Greg Ruth

We live in the Age of the Image, and for we who make and express ourselves through imagery this is a great time to live in. However, the downside of this, with all this image sharing, the line between celebrating or paying homage to, and outright theft can blur… a lot. More often than not, the crossing is obvious, clear and unmistakable. It happens to everyone who makes and shares their art online and in print. It comes from all places and fronts, both high end and low. But there’s a common response that can put it to an end, all it requires is that we stand behind each other as artists to make it work.

Part of existing, thriving and growing one’s ability to live and pay for their lives as artists today relies heavily on coordinating and exploiting the massive revolution in social media and online exposure. It can and does, mean the difference between 20-60 people seeing your work in a gallery versus hundreds of thousands and upward. There are ongoing arguments of which is the better way to show and see work, but I think that relies upon a false premise- both have assets that can make each other work better. As a student or kid starting to look to a life in art, being able to have access to online images, WIPs, blog posts, FB interactions and information on new work and even live meet and greets is a gift beyond measure. (I would have lost my MIND to have had such a resource growing up as mine was largely rare visits to museums, the occasional art book for xmas, and whatever our Britanica might have offered up). It provides a resource and can help a young person copy practice and study a vast array of work and technique like never before. I get dozens of personal letters with some of my original pieces copied by kids or students of art, tattoos of my art, and more and I love each and every one that comes by. This is homage. It’s pure fan motivation, and comes from a place of love and respect in a way that is so blush-warming and encouraging. This is the fantastic push-back from putting yourself out there in the world and especially online. I don’t think I know of any artist who does not feel as I do about this.

But there’s a dark side too. What can get passed off as homage, is really basic exploitation and outright thievery. And it’s dangerous and very bad not just for us as individual artists, but for our entire community. I recently had an episode with a t-shirt company called TEEZILY.COM, who had taken one of my sumi drawings from the online 52 Weeks Project original portrait of Toshiro Mifune from Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. I posted it online and it’s available to be seen cleanly on my very own website. This company took this as permission to screen grab the image, and launch a line of clothing featuring this on its front. Despite repeated requests to pull the page down, they continued to list the item and fulfill orders. I’ve had other poster companies do this and offer up prints of my work in similar fashion and even found one company in China that was mass producing hand painted canvases of some of my originals. I can barely count on one hand the number of professional artists I know who have not had to deal with this at one time or another. The big companies hide behind their massive corporate power to essential use might-makes-right to do what they like and require you, small individual human artist, to somehow wrangle the resources to take them on. Resources like the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and other groups have been instrumental in helping to inform and assist artists suffering from these events, but it is still an uphill battle at best, and these companies know this. Sometimes even worse, your publisher, or agency may have business ties to the studio or film stealing your ideas for their campaigns or films, and you’re cries against the theft are sacrificed for their own larger financial goals. (This has happened to me at least once already and there is no greater betrayal of integrity than having one’s own publisher and defender, step over your value and sell you off cheap like this). Other smaller fly-by-night online places… t-shirt shops, poster companies, etc… are working on essentially a smash and grab approach: hit hard and fast and sell as much as they can until they are made to stop. They still win, and they do it enough times as part of a broader strategy and now you have a viable business model.

 So why is this bad?

Unlike say the reverse argument that fuels fan art culture, these companies big and small are not in any way celebrating or even crediting the artist from whom the rob, and in fact are not only standing roughly on their shoulders to save time and money for themselves, they can at worst end up co-opting the imagery so successfully as to make the artist seem as if it was in fact he or she who copies THEM. Despite what many have gone out of their way to tell me on these occasions, even alongside true empathetic expressions of dissent from this practice, this should not be seen as a “compliment”. It is not in my view anything of the kind. Art inspiring enough to copy as a fan or to learn is not the same as art that is inspiring theft. If an image is worth inspiring the act, it should inspire honoring the artist. Grabbing someone’s original concepts or art to then make money from doesn’t mean you’re so good you’re worth copying, it just means you aren’t worth paying and aren’t even worthy not to kick over and steal from. For some of who don’t make products out of their work on purpose, it demeans their work and commodifies it against the foundational wishes of the artist who may be expressly trying NOT to do this. And god forbid you do run your own shop on your site for prints and shirts, or sell through something like Society 6 or other online retailer sites, because now you’re losing actual business to someone else who is grabbing money from your pocket directly. And no, “exposure bucks” still don’t buy you poop-diddly in this circumstance any more than they do any other time.

We as individual artists are not large corporate entities, or big pocketed studios for whom this kind of marginal fringe parasitical behavior is simply the cost of doing business, or even beneficial in terms of exposing others to their own shops or properties. It means they taking from you, is having a outsized financial impact upon your ability to make a living as an artist. They are abusing the sharing and open-armed nature of how social media and online communities work. Personally it makes me feel violated when I see this, and I feel it too when I hear it happening to others- and it happens far more often that it should or that we deserve.

So… what can we do about this?

Simple Cease and Desist notices can often work, but really only on small scale violations or other pop-up type business. What these all have in common as a point of exploitation, can be used against them in a more effective and immediate way. But it requires us all to stand together to make it work. These are thefts of marketing and profit, and as such require participation from customers and potential customers to contribute to the theft by buying whatever the thieves are selling. I suggest making that work against them by publicly shaming and calling out such acts of deception loudly and widely. As they use online tools to harvest stolen work for their personal profit, you can use it to poison the well against anyone buying into the scam. By and large I have found that most people when made aware of a stolen piece of art, no matter how much they may want the shirt or poster, will disengage from buying it. If a company is going to steal your work and try and sell it online, stand right next to them and reveal even more loudly, the practice these companies are engaging in to make this sale. Let the customers decide what to do and 9 times out of 20, they will turn on the company. Now you’ve made what was a profitable effort into one that has become a promotional nightmare and the best dividend from this can be they may think twice next time before ripping off another artist. It’s a cost effective community based solution that be a powerful weapon against how our community is exploited.  Even the most selfish and narcissistic of us can reap the benefits of this by being less targeted by this practice in the future. There is no real downside to this approach. More so… by shrugging your shoulders and letting it go, you are in fact giving tacit approval of this practice not only insofar as how it effects you, but your peers for whom it could hit harder.

The community in which we all participate, share, and engage with each other in does require of us at times, to give back to the group in this way. It makes the community a stronger place, it makes the internet a safer place to share and promote work. It simply states to those that would tell us as artists otherwise, that we have a value and we are willing to remind you of how loud that value can sound should we be given the opportunity. The power they acknowledge by stealing from you is still your power, and you can use it against this kind of act effectively.

There will undoubtedly be at times a need to go lawyer- but most cases do get sorted by simple Cease and Desist forms. The truth about lawsuits is that they cost EVERYBODY. So leaping to one as a solution first thing, is not a wise path. For me personally, my goal is to end the practice and see it end. These t-shirt companies and other p.o.d. operations that do this consciously can only do so off the permission we give by our collective shrug. If we’re not well known enough, then it seems even more daunting. I propose at least as a first measure, is to take that cause and make it our own as a community. You see someone getting their art pilfered like this, stop, gather folks to the issue and use the social media platform these companies rely upon against them. Make what was a publicity tool for them into a publicity disaster. These folk are not feeding a noble cause- it’s about quick money. Take away the money they’ll stop this nonsense.