I have a love-hate relationship with the concept of "intellectual copyright". An intellectual copyright, or protections for intellectual property, refers to the rights assumed by the creator of a generally intangible asset; music, literature, art, inventions, logos, etc, protecting those assets from unauthorized use. As an artist and a writer, I find myself often engaged in the debate regarding my rights and the use of my creations.
I felt the keen sting of intellectual theft way back in elementary school. I used to draw space ships, amusing myself by designing different craft and imagining battles between them. The drawings were usually ruined by lines criss-crossing the page representing energy beams launched from different weapons on the ships. One of the neighbor kids really liked the designs, and asked if I could draw one for his room. I was flattered by the compliment, and drew him a kind of interstellar "destroyer" craft. He was thrilled with the work.
Sometime later, another one of the neighbor kids mentioned, upon seeing my work, that the kid I gave the drawing to was drawing ships similar to my own. Actually, he was tracing the drawing I gave him, and had gone as far as erasing my name on the bottom of the original and signing it himself. He was called out on this by the kids in the neighborhood, effectively ending his career as an artist and our friendship.
My dad's advise was that I should have gotten paid for the design.
When you are not making money from your work, it is easier to be oblivious to its theft. I had two different studios at two different location broken into and artwork stolen. The pieces taken were either unfinished or not very good (in my opinion). The break-in was bad in-and-of itself, but I wrote off the theft as an off compliment. My work was worth stealing. Not worth paying for back then (I was in college at the time), but worth stealing. I had a piece actually stolen from an art show, a sculpture that could not have been easy to sneak out of the gallery. Again, even though I was hurt by the loss, their was something complimentary in the theft of my work.
Of course, there is a difference between those kinds of thefts and the kind of unauthorized use that is possible on the Internet. As soon as I started posting my work on-line, I began seeing it being used on other sites. Dealing with those real thefts had softened me up a bit, so other than occasionally mentioning to the site owner that they were using my work, I didn't do much about it.
It wasn't until I started to try to sell my work that I became concerned about protecting my rights. I also began questioning the nature of my motivation as an artist. I created art. I strove to communicate ideas and to share an emotional experience with those who would view my work. The manner and venue in which my work was viewed should have had no impact on that motivation. In fact, if the work was used on a site without my knowledge or authorization, this just served to increase the likelihood that it would be viewed. Now that I was selling my work, a person selling my work without my authorization was competing with me for customers with my own creations. The work may have not been stolen in a real sense, but the profits from the sale of those works were.
To be perfectly honest, when I was starting out this was not a impending reason to be concerned. I was still trying to figure it all out, so most of my work lacked any real marketability. Still, I looked for ways to protect my art. I tried watermarks, but didn't like the way it made my image appear. I tried disabling the "right-click" option on my display pages, but also just as quickly found how easy it is to get around this. Actually, nearly every tactic I discovered was more trouble than it was worth and was easy to get around.
And, like I said, back then people were not beating down my door to use my work.
The strategy I finally hit upon that I felt was sufficient was to simply upload low(er) resolution images to the Internet, and I upload the work 30 days after its creation. Ultimately, intellectual property right comes down to your being able to prove the work is yours and being used without your authorization. By having the oldest and highest resolution digital files, along with often the originals, I felt confident that if I ever had to go to court to press my rights, I would be sufficiently prepared.
Actually going to court is another matter entirely.
But, before we get into that, the next bout I had with intellectual property rights came not over my art, but my writing. I have written a few books, and a few years ago I joined a forum which discussed the topics I wrote about. There were discussions and debates, and the forum often inspired me to new ideas. One particular member of that forum, however, seemed less engaged than many participants. She seemed comfortable doing 2 things; serving as a cheerleader by supporting any and every post with some positive comment, and offering to the participants access to an impressive .PDF library she maintained. I didn't give this much thought at the time, assuming based on some of the titles she mentioned that what she offered were works that were well beyond the copyright dates and had become public domain, the originator of those titles had been dead for 70 years or more.
One day, she approached my about acquiring copies of my books. I directed her to the venue on-line where my work was being sold. She then informed me that she didn't want to pay for the books, she wanted me to give her the .pdfs so she could share them on her list. I explained that offering my work for free would be counter-productive, as I strive to make a profit from my labors.
She responded with (and I am not making this up), "Why would an author want to be paid for their work?"
I was flabbergasted. Despite the hundreds of bookstores across the country and the price-tags listed on every book, she really thought that an author would prefer just to have their work enjoyed by the reader. While I agreed with that being the primary motivation, I felt that a thing worth enjoying was worth being paid for. To make matters worse, the person who owned the forum, also an author was giving his books away. In fact, he often begged people to read an review his works. The debate about intellectual property that ensued was heated, and though I had more support than detractors, it soured my desire to participate in the forum. During that time, I found that my work was available on a number of "torrent" sites. The work had already been stolen. Indeed, for every site I managed to get to remove the work, ten more seemed to spring up. It reached a point that for a short period of time I would not offer my work in a digital format just to try to reduce the likelihood of its theft.
Another user of that forum privately offered me some advise. First, he pointed out that I must be doing something right if my work was being stolen, unlike the guy who was begging people to download a free copy of his work. Second, that if my work was available to the public, it was available to thieves. Instead, I should see the torrent copies as an opportunity for readers to preview the book and make a decision to buy a hard-copy.
What I have found is that, as the industry moves toward digital media, having a .PDF version only makes sense. The price is so low for a copy that most people are willing to pay a few dollars over getting a copy via torrent and risking a virus or who knows what.
And that really is the bottom line. If you put work out, especially on-line, someone is going to steal it if it is worth stealing. All you can really do is catch it when you can and pick the battles that make the most sense to you. While I prefer to be asked before my work is used on a site like a blog or forum, normally I don't even make a point of dealing with those people. More often than not, those folks did a Google search for images related to their content and have no clue who I am. While my father taught me that if something isn't yours you should not touch it, the US has the Fair Use Clause, which basically means that if you aren't using it for profit, you can use it. It would be ideal if you at least sites your source, but when money is not a motivator and ownership is not being challenged, there are not really any damaged to contest.
When money is a motivator or the use of your work by someone is harming your reputation, then you have a reason to complain. The problem with complaining, as most thieves are aware, is that getting someone to move on your complaint is often tedious and can be expensive.
Recently, one of my fans in the UK advised me that a company in his country was using a couple of my images, merchandising them as t-shirts on their site. The site also offered Neo-Nazi and hate propaganda, and the informer was pretty sure that my bondage art was being used without my permission.
I checked out the site, and tried to contact the owner through the contact page. I informed him that my work was for sale, and that for a nominal fee I might be willing to allow him to use it, but otherwise it would need to be removed. No response for a week. When it didn't seem a response was coming, I looked up the host for his website and contacted them here in Texas. Web-hosts have addendum written into their contracts which tries to limit their responsibility for client content, and though they told me that they could not really help, they must have managed to light a fire under the site-owner, who finally responded.
His response was less than professional. He informed me that he had every right to use and sell my artwork because he "found it on Google, and that is Public Domain". That, of course, is incorrect. I informed him that I will be contacting a lawyer and continuing to discuss the issue with his site-provider. In the meantime, I would be putting the word out on artist forums and to other artists that some of their work may be being used on his site.
At first, he didn't take me seriously.
Then, I imagine, the email started to roll in on his end. His next message to me was a bit more courteous. He offered to remove my work if I could simply show him where is had been published and establish that it was in fact my art. He also asked if I would stop having my friends email him, as they were often coarse and unprofessional.
I informed him that I had no idea what he was referring to in regards to friends and emails, and sent him links to my site where he could see that the work was originally published by me. He removed the images in question...
... Only to immediately pull another of my images.
I emailed him a message stating simply "You've got to be kidding." and the links establishing that this image was also mine. He removed it, and the inquired about what it would cost to use the piece. I didn't bother to respond.
Now, I regularly go to his site, select a few pieces, find and inform the creators of those works that they are being used. This process was a lot less expensive than going to court, in is apparently far more effective. With the pressure he is getting from companies, bands, and other artists, hopefully he will learn to at least ask for permission before he takes someone's things. Some mother out there must be very disappointed in her son.