How to protect your art from a fraudulent customer

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Nothing sucks more than to do someone else's bidding and not get paid for it. And sadly: This happens a lot, and nothing is more demoralizing than expecting a payment and not receiving any. There is no 100% foolproof system against this practice, but there are some ways you can protect yourself from these fraudulent customers. So here we go!

Hi! My name is Tessa, I’m a Dutch artist, specializing in wildlife and creature designs. I love to share my passion for nature, art and fantasy, and do that by creating this archive and community, alongside my company Tez Art & Design.

Table of Contents (Click to (un)fold)

Ask payment upfront

How to protect your art from a fraudulent customer rule no:1. Make sure you get paid! You can do so by asking for payment upfront. Ideally, this would be 100%. The problem is though: Your client is taking as much risk as you are. You may waste your time by not getting paid. Your client may waste money by not receiving an illustration. You might be surprised to learn that this happens a lot!

Because of this, it’s wise to ask 50% upfront, that way you split the risk both of you are taking. And as your client already paid part upfront, he or she will be more inclined to pay the rest too. Another benefit is that you will sift out the frauds in an early stage: They don’t want to pay at all.
And even when you finalize your artwork and don’t get paid the other half it’s not a full loss.

Always watermark your art

This is one way to watermark an image. This is a good example of a watermark thats a bit too intrusive. You might not want to put it right on the head but a bit to the side instead.
Image by: Tessa Geniets

A watermark can be as simple as a signature at an inconvenient place, or a cross pattern or logos covering the artwork. It makes the image unfit for use but does allow the client to see the progress, something that’s essential when you do commissions. You should pair this up with the following step: Never send the full-res version before full payment.

You can easily do this yourself with your favorite program, but there are also online solutions like Watermarkly.

Never send the full-res version before full payment

As mentioned before: It’s best to charge fully upfront, but if you can’t or don’t want to: Make sure you send a low res (c.a. 75DPI) in a small size (say max 15x15cm or 6x6inch) preferable with a not too intrusive watermark (so your client can still see the artwork properly). They can’t really print such a work. Nor sell it on before full payment. When they do pay, you can send the full-res and full-size image without the watermark.

Also don’t send the full res version when they ‘want to see the details’

Never send the full side and full-res images before you received the full payment.
Image by: Tessa Geniets

Send a full-res cut-out of the part they’re interested in particularly. This is a very common way to cheat artists into sending full-res illustrations. After all, you want to please the person that’s paying you, and oh he/she is so kind. Until you actually send the full-res version and suddenly you’re ghosted.

Mind you: Not everybody asking this is actually a fraud! Art is a mystic world to many people that don’t draw themselves or don’t usually order artworks. So always handle your client with respect and explain to them why you can’t do it the way they requested, without actually making them feel like they are the fraud.

Say something along the lines of ‘It’s common practice to only send high res images of the specific points of interest, this is the best approach for us artists and is just to protect ourselves. We follow this rule religiously. So I hope that you understand it’s nothing personal and that I always work this way! This is also why we never post the full-res image of the final artwork on social media, that way we can ensure that you and I are the only ones that have the full-res image and nobody can steal it.

Work with a contract

It’s very advisable to work with a contract, or at least some sort of agreement, no matter who your client is. You shouldn’t be looking at it as ‘extra hassle’ or ‘it might offend my client’. A contract is in place to create a safe playground for both parties. In this case, you are the one offering the service, so you should also be the one that offers the contract.

This way you and your client know what to expect. Everybody knows who owns what. And you can make clear what will happen with the art when there is no (full) payment.

Use a platform like Fiverr or Upwork

These platforms are built in such a way that your client always pays upfront. The platform will reserve the money for you, and all you have to do is complete the job and send it in for approval. As soon as it is approved, the money will be sent your way and can be withdrawn. And when there is a dispute, for example, Your client doesn’t approve your work, or he/she requires more revisions than you agreed upon before, you can use the service from these platforms to sort out the disputes.

My personal opinion on platforms like Fiverr and Upwork

They are absolutely wonderful platforms, especially to start from. Many artists even continue working through them simply because of the benefits. However, you do pay a large cut to them (c.a. 20% of the total price) and you have to keep in mind that these platforms can, at all times, suspend or even remove your account. This makes you dependent on them, and you have to ask yourself if that’s something you want to be in the long run.

In the case of Fiverr (I’m not sure if Upwork does this too), there is always a bot reading along with the personal messages to your client. Using the word Paypal will cause your account to be suspended automatically right away and it will take months to become available again, that is if you get it back, to begin with.

These platforms have very strict rules, they invest a lot in the platform so they need to earn a lot from it too. A word like ‘Paypal’ will cause them to think that you might want to take your client outside of the platform so you don’t have to pay the 20% fee. Using links and e-mail addresses might cause the same problems depending on the context. So, if you decide to use platforms like these, always proceed with caution. They are however a great way to ensure payment and to ease the mind of your client.

Selling out your rights

When you decide to work with a platform like this, make sure you read the agreement very well! Because you will lose all your intellectual rights of your art otherwise. This means you do not own it in any way, shape, or form. So using the art for your portfolio or reselling it is not possible unless you override that rule, clearly stating it doesn’t apply, and have your client sign the contract. This could be an actual signature or an ‘I agree to the terms of service’ checkbox.

Any of your art is and always should stay your IP (Intellectual property) unless YOU sign it away. Very few artists do this, and if they do, they usually ask 3x the original price. So you might want to ask yourself twice if you want to give away all the rights for the relatively low prices you can charge on Fiverr or Upwork.

They’re still good go-to’s when you’re starting out, but in my humble opinion, these platforms shouldn’t be a long-term investment, and you should always make sure that you own the rights of your art unless you get paid a significantly larger amount. However, because this is not the standard way to go about it on these platforms, your clients may become suspicious about your proposal.

The clauses

On Fiverr their terms of service govern the ownership/licensing of intellectual property rights. The customer owns all intellectual property rights including copyright in the work product (which is called a ‘Gig’ on Fiverr) unless otherwise stated by the freelancer.

Fiverr: Fiverr’s Terms of Service

On Upwork, whoever pays owns all the rights. It IS very simple. Default rules specified by Upwork declare this. Only if the client and freelancer agree to a separate contract is there any difference.

Upwork: Copyright and content ownership – Upwork Community

Contact the platform owner

If you don’t use a platform like Fiverr or Upwork, you could still contact the platform owner. This could be as simple as a group owner on Facebook where you managed to land your gig. They can’t fix the problem for you. But by making them aware they can at least kick the fraud. Sometimes reports can be issued too. If you’re lucky, your client will get hot feet and pay after all. If you’re not lucky, you will stop that person from creating more victims in that particular group or platform.

Shout out the fraud

Frequently done on platforms like Facebook and Reddit. Shout out the fraud. You will inform other people about this person and disable the fraud to continue their practice there. It might be that your client will pay after all because of it. Sometimes someone else will buy the artwork from you instead. If you’re lucky, you will land a commission or two from this shoutout.

Just make absolutely sure that you are ghosted by the client, for you don’t want to blame someone of fraud while this person was just slow at responding. Give them plenty of time after the deadline to respond. Set a timeframe in your contract, and give them a little more time. If you can, also try to contact them through different channels. It’s always possible that your mail ended up in a spam box, or someone is left out of the internet for a while.

In case you didn’t get paid (at all or in full)

There are still some things you can do with your art when you didn’t get paid (at all or in full). You should proceed with caution though as it’s a bit of a tricky matter and requires some preventive work.

Use the art in a portfolio

Unless you signed an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) or agreed to not share the art in any way, shape, or form, or sold the rights of the artwork in a contract (which you should ask more for, but that’s a different subject). The art is still yours. You can use it in your portfolio. And if the artwork turned out to be one of your masterpieces, you should.

Sell the artwork

The same counts here. Unless you signed an NDA or agreed to not share the art in any way, shape, or form, or sell the rights of the artwork in a contract (even if you didn’t get paid at all or fully), you can sell it again. You can do so by selling prints, or the original. Proceed with caution though. You need to make sure the actual design isn’t the intellectual property (IP) of your client. The laws may differ per country, so make sure you’re well informed. Rule of thumb is: If the character is trademarked by the client, the client owns it and you should not put it up for sale. You also might want to refrain from editing the images so it looks like something else. This is something you can do though when the image is not trademarked.

What’s usually trademarked

Sometimes it’s very unclear if something is trademarked or not. When the character is from a published book, movie, or game you can be pretty sure that it’s trademarked. If they are characters or creatures developed by a D&D player, for example, they’re not nearly all of the time. You can bypass most of these issues by setting up a contract beforehand, so you both are clear on what is what.

Conclusion

Being a freelance artist is always a tricky business, but you can reduce the risk a lot with some simple steps like the ones above. If you have more tips and tricks, please share it with us!

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