk away with a fair amount of money. Help yourself, help the art community and bite as hard as you can.
Get insights about the company, the (local) market and the culture
Sometimes it’s useful to get some insights about the company, the local market (or the market they cater to), and the culture. This might help you get insights on what steps to take next. Some cultures are all about pride, while others simply don’t care. By researching the company itself, you will get a clear idea about if there were any other disputes and how they were resolved. This research will give you a lay of the field, which likely will help you on the road you’re taking.
- China has some copyright laws, but the few that are there, are ignored most of the time. Most of counterfeit products come from places like China.
- In South Africa, having your art being copied is considered to be a great honor, because apparently you are good enough to be imitated, or made money of in other ways. Many artists suffer from this practice and don’t even dare to take their designs to a print shop.
Other ways to help take down products with your art on it
- Sometimes companies are reluctant to take down their ads, as they tend to be bought beforehand. In other cases, the advertisement is outsourced and slow to be taken down. You can contact Facebook about such issues for both Facebook and Instagram-related advertisements. *click*
- Any infringements displayed through google platforms can be taken down through the following link. *click*. This includes services from Stadia, Poly, Navlekha, Firebase, Feedburner, and Youtube.
Case study on plagiarism and copyright infringements
We have one great case study from Helena Fantasy Art. Make sure you check it out for more practical information!
Did something like this happen to you too, and was it documented very accurately? Please let me through the contact form!
- Case study: Helena Fantasy Art – Copyright infringement by a company.
- How to protect your art from a fraudulent customer
Plagiarism happens all the time. The chance you will be a victim of plagiarism is really big. If you can, make sure people know what they can or cannot do with your art. Sign it properly, or watermark it, and reduce image quality and size so it’s suitable for the internet. When sh*t hits the fan, I hope this article will give you the answers you need. Don’t hesitate to join our community to ask for help.
Art by: Tessa Geniets
Featured image by: Markus Winkler on Unsplash
Other photo’s by: dole777 on Unsplash