What to do when your art is stolen online

Jun 16, 2023
By Christy Johnson, founder & CEO of United Goods

Last week, a fellow artist reached out to tell us they'd discovered a store in northern Minnesota (which shall remain unnamed) was promoting a t-shirt with her art on it—and one with mine, too.

I'm 100% open to licensing my art and welcome these kinds of opportunities. But that's not what happened here. My hard work was taken without my knowledge and permission, and I received no compensation for its use.

I immediately went to the store's Facebook page and, sure enough, there was a post featuring a children's shirt with my illustration of the Babe the Blue Ox Statue printed on it, alongside the words "Total babe" written in a tacky font. Blech. 

I was incensed. If memory serves—or at least as far as I'm aware—in the nearly 20 years I've been a full-time artist no one has stolen my artwork before. My hands started tingling, my heart began pumping hard, and my breathing quickened. I sprang into action mode.

What I did next got the shirt removed from their store's website and the post deleted from its social media accounts. I'm not saying my actions will work the next time this happens (but I hope it never happens again) or that it'll go this smoothly if this (unfortunately) happens to you. But it got me the results I was hoping for, so I thought I'd share the steps I took.

So, how do I get someone to remove my (stolen) artwork from the internet?

First, I went to the store's Facebook post and, from my United Goods account, commented: "This is my artwork, and it's being used without my permission. Remove it immediately."

Next, I found the retailer's website and sent an email via its Contact form that said:

"A fellow artist just alerted me that your business is advertising a pink child’s shirt that has my Babe the Blue Ox illustration on it. You were not given permission to use my copyrighted artwork. Remove all physical items from your store and stop using my art in advertisements immediately. If both of these requests aren’t met immediately, legal action will be taken.

"Respond to this email to let me know that this message was received and is understood, and that you’ll cease and desist from using my—or anyone else’s—art without their permission, now or in the future.

"You are also advertising, in the same ad, a shirt with [the fellow artist's name] illustration on it. If she hasn’t already reached out, she will be.

"If I don’t hear from you, my lawyer will be in contact."

In a few minutes, I got a Facebook DM from the owner of the shop, who apologized for the use of my illustration on the shirt. They removed the post, too.

A few days later, the owner also responded to my email and briefly said they were sorry. The excuse given was rather flimsy. It was that a "young person" who was "helping out in the store" was responsible for ripping off my artwork. The owner said they had a talk with the entire staff about copyright.

While I feel most people know it's not cool to grab a screenshot of another person's creation and use it without their permission, apparently I'm naive. Or maybe they do know and just don't care/don't think they'll get caught.

(Side note: You know what's almost worse than the artwork being snatched without my OK in the first place? The fact that poor Babe did not even look right on the t-shirt because the store employee didn't have the high-quality art file to print from. My illustration was dragged off of the internet, so both Babe's ear and one of his horns were not even showing up properly. He appeared very sad to be slapped on this dumb shirt. (I think he was.) OK, back to my story.)

After getting confirmation my messages had been received, I was mostly satisfied with how everything went. I was proud of myself for not flying off the handle, both in the comments of the store's Facebook post and in the initial email. Because lemme tell you—I wanted to. I was really angry, alarmed, and disappointed. But I took the high road, and I'm glad I did.

I can only go by what the store owner says. I have to believe they had a serious talk with the staff about the importance of respecting copyright (and just respecting artists in general...sheesh). I hope it sunk in and was taken to heart.

If this happens to you or someone you know, here are a few tips I can offer.

What should I do if a strongly worded email doesn't get results?

If I hadn't heard back from the store after my initial contact, I would have gotten a lawyer involved. I'm lucky enough to be friends with three lawyers, all of whom are happy to help out when things like this happen even though copyright law is not their area of expertise. I've thankfully only had to employ one of my friend's legal services a single time, several years ago (not for anyone stealing my art, but for a different matter that is for another day/blog post).

If you do have the help of a lawyer, oftentimes a reprimand from them is all that's needed to fix an issue. The offending party simply has to receive a letter from a legal expert, written with their professional words on the company's stationery (or email signature), and the wrongdoer will usually act fast to remedy the situation. This is what happened with the above-mentioned incident a few years ago.

What is the copyright on art, anyway?

In a nutshell, an artist owns the copyright of their work the minute it is created. The website Artsy fleshes this out a bit further:

"Copyright gives artists who have created fixed, tangible works a bundle of rights in those works. The rights provide both artistic protection and ensure that artists can profit from what they’ve made. After an artist creates a piece, [they and they alone] have the right to make copies of their work, distribute those copies, perform or display the work publicly, or make works that derive from the original." (Those are my words added in the brackets.)

What did I glean from someone stealing my artwork?

Overall, I learned to be the bigger person and keep a cool head. Did I want to go on Instagram and Facebook and yell about the store ripping off my art and tag them and give them a crappy review on their Facebook page and on Google and anywhere else I could? You're darn tootin'. I did think about doing that. But instead I waited a few minutes, calmed down, and decided that kind of behavior wouldn't get me anywhere I wanted to be. I'm better than that.

 

It still feels crappy, and it makes me feel vulnerable; like it could happen again at any time. And it makes me wonder if my art has been nabbed before without my knowledge. Perhaps even several times.

But it also gives me warm fuzzies knowing that my fellow artists, makers, small business owners, and friends have my back. In fact, the artist who alerted me to the store snatching my Babe illustration (as well as her art) was given the heads up by one of her vendors. That's pretty cool. We're all looking out for each other, and that's exactly what we've gotta do. We're all in this together, right?

Are you looking out for artists?

Post your answer below!


1 comment


  • Wendy Nielsen July 14, 2023 at 1:13 pm

    I’m always always always looking out for other artists. I send screenshots often if photographs that appear to be given incorrect credit or no credit (I did this Yakut’s yesterday).


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