June 10, 2012
What To Do If Your Art Is Stolen

By “stolen”, I mean someone took your creative work and used it without your permission, probably without credit to you, and maybe even for profit. Here’s how to fix it.


Author’s Note

This is based on personal experience. My art was stolen and used for profit— entered in design competitions online— but everyone helped me, and so the issue was resolved in less than a week.
Thank you, first and foremost, to my family and to Atty. Ronald Ventura at Romulo Mabanta Buenaventura Sayoc & De los Angeles law firm. Thank you especially to Mama and her partner (Ginggay Hontiveros and Gabriel Malvar) for their overwhelming support in spite of their busy schedules— they are doing very important creative work to help the Philippines! Thank you to Graniph, DesignByHumans, Springleap, and all the other design competition websites involved, for recognizing me as the original artist and acting accordingly. Thank you to caring friends and kind strangers who spread the word and supported my art.

Yesterday, Lendl Dale Romero sent a formal written apology in response to my lawyer’s demand letter. I consider my issue with him to be resolved. I can forgive him without condoning his actions. I believe he has realized his mistake and is sincerely sorry. I recognize that we are all human and we all make mistakes, and we all deserve the chance to make up for it. Copyright violation is not a heinous crime.

My hope was for this issue to contribute something of value to the creative industry as a whole, and to inspire dialogue on copyright law in relation to creative culture. Therefore, I transformed this blog entry from accusations to instructions, using my story as an example. I removed most of the screenshots of my art being stolen, except for a few to illustrate my story. Please feel free to share this blog post, especially if you are an educator in the creative industry. Scroll to the bottom of this post for the Creative Commons license.

Dear fellow creatives, I hope this helps you. :)

Make art not war,
Filipino artist, Metro Manila, Philippines
June 9, 2012


1. Educate yourself.

Study the applicable copyright laws so that you know your rights and responsibilities.

Fellow Filipino artists, you can find the complete text of Philippine copyright law on the Chan Robles Virtual Law Library, and a complete outline on the IPRotect of the OVF law firm. Thoroughly read the part regarding Limitations On Copyright, which includes rules for “fair use”.
Also check out Berne, the international agreement governing copyright, applicable in over a hundred countries including ours.

A few key points on copyright law:
- Copyright literally means “the right to make copies (of a creative work)”, but actually includes many other rights such as the right to be credited as the creator, the right to make money from the work, and the right to create derivative works.
- You automatically own all the copyrights to your work from the moment of creation. Even if you don’t place a copyright notice on it. You own these copyrights until you sell, lease, or give them away to the public, person, or institution of your choosing.
- Copyright law does not protect any idea, only the execution of an idea. So you can’t copyright the style or subject of a drawing, only the drawing itself.
- Some unauthorized uses may be considered “fair use”, meaning it was used for personal use, education, satire, or critique, and it wasn’t used for profit or in a way that would harm the commercial value of the original work.

For an in-depth, easy to read explanation of copyright law in relation to creative culture, I highly recommend the book Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig. You can legally read the entire book for free online. The book explains that sharing and remixing are essential in creative culture, but artists should definitely be given fair reward and credit for their work. Current copyright law should be updated to reflect this. Atty. Lessig is a major proponent of Creative Commons, a movement that gives artists the legal tools to strike a fair balance between sharing and protecting creative work.


2. Document the evidence.

Take screenshots of the webpages showing your stolen work. Note the webpage URL, the date that the webpage was published, and the date that you took the screenshot.

Do a side-by-side comparison with your original artwork. Note the webpage URL where you posted your original artwork, and the date that you posted it online.

Do an extensive search because there may be more than one instance— as I discovered in my case. Reverse image search is your friend!

Here is an excerpt from the evidence I documented in my case:

Screenshot (taken June 4, 2012) of a t-shirt design that won at Graniph Design Award 2012:

Original artwork from 2007 on my deviantart gallery:

Screenshot (taken June 5, 2012) of a t-shirt being sold online at C28.com since June 2011:

Original artwork from my 2010 exhibit:

Screenshot (taken June 6, 2012) of a t-shirt design submitted to 9fountains.com:

Original artwork from my 2010 exhibit:

The side-by-side comparisons should be clear and compelling.


3. Assess the damage.

- Which copyrights were violated?
Use your knowledge of applicable copyright laws.

- How many times?
Quantify the evidence you’ve gathered.

- Who is responsible?
Someone famous or unknown? A big or small company? If this is someone very famous, or if it’s a very big company, they have greater responsibility. Here’s another article on design theft with a practical discussion of this.

- Did it seem intentional and malicious?
If someone did it more than once, it probably wasn’t accidental.

- Was it done for profit, and did you receive credit?
You should probably be most concerned about people making money off of your work, or claiming your work as their own.

- Can any instances be considered “fair use”?
Remain objective enough to ensure that “stolen” is right word to describe your situation.

In my case, I found a total of seventeen instances of economic (rights to reproduction and public display) and moral (rights to attribution and alteration) copyright violations using five of my works. All violations were done by the same person, a Filipino individual claiming to be a graphic designer. As far as I know, he is not someone famous. In fifteen of those instances, the works were used in t-shirt design competition submissions. Two instances were successfully used to gain profit. This was all done without my permission and without credit to me. Due to the number of violations, and the fact that my signatures had to be digitally erased from my drawings to be used in those submissions, I can consider the actions to be intentional and malicious. Clearly, none of these instances qualify as “fair use”.


4. Define your ideal outcome.

What would you like to happen? Obviously, you will want them to stop stealing your art. Here are some other things you might want:
- A sincere apology, perhaps in formal writing or in public.
- Acknowledgement that you are the original artist.
- Financial reparation or share of profits made off of your work.
- Some proof or promise not to do it again, perhaps in formal writing or in public.

A good question to ask yourself is: What outcome would benefit everyone involved?
Or: What would a happy ending look like?
Your ideal outcome should be both fair and practical.

At this point, you may want to get a lawyer to help figure out your options. If profits were made off your work, I think you should seriously consider hiring a lawyer, especially if financial damages exceed PHP 100,000 (around USD 2,500).

In my case, I wanted to be acknowledged as the original artist, and I wanted the offending submissions to be removed from the design competition websites. I also wanted Lendl Dale Romero to acknowledge and understand what he was doing wrong. I was lucky to be able to have Atty. Ronald Ventura of Romulo Mabanta Buenaventura Sayoc & De los Angeles law firm advise and represent me in my case. I was advised to ask for a formal apology in writing, to serve as a legal record of this incident.


5. Determine your options.

Even if you are the aggrieved party, you should still act responsibly. Of course you’re angry and frustrated, but you can express these feelings without violence and unnecessary aggression. Retain perspective, stick to the facts, and remember that copyright violation is not a heinous crime. Your actions should be both firm and humane.

Depending on your ideal outcome, and the gravity of the damages, you may choose to do one or more of the following things:
- Communicate with the offending party, showing them evidence of their copyright violations, and listing your demands.
- Communicate with others involved, showing them evidence of the copyright violations, and enlisting their support.
- Publicly expose the actions of the offending party, using the documented evidence.
- File a lawsuit. This is a very powerful but time-consuming and stressful option, so use it as a last resort if the situation truly calls for it.

In my case, I was alarmed (okay, infuriated) by the fact that he won a design contest using my artwork. I decided to publicly post my story on my blog, to be acknowledged as the original artist and to warn others of the incident. I soon discovered more instances where he stole my work, which strengthened my conviction that his actions were intentional. Apparently, he had been doing this for about a year now, so I wanted people to know about it.

Of course, I also emailed the design competition websites where he submitted his work (Graniph, Springleap, DesignByHumans, Threadless, CanvasThreads or C28, 9Fountains), presenting my evidence, requesting for the works to be taken down, and recommending that he be banned from future contests. I used strong but civil wording (“Copyright Infringement Notice: Immediate Action Requested”) in my emails to them, but made sure to express my appreciation once they responded with support for me. Here’s a sample letter. I don’t blame these websites for the incident, and I recognize that they have done a lot to contribute to the design community. I would like to acknowledge Graniph (thank you Dave), DesignByHumans (thank you Craig), and Springleap (thank you Eran) for being the swiftest, most professional, and most supportive in the manner they handled my case.

We sent Lendl Dale Romero a formal demand letter, which he was required to receive in person at the law firm’s office. In response, he sent the formal written apology that I asked for. I considered the issue resolved at that point. I feel very fortunate that he was willing to make amends— it is probably uncommon in situations like this.


6. Find closure and move on.

Once you reach your ideal outcome, be thankful of everything you’ve learned from the experience (hopefully, you will feel super grateful for the amount of support you get from family, friends, and even strangers) and move on.

For me, moving on meant changing this blog entry into an instructional article so that other artists can learn from my experience. I consider myself exceptionally fortunate for having been able to find the happy ending in my story after less than a week! :)

Here is my message to Lendl Dale Romero:

Thank you for following my lawyer’s instructions and for the formal apology in writing. I hope that what you did wrong— and how you can redeem yourself— is clear to you now. A couple of my friends (thanks, Avid and Jon) suggested that you can donate the profits to a charity of my choice (if ever, that would be PAWS or any eco-friendly cause). You may also post your own blog entry about this experience if you like, and in your blog post you could even include a resource list of public domain or Creative Commons resources of stock images that artists can freely and legally appropriate for creative remixing. You could publish a statement that encourages artists (of all ages and stages) to be original, or at least fair, and to do proper research on copyright law, and especially to fulfill the moral rights (attribution) to their fellow artists.

—- —- —-

For the record, I still believe that when it comes to sharing my art online, the benefits far outweigh the risks.

I am not afraid to post my artwork on the Internet, and I am not afraid of technologies which allow people to easily remix, copy, and share creative works. These technologies helped me build my art reputation online, and it was my reputation that helped me prove I am the original creator of the stolen artworks.

I am happy to share my images online without much of a watermark, in spite of (rare and easily remedied) incidents such as this, because I am happy to let people enjoy a good view of my artwork. I am happy to share my music online, with free downloads, because I am happy that people enjoy my singing and songwriting. This will not change. I refuse to let one person’s actions steal the joy I find in making and sharing my creative work.

"I am not a precious sparkly unicorn who is obsessed with the purity of his characters — rather, I am a glittery and avaricious dragon who is jealous of his steaming pile of gold. If you do not steal the dragon’s gold, the dragon will leave you alone. Offer to bring the dragon more gold and the dragon will be your friend."
— Author Charlie Stross wrote this, regarding fanfiction, and I feel the same about my artwork. I’m fine with people using my work, as long as it’s for non-commercial non-evil purposes and they credit me. (My personal favourite is when people tattoo my artwork on their own skin— what an honor! They even send me photos, which I really appreciate.)

Thank you so much to everyone who has supported me and my art— please continue enjoying my work!

—- —- —-

If you are an educator in the creative field, I hope you will share this with your students. I am using the Creative Commons License below, for my writings and images of my works in this blog post, to grant explicit permission to anyone to use this blog post for educational purposes:

Creative Commons License

This work created by Feanne is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

2:53am  |   URL: http://tmblr.co/Zy1AKyMkdV61
Filed under: art theft copyright 
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