Bonnie Siegler | Dear Bonnie

Dear Bonnie: Cheated in Chicago

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Dear Bonnie,
I design beaded and hand-woven jewelry and I often post photos of my products online since social media plays a large role in building my business. Recently, I discovered that an image of my bracelets (posted on Flickr with all rights reserved) was being used by the clothing brand Delia's on a set of fingernail stickers sold online and possibly in stores. The image was used without my knowledge or permission. I've included a photograph highlighting the exact crops of my work that were used to make the stickers, as well as the Delia's product page.

I have seen stories similar to mine, and I'm wondering, what is the best course of action for an independent artist when facing this type of situation with a large brand? Is there any way to persuade Delia's to properly acknowledge and compensate me for my intellectual property?

Thank you,
Grace Hamann

Click the image to zoom in.

Dear Grace,
Before you even think about calling a lawyer, the first thing you have to consider is that the offending company may not actually have a clue that your images were stolen. So, scenario number 1 is that someone innocently used your photo to comp up an idea, only to have their boss love it and quickly move it up the chain of command until the stickers were produced. The original perpetrator may not even know the actual fate of what they pitched. Given that possibility (and really no matter what), your first step is to get in touch with Delia’s. Let them know what happened and give them the benefit of the doubt that they will want to do the right thing. The truly right thing, of course, would have been to ask you BEFORE using your work, but not knowing and then paying you what they would have paid you in the first place is almost as good.

Scenario number 2 is that they didn’t know they were stealing your images, but now that you've told them, they just don’t care. On Flickr, your images are by default protected under the legal catch-all “All rights reserved.” This is in contrast to Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, etc., which all have somewhat murky privacy policies that mean images you post could be fair game (to be dumbass clear, this means these sites or apps could potentially sell photos you post for commercial use). Since I assume you also share photos of your designs on these social media sites, you could run into some issues given the varying levels of image protection that each site's privacy policy provides. Another potential problem here is that since you encourage people to repost your images, it's possible that they have been reposted on one of the less protected sites. This makes it much more difficult to keep track of how your images are being used and therefore more challenging to safeguard the rights to the original photo. Unfortunately, Delia’s might be able to use this information as a defense for their actions. However, even without any official copyright, in the U.S., your photos are automatically copyright protected by law as soon as you publish them. So, while it would be a flawed argument on Delia's part, it's worth anticipating this possible response.

Scenario number 3 is that they DID know that the images were just found online and they didn’t care then and don't care now. But before you consider the possibility of taking legal action, think about whether it's really in your best interest. What would you have been paid had they come to you first? $1000 - $2000? That’s two to four hours of a lawyer's time. The sad truth is that it really just won’t be worth it to fight.

Your best case scenario is that someone from Delia’s sees this and reaches out to you because they are embarrassed by their company’s actions and want to make it up to you and, by proxy, all the other creative entrepreneurs who have been wronged over the years. (Delia’s, I’m talking to YOU!) When companies behave badly, they lose customers and it's very difficult to get them back after a brand’s image has been tarnished (see Lululemon). It will certainly cost them a lot more than $1000. For Delia's — a fun, happy company targeting young women — it seems particularly harmful and very much against their brand image to have a claim of creative copyright infringement floating over their heads.

Artists and designers like you who are willing to share your stories (see Modern Dog v. Target and Disney, and countless others) can help shame companies into realizing that doing the right thing is always more cost effective than taking the short cut. Big companies need to learn that they can no longer steal from the little guy without getting caught.

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Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Dear Bonnie

Comments [3]

Rather than "shame" someone who steals your work into taking it down or paying you, you can contact www.imagerights.com and they will pursue legitimate cases on your behalf for no up front fees or out of pocket expenses. I'm a photographer and I co-founded the company to help creatives get compensated for their stolen work. In addition to helping creatives we also represent stock agencies and media corporations such as Playboy Media.
Ted VanCleave

From my experience working as an in-house designer for an apparel company, these scenarios are all too probable. I have seen co-workers "Google research" designs and completely rip off images they find via image search without a qualm. There was a very lax approach to how much an image needed to be changed to avoid conflicts with copyright (if it was changed at all). It was never a moral or legal discussion. It was more an awareness issue. They didn't really get that they were stealing someone's work. There was just a general "understanding" that when it was online it was fair game. The only way I could ever combat this environment was trying to research found images on my own and tracing them back to an artist. Unfortunately, Google image search and sharing sites like Pinterest and Tumblr create a kind of disconnect for people between an image and its source.

I've seen this so often in the craft world. The craftsperson will write a long, emotional, tearful "how could they do this" blog post or Facebook post. All her (it's usually a her) friends reply with indignation and hugs and declarations of "So shocked!!!!! I'll never buy from them again!!!!!" And nothing changes. I think unless you do the exposing in a direct, authoritative and visible way, it doesn't have much impact. I do appreciate that you steer people away from Pinterest. It's bad for artists and pretty much exists as a culture of copyright violation.

If just your image is being used, this may help from Art Law Journal: http://artlawjournal.com/submit-takedown-notice/

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