For years, I've seen art theft happen. It's happened with me, with friends, even professionals. It's especially common to see people highlight "hey, this person stole art and tried to pass it off as their own". However, what I don't see as often is people talking about how to handle the theft. The first question to always ask: was is truly art theft? I've decided to share a few personal stories, and the lessons I've learned because not every art theft situation calls for the same solution.
Inspiration vs. Theft
When I first experienced art theft, I had to seriously ask myself if it was truly theft. I had come up with a creature design that gained lots of attention at the Creative Talent Network Expo (CTNx) 2013, and a few weeks later a well known artist tackled the same concept and got a huge response from it. I could easily point my finger and say "you stole my concept". However, a part of me had to remember that I get inspiration from the internet all the time, and I'll often find out later that I used the same concept as another artist without realizing. So who is to say this person did not do the same? They saw my work, but because I do not have that personal connection with them they could have easily remembered it, mistaken it as their own concept, and painted it as any artist would. I still don't know the answer, but what I do have is a stronger relationship with that same artist and enough of a connection to know that theft is not something they would do intentionally. Lesson: not all artists are out to get you or your ideas; but if it's an idea you truly treasure take the time to copyright it.
Friend vs. Friend
What do you do when you have a talented friend and you see one of their artworks that you can't help but think it looks an awful lot like another artist friend's work? That first lesson comes back to mind: this could have been used as inspiration, and not intentionally as theft. Of course I informed my victimized friend aware of the art, and the art in question. He/She asked me how to handle this situation since this was, after all, a good friend we would have never expected this to come from. I reached out to a professional artist friend of mine who also was an instructor at a different university for guidance. I did this because I wanted to hear what someone who doesn't have that personal connection with either the victim or culprit would do in this scenario. Since the victim is in school and the culprit recently graduated, he/she advised to bring it to an instructor's awareness, investigate through the culprit friend if this was actually intentional or not, and then try to work out a compromise on the two artwork's designs. I'm thankful everyone handled this situation with open minds, and did not take the immediate route of burning bridges. At the end of this particular scenario, unfortunately the culprit took great offense despite the quantity of evidence stacked against their favor. Lesson: Look to someone you trust for help, seek the truth, and try to work out a compromise. If it doesn't work out, look for support, try to handle the situation as level headed as possible (be the bigger person), and be smart with how you handle the situation.
When You See Art Theft
If you see it, let the original artist know. Don't send hate mail or attack the culprit artist because, as stated before, you don't know the situation. If it's an exact copy with no modifications, even still let the original artist handle that. Reason being if you attack the culprit artist, what are you hoping to gain? It's usually better to let the original artist, and/or whoever is responsible for the art management platform (be it a convention or artist community website) to handle the situation. Otherwise, you're just informing the culprit they've been caught. They could take down the art, but that takes away evidence that the theft even occurred. It doesn't mean they won't steal from other artists or that same artist again. What you're wanting is for the artist to attempt to recover their stolen art, inform the community in their own way of the situation, and work towards building awareness so that theft can be handled and hopefully stopped for good. Lesson: If you see theft, take a screenshot as proof (with date/time included), and let the original artist and/or the art management platform know.
When a Competitor Larger Than You Refuses to Acknowledge Theft
It happens, and more often than it really should. There are moments when designs or illustrations are straight up taken, even without modifications to try and cover up, and a company outright refuses to acknowledge the theft. When this happens, the battles become a lot harder to fight, even with thousands of artists calling to arms and ready to fight for their rights. In this situation, it's a matter of being smart. Ask yourself: Did you get your artwork copyright files figured out? Was your artwork watermarked and at a low resolution (such as 72dpi) when you uploaded it to the internet? Do you have all the original works from sketches to final concept? If you can say yes to any of these three questions, you're already in a fairly good standing. If no to all of them, that battle is going to be far tougher to fight. In either case, it's far easier to get a lawyer to help you. It's often that, or you risk losing the battle completely (as I've seen happen numerous times). Many artist try to be reasonable, and handle the situation themselves. It rarely ever works because the culprits are aware of their actions, and believe it is still right; or they attempt to hide that acknowledgement and twist the situation as if you're the culprit. Again, it happens, and yes it's truly unfortunate. Lesson: get a lawyer. Lawyers cost money, but it's better to view the situation as security and investing in your art/company. Otherwise, you'll potentially lose your art, time, and money, as well as taint your reputation.
When You Suspect You May Have Committed Art Theft
Hey, sometimes we make art that we're really proud of and we realize later it was in some way taken from another artist. What do you do? Change it and make it your own. You'll want to create artwork that shows your personality, your passions, and style. Companies and clients, heck, even I want to see what your true voice is. If I gave you a subject, I want to see what you would do with that subject and be inspired because it doesn't remind me of another artist I already know or love. That artist I love and respect already exists. I want to see you. Make it so when I see your work I don't say "that reminds me of (insert artist, artwork, or story here)". Make it where I'm excited and say "I have no clue where that came from, but I want to see more." That is always the stronger response, and one most artists I feel need to strive for. Lesson: Make your own decisions, and be yourself.
I hope these five personal stories have helped you in some way, or at least given you new perspective. As a recap, here are the five lessons on how to handle art theft:
Not all artists are out to get you or your ideas; but if it's an idea you truly treasure take the time to copyright it.
Look to someone you trust for help, seek the truth, and try to work out a compromise.
If you see theft, take a screenshot as proof (with date/time included), and let the original artist and/or the art management platform know.
Get a lawyer.
Make your own decisions, and be yourself.
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