Online Art Theft: A Primer
A Guide to Online Art Theft:
The traditional term of “Art Theft” is the literal act of stealing physical artwork for the sake of profit. Over time the term has become associated with heist films, “art-napping” and other crimes that get a Hollywood romanticizing every few years. There is a low recovery rate for stolen artwork (roughly 5-10%), making art theft one of the biggest concerns for the visual art world. Museums, Individuals and artists alike suffer greatly at the hands of thieves who pilfer priceless works of art for money.
History lessons aside, in these glorious days of the internet the expansion of the term “Art Theft” has taken on new meaning to many in the popular and digital art fields. The modern update for art theft has its own terms depending on the industry. Another often-related term for online art theft is “Appropriation”, where something is taken from an uncredited source and used for the purposes of profit or personal gain.
With online art theft, the property being handled is rarely physical. It is a theft of intellectual rights for the purpose of monetization. It affects how an idea or concept is viewed and handled in the public eye, and affects everyone from big name corporations to independent artists.
As opposed to traditional art theft that occurs infrequently, online art theft happens at a constant rate across the globe. Whether it is as brash as a department store mining Google images for t-shirt art to an independent artist selling prints of Disney characters from their etsy account, online art theft is a wide spectrum of activity and consequence.
The Difference between “Theft”, “Practice” and “Inspiration”:
Studying from other artists has been a centuries-old practice, and is a highly regarded method of learning how to improve one's skills. What brings this practice over into art theft territory depends on how the end work is treated.
Giving credit to the original is massively important. Like writing, citing your sources is the best policy. Giving due credit is the biggest and most successful way to avoiding any issues.
Being inspired by an exisiting piece of artwork to create something typically does not fall under Art Theft. However, this is more situational. Inspiration to create something new means your original work is not recognizable as its predecessor. This is taken into account in formal art theft cases.
Comic & Fan Art:
As Comic and Pop Culture Conventions have become a near weekly occurrence during peak season, Art Theft has become a major talking point for these new institutions, and covers a very large variety of instances and situations.
Art Theft in the comic art industry occurs, with certain practices earning nicknames like “Swiping” or “Cloning”. These typically involve a comic artist taking an already existing piece of work and repurposing or incorporating that work into a new product without giving due credit. Recycling poses, panel layouts or even stylistic choices can fall under these terms.
This is different than “Homages” or “Tribute” pieces, where artists purposefully recreate well-known comic images and give credit to the people they are paying respects to.
A classic case of a "Swipe /Homage" from Todd McFarlane. On the left, the cover for Spider-Man #300 from Marvel Comics. On the Right, Spawn #227 from Image Comics. Both are drawn by Todd McFarlane.
Photo found at:
Where online art theft becomes an issue is when someone either recreates a famous comic book panel/layout or character for the purposes of profiting off the popularity of those established brands and properties. Whether presenting a piece of fan art as an original artwork, or simply posting without giving credit to the original work itself.
Fan art, the act of creating artwork based off of an already existing property as a purpose of celebrating that body of work, such as a cartoon, movie or comic book.Some companies embrace fan art as a concept, as it allows fans of a show to be able to express their enjoyment for a property and share that passion via social media. Fan art, at its most innocent and well-intentioned, is a wonderful form of community building and free advertising.
The line blurs when artists begin making and selling fan art for profit / monetization. This is when companies will defend their IP’s (Internal Property) from being infringed upon. There are several stories regarding conventions and fans that produce work that end up receiving Cease and Desist letters for illegal reproduction and sales of work that infringe on copyrights.
With some companies valuing fan art as a form of free advertising and marketing, other companies see it as a form of copyright infringement and illegal profiting off their trademarks, making Comic Book/Fan Conventions an incredibly divisive topic of conversation.
Memes, Artwork, and Digital Distribution:
With the use of Social Media, there is an increasing practice of creating accounts with the sole purpose of collecting and sharing pieces of artwork, video or media in order to gain followers and popularity. This is often done with the purpose of monetization or some other form of benefit. (George Takei was an early progenitor of the practice).
However, where this gets into art theft territory is when an art page or social media handle shares an artists’ work without crediting them, they are appropriating the prestige and credit of that artist, and is generally frowned upon in the various creative fields. While this is not intentional in most cases (some pages simply google search or other images that inherently do not immediately credit images), it still contributes to an artists’ brand confusion and uses work that they had no hand in creating.
Where it is done correctly is when a site or page shares the artwork of another artist and properly credits said work, and links the artist’s work so people can see (and hopefully patronize) that person.
In this case, the Theft occurring is the appropriating of attention and credit for a piece of artwork while gatekeeping people from the original source. This can be due to lack of research and simply click-saving from Google searches, sometimes it is purposeful with the intent of capitalizing on using free content to increase one’s attention, popularity or social media standing.
In Fine Art:
This happens rarely but over the past few years, fine art has dabbled in the concept of Appropriation and Online Art Theft as a subject of artwork itself. In one of the most well-known examples, renowned artist Richard Prince held an exhibit where he sold screenprints of modified screen captures he took of other people’s Instagram photos that he had commented on. These pieces cost roughly $100,000.00 each. It was a widely scrutinized and criticized show, with the core discussion surrounding whether or not the very show itself was a case of appropriation.
Art Theft occurs frequently in the Music world as well. Art produced using other artist’s content without consent for Tour Artwork, Album Artwork, etc. It happens continually more and more frequently.
Art Theft in E-Commerce:
With the modern developments of online stores where you can purchase products online (Amazon, Shopify, BigCartel, etc.), there are countless instances where a third party will open an online store and sell products using another artists’ work without their knowledge and pocketing the profits.
This happens with independent artists as well as big companies and their IP’s. A major component to the difficulty in this practice is that sometimes the people who create these shops that blatantly capitalize and steal other people’s work are located in countries with very loose or nonexistence digital art theft laws. International law with online art theft is and can be difficult to enact or enforce depending on the channels available.
Corporate Art Theft:
Sometimes an artist’s work will find its way onto clothing or products from a department store chain. Many cases of stores or companies using artists’ work without their consent have occurred over the years, and it becomes incredibly difficult to correct that when it occurs.
A Screencap from a case where Lane Bryant was accused of appropriating the design of an artist.
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To contrast, companies will often find themselves having to deal with art theft and appropriation on a near constant basis. In order to protect their copyright and trademarks respectively, they must seek out infringements and keep thousands of people from misusing their trademarks and copyrights. In many instances, companies like Disney and Marvel must enforce their copyright in order to protect their brand, and because one allowed infraction can potentially allow further violations, they must then enforce them throughout and consistently, which makes for some divisive publicity.
A major difference between Artists and Companies regarding defense of art theft is that Companies and Corporations have far more resources to protect and enforce their copyright, whereas most independent artists have access to slightly less options for protecting their work.
Safeguarding Your Work:
There are many different ways that an artist can protect their art from being appropriated or stolen, but with the nature of the internet, it is difficult.
There are some options that can be helpful to curb unwanted art theft of your work, but know that these are suggestions, and in no way guarantee art theft of your work (or others).
1.) Post photos of your work that make it difficult for people to copy or take credit for.
- Take and post photos instead of scans of your work.
- Upload smaller or lesser quality photos of your work if possible.
2.) Make sure your work is signed and dated.
- Adding watermarks can be an additional safeguard for your work.
- Adding Copyright notices for work that belongs to you.
- Be sure your contact information (Name, Website, Social Media Handles, etc.)
3.) Attempt to make your work unable to be right-clicked / saved.
- This is slightly trickier, and can be used if you have a website, and often is not as successful.
4.) Enforce any potential infringements / violations of your copyright.
- Contact people who use or share your work and either ask them to take it down or give proper credit so potential fans can find you.
5.) Be sure to give credit to artists / art works used as references when you post.
6.) Exercise proactive safeguarding.
- Seek copyright and trademarks for any work you wish to make public prior to posting. This can be done for any creative works (visual, written, etc.).
Here is a link on how copyright your work and register for copyrights:
Links to use if you see Art Theft or find yourself dealing with Art Theft as well:
Reporting for DeviantArt:
Reporting for Amazon:
There are other resources for many other sites on their policies and how they handle copyright infringement and art theft. Be sure to check your respective sites for this information.
Art Theft is at its worst an inevitability, and being aware of it and addressing it when it occurs is the best way to combat it from damaging artists and businesses. Giving credit where it’s due, asking for permission when available, and being courteous are some of the basics when it comes to sharing other artist’s work, especially on Social Media.
The Law surrounding copyright and art theft is a literal case-by-case basis and a single blanketing answer for any one instance is seldom found.
Hopefully this is helpful and worthwhile reading for any artist on the internet. Feel free to comment or contribute your own thoughts or stories to this article. Look below for more reading on the topic of art theft Awareness and Prevention, or share your own sources!
Here are other links for further reading from artists and other professionals on the topic that are worth investigating:
Richard Prince Art Theft:
Comic Art – Swiping & Plagiarism:
Please be aware that this article is meant to be for educational and entertainment purposes only and should in no way be construed as legal advice. If you have any questions of a legal nature, consult an attorney.