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Wed, Feb 27 2013 20:43:46 UTC

Art thieves: What to do about them

For as long as there has been valuable goods, there has also been thieves trying to take advantage of them and get a quick profit. To this day we still see criminals attempt to steal traditional artworks like paintings in galleries or ancient artifacts in a museum. That's why security is always high in these places, since a single classical portrait may be worth millions of dollars. But when it comes to digital art, the situation is a lot more controversial.

With bits, there is no master portrait, everything can be copied to perfection. If you publish an image on the web, then anybody can right click on it, save it to their computer, and republish it elsewhere. Many people do just that, some in order to profit from the work of the original artists, but others do not even realize that what they are doing is wrong. A lot of people are just fans and they upload material simply for fun. Tumblr makes it trivial to do so with a reblog feature on every post, and social networks like Facebook cultivates a tradition of sharing with their Share buttons.

Of course for many content creators this is a frustrating outcome. Making a piece of digital art can be as demanding as a traditional painting, but then it takes just a second for their result to be duplicated by others. This is why copyright law exists, and technically these regulations are supposed to protect the creator of any creative work. In the US and many other countries, anyone who creates something new automatically has copy rights over it, which means nobody else can copy their work for almost any reason without the prior consent of the author. The only exception is fair use which applies for very specific purposes like news reporting or comedy.

Methods of prevention

Over the years content creators have attempted many ways to prevent others from copying digital works. There is digital rights management (DRM), which uses encryption in order to try and protect content. For the most part it doesn't work, because if you want people to be able to enjoy your content, then they have to get full access. And as soon as these bits are on their computers, there is always a way around DRM. In the case of videos there are somewhat effective methods by wrapping them inside of a Flash container for example, but even then there are programs that try to get around that, and if all else fails, someone can always stick a camera or capture card at their screen and record it again.

For images it's even harder because they are so small and easy to copy. Some sites try to use JavaScript to prevent people from right clicking images and saving them but that's a very silly solution, since anybody can simply press Print Screen to copy it that way, or disable JavaScript. The point remains that these types of prevention methods do not work and there will always be a way around them, since bits are by their very nature infinitely copyable.

So instead what most artists have resorted to doing is using watermarks. If you add text on top of your image that clearly states who the author is, then that will be much harder to remove. It won't prevent people from sharing your work but at least it will be clear that they are doing so illegally. A small signature at the bottom is often enough, although some thieves will actually crop the image to remove the signature, while most fans who share without thinking about it will not. Some artists use full screen watermarks in order for them not to be easily removable.

Of course if you do professional artworks you may need to provide images without watermarks at some point, which in turn means those can end up on torrent sites. The bottom line is that most successful anti-piracy campaigns are those that are balanced. The goal should be to stop 90% of illegal sharing. This can be accomplished with a watermark and a copyright notice. There will always be those enterprising enough to go around your prevention methods, but if you try to stop them, you start being so aggressive that your regular fans get inconvenienced by it. Plus those methods are unlikely to stop career criminals anyways.

Going after the thieves

The US has something called the DMCA which was created to handle just this type of event. Using a DMCA notice, you can send a specific letter to someone you suspect is using your work without your authorization. But the key is knowing who to send that notice to. Often, it's pointless to go after individuals who share your work for no monetary gain. The recording industry tried to sue individuals who shared music, and all it got them was bad publicity. You will be the one losing sleep over it, not people on Facebook or Tumblr clicking the share button a hundred times a day.

Instead, it's best to focus on the big fish. There are sites out there that are constantly brought up to make money on the back of others. These are often wallpaper sites, or image apps, which appear over night and have hundreds if not thousands of stolen images that they then try to sell. These are the criminals who try to get rich using your work and which should be stopped. If the site has a link for copyright notices, then send your complaint there, but the best way to shut them down is to find out who provides them hosting.

If they are hosted on a free service then send your DMCA notice to that service. For example a site that ends with blogspot.com is hosted by Google, while wordpress.com is hosted by WordPress. If they have their own domain name, use a WHOIS tool to find out who the registrar is for their domain name. There, you will find the contact information for the domain, and that should give you an email address to contact.

In the end, chasing thieves can be a long and stressful process. The best way to approach it is to do enough prevention that will discourage most thieves out there, and then go after the big guys. While even an individual sharing your image on Facebook is technically going against copyright laws, the trouble of chasing all of these down, especially if they aren't getting any financial gain, is going to take you far too long to make it worth it.

Many artists have taken an attitude where they see this type of casual sharing as a way to get marketing. As long as you have a clear signature on your work which leads back to your web site, then people who see this shared content may become new fans. There's a whole movement behind offering reusable content called Creative Commons which offers licenses that allow this type of sharing to be done, under various conditions. And this doesn't mean you have to start starving as an artist. A good example is Psy, creator of Gangnam Style, a music video that went viral. Even though he is Korean, producing music that typically has almost no chance of becoming a worldwide success, he purposely allowed anyone to reuse his video to do mashups, remakes and derivatives, which brought him a lot of traffic, and he made millions from this free YouTube video. So there are always innovative ways around the problem of art thieves.

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