How do we handle the theft of our work? As artists, we face a constant threat of others stealing our work online? The worse cases of this are people who try to resell our intellectual property.
I am not a believer in watermarks. I think a huge watermark over our work nullifies our attempts to promote our work online. I do believe in ID'ing our work with our logo, but a watermark that takes up the center point of an image does nothing except to detract from what we have created.
I do feel that the rate of theft is so small that its not worth my constantly worrying over it. In fact I think sometimes it gain us notoriety rather than take away from it. An example I am fond of quoting was of a young lady living in Vancouver BC. She'd been a refugee from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. She missed New Orleans badly and she would find photos of the city online, print them out and plaster them on the walls of her tiny Vancouver apartment.
After ten years she finally got the opportunity to return and coincidentally a few months later crossed my path, interested in applying to be a model for me. When she entered my studio which had framed photos of the city on the walls, she stopped and gasped and realized most of them were the same photos she'd had on her own walls.
No big loss to me. I found the story humorous even though it was technically a violation to copy the images in the first place.
So what do you do when a larger violation takes place? Since I've had such a theft recently take place I thought I would share my own solutions here and for other reasons that will become evident later.
I think the best way to handle these violations is to look carefully at a number of considerations.
So lets look at the facts first. The theft was of proprietary photos taken 7+ years ago. The thief was from one of the people involved in the original shoot. The model was body painted to resemble a dead body. This was part of a larger body of work called Nameless Faces of which I often brought in others to assist in the shoots. These included other body painters, makeup artists, Prop artists and assistants. All of those involved attended a interview first where they were briefed on the work involved, the themes being created and the locations of each shoot. They also understood that the finished work involved did not belong to them. They also understood that they would receive scaled down versions of some of the final images done during the shoot done during the shoot for their own portfolios. So from my standpoint I'd covered my bases well, which is part of protecting your own asses from this kind of theft. Part of that protection also involved keeping records on everything involved. Records that included original concept drawings of the shoot, schematics, model interviews and even the original model release forms and property release forms allowing me to shoot on the chosen property. All of this I had on file and pulled the original info nicely compiled in its own folder.
So now I needed to look at a few questions and do so from a logical standpoint, not an emotional one.
The first was potential loss of revenue. How much was I losing from this? In the case of this violation, I honestly wasn't losing much. In part this was because of forethought on my part. I never released the full images to anyone. These were always reduced in size, perfect for portfolios and screen shots, but never good enough quality to sell copies of except as 8"x10" shots. In 15 years of photography and art I've never had anyone complain about this policy. The second thing was that I never release photos of any kind without my logo being on them. At the time of this shoot I was just putting my name on the framed edge. I had my logo done later.
It was a fact that the thief was caught selling the images with my name still on them in a booth on Jackson Square. One of my own students saw it and snapped an image of one clearly showing my name on it. I couldn't help but think of the stupidity of selling an image with another artists name on it.
So I wasn't losing much in the way of revenue. So now I needed to look at other factors. The laws of the city of New Orleans were the next big thing. Where did I stand legally? Where did the thief stand legally? A permit was needed to sell anything on Jackson Square, a permit issued by the city which included some very specific rules regarding what could be sold by permit holders. These rules included a prohibition against selling the work of other artists. It had to be your own work.
So I had legal grounds to take it to the city.
The next issue and the most important to me was the loss of reputation. Now it was a fact that this was not the first run in I'd had with this thief. in April of the year just ending, Friends had run across an ad on Craigslist for an upcoming art event in the city. And at the bottom of the post were the same photos the thief was currently selling illegally (yes with my name on them even then). I received several phone calls asking if I was sponsoring or going to be at the event. I had no idea of the event, its sponsors, or even its dates.
Finding the ad I guessed right from the start that the thief was involved and I sent out an email to the craigslist post telling them that I wasn't involved in it and that must remove the photos from the post immediately because it was causing confusion to people who were seeing it.
I of course received a response back from the thief himself, claiming he just wanted to show examples of his past work and that he was not selling anything. Since this was within my boundaries for allowing those involved to use the work in their own portfolios I requested the thief just take my name off them so that people did not think I was involved. This effected my reputation especially because I knew nothing about the event or whether it was well put together or not.
You can of course understand my consternation when I received the photos of the same work now in November of the thief selling them. This indeed affected my reputation as an artist and also my reputation for allowing others to sell work that was proprietary to me.
So while I was not losing much in the way of revenue, I was losing a lot in the way of rep.
So now I had the facts laid out properly. How should I handle it? I could go directly to the city and have his permit pulled. I could storm down there and demand he remove the work from his booth. I could ignore it and say it wasn't worth the time and energy to pursue. My partner wanted to punch him.
So I decided to take an altogether different approach to the situation. I am approaching this as an "Art Influencer"
Readers to this article and also the thief need to understand that I carry a lot of influence in the online art world. I am not bragging. I am stating a simple fact that with 500 hits a day on my blog, a following locally of several thousand people on facebook, and a monthly hit rate on Twitter of a half million people a month, that I do yield some amount of influence. But there is another factor of influence that I also have to consider. That is the influence that my partner wields. As an author of a dozen books and a worldwide reputation, his ability to speak and be heard both here locally and internationally carries huge weight.
So rather than waste time taking the thief to court (yet), I am using this article to influence the reputation of the thief.. I am hoping to show the thief that our reputations as artists are based on our integrity. Rather than stand in the middle of a public place and yell at the thief, or bring the police along to cause a scene, I am simply laying out the facts here in this article including photos of the documentation I have in support of my position which you can find at the end of this.
After that the article will be posted, distributed and friends and supporters encouraged to forward it on to as many others as possible. Then there are only two steps to follow. A printed version of this article will be taken to the thief's booth next weekend and left wordlessly for him to read and consider carefully. What he does not realize is that his booth has been photographed several times now to use as future documentation of the theft. If I return and find the work is still being sold, or if others report it to me, then I consider legal action. But for now I seek only to affect the reputation of the thief and then let him consider whether its worth it to him to continue.
I suppose in closing what I am suggesting to other creatives who might have their work stolen or appropriated is to examine it closely. If you get embroiled in a bitter court case over it, how will it effect both your own reputation and your ability to create your work? Anger rarely works with these things. Emotions just muddy the creative waters. If you look at your possible solutions in a creative way, you may often find solutions that are not traditionally the norm. For all of creatives "reputation" is as important as "creativity" and it should be used carefully and with careful consideration as to the outcomes.
Always remember to take the simple precautions. Sizing your photos, keeping proper paperwork and most important for photographers, keep all your originals. A person who tries to steal your work cannot show a photo trail. All they have is the single image. You on the other hand have every photo taken from every angle and that may include photos of people assisting and other steps you've taken to set up the shoot. These are your facts. Use them.
I encourage anyone who reads this to forward it on whether you read it now or a year from now as a warning to all the thieves out there to beware. My thanks to all.