What to do if your designs or artwork have been stolen

Amy Crabtree is a UK graphic artist and owner of Cakes with Faces, a brand of colourful T-shirts, clothing and gifts. Recently, she found out that her artworks had been copied and sold across a host of different websites. Here she tells us about her experiences, how she fought back and how you can too.

Amy with her range of apparel and homewares at an exhibition.

One of my customers messaged me saying she'd spotted one of my T-shirt designs being sold on another website. My Alpacalypse T-shirt, one of my most popular designs, was being sold on AliExpress by a user in China. The design had been stolen without my knowledge or permission. No attempt had been made to contact me or ask for a licence to reproduce my artwork.

Now this is nothing new; sadly all too often there’s a news story or a Twitter storm about an artist whose work has been stolen, by other designers, shops and even big-name brands profiting from designs they didn't create. I’d always known there was a chance it might happen to me one day, and now that day had come. I contacted the seller immediately, asking them to take down the design and destroy any remaining stock, and reported them to AliExpress.

The next day I dug a little deeper, and found the Alpacalypse on another shop. A print-on-demand T-shirt site, where sellers can upload designs and sell them on apparel and merchandise. I then found it on another print-on-demand shop, being sold by five different sellers. I reported them all, and fumed that so many people had stolen my work.

I then discovered it was not only the Alpacalypse but my other T-shirts too. In total I found 25 cases of my designs being sold without my permission. With the exception of that first case on AliExpress, they were all print-on-demand shops. On one site alone, my design was being sold on 158 different products.

I felt like I was being leeched off. I don't know how many people bought products with the stolen designs, or how much money the sellers made from them. It breaks my heart to think that people bought those T-shirts and have no idea that they're Cakes with Faces.

I also have no quality control over them – in the reviews, one customer was unhappy with a design that was peeling off their T-shirt. Product quality is so important to small brands and definitely not something I want my artwork to be associated with.

The above examples are just what I’ve found from a few hours' searching. It’s quite likely there are more counterfeit products that I haven't yet spotted. But to discover so many cases for a small indie brand, shows the extent of the problem of art theft.

How to find if your work has been stolen

I discovered them simply by searching on Google, Google Shopping and Google Images. It’s relatively easy – the titles of the products hadn’t even been changed. Often users had stolen more than one of my designs, so once I found one I checked the rest of their shop – a time consuming process as many of them had 20+ pages of designs.

It’s time that freelancers and indie brand owners often don’t have. Running a small business involves a thousand different tasks, each of which is someone’s full time job in a larger company, or even a whole team of people. Creating artwork is often the smallest percentage of the workload.

Poor reproductions

It was jarring to see the artwork I've taken so much care over reproduced in such careless ways. Some were poorly traced, clearly using LiveTrace in Adobe Illustrator. Some had been crudely redrawn by someone unskilled in vector artwork. Colours had been changed so they were just plain ugly or made no sense – like a blue piece of toast (below, from Amy's Toast Addict design). White text was printed on a white background, so it didn’t show up. Often no thought had been given to design placement or scale, or any of the details that I pore over as a designer to get my products right.

Copyright for designers

In the UK, copyright protection is granted automatically when you create something. This is stated clearly on the UK government website. There's no need to pay to register it (although that is something you can do); the copyright of your designs and artwork is yours by right.
Through various agreements, this copyright extends to other countries, including China.

Proving copyright

As a designer you’ll likely have a trail of evidence to prove the work is yours if you need to. Rough sketches aren’t dated, but they are evidence to show the design is your creation. Anything digital has a time-stamp – that includes working files on your PC, as well as any emails, tweets and Instagram posts.

In my case I also had orders from customers, documented and dated, from both my own online shop and Etsy, where there are also reviews from customers, with dates. There are articles about the Alpacalypse on third party blogs and magazines. Thanks to YouTube, I even have videos showing the T-shirts and hoodies on my booth at comic con, with publication dates. You can clearly see me wearing an Alpacalypse hoodie in a vlog from an alpaca show.

If you’re public about your work and active with self promotion – which you have to be, if you’re selling online or touting for work – you’ll likely have a whole digital trail behind you.

What to do if this happens to you

If you spot your work on a print-on-demand merchandise site, you can report it through the store. All the print-on-demand sites I dealt with had links or forms to report copyright infringement. Some even have "Report this" links on each product as standard, which is an indication of how common this issue is.

Reporting involves involves filling in forms and providing links as evidence to show that the design belongs to you. In most cases, a link to the product in my shop was sufficient. For AliExpress, the process was lengthy: I had to register with their online IP portal, which involved uploading a photo of my passport, then registering the design as my property, with proof and dates of when it was first created, published and sold. Once that’s approved, you can finally register a complaint against the counterfeit product.

To their credit, all the print-on-demand sites dealt with my complaints very quickly and efficiently. Most of the products were removed within a day, and after 48 hours there were none remaining.

However, the fact remains that filling in forms and getting proof together is a lengthy process. As a small business owner or freelancer, that’s time you don’t necessarily have. Larger brands and companies have whole legal departments to deal with these problems.

So now, do I have to search the internet periodically to check if any of my designs have been stolen? Is that something I have to add into my weekly to do list?

Amy's Your Cake or Your Life design has also been ripped off.

Print-on-demand sites and copyright

Print-on-demand sites are ideal platforms for anyone who wants to profit from stolen artwork. Users can upload as many designs as they wish, and wait for the orders to roll in. Unlike when you produce your own merchandise, there’s no upfront investment and no financial risk. Many of the sellers that had stolen my designs had shops filled with T-shirts in so many different styles that they must have been stolen from other people. Many of the designs were clearly clipart or cringe-worthy, cheap slogans, with very little care taken over them.

Obviously it’s not the fault of the print-on-demand portals, who sent me copy and paste apologies and disclaimers saying they’re not liable for the actions of their users. Anyone can register and upload any designs they like. They simply have to tick a box saying they hold the copyright – but if you’re the kind of person who steals art you’re probably not going to have scruples about lying on an online form.

Copyright infringement of indie designers is clearly an issue. Your work has to be online in order to promote yourself - we wouldn’t be able to get work or sell products if it wasn't. Even if you watermark art you post online, Photoshop can do anything. It's so easy to be a victim of design theft without even knowing.

All imagery in this story is courtesy of Amy Crabtree

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