what to do when someone steals your work?

Copyright infringement: when people are stealing your work

Because of the internet, everything seems to be free these days. Whatever you’re looking for, it’s right there with a few simple clicks.
But it’s not as simple as you think, because before you know it you’ll be stealing someone else’s property. Did you know it’s an actual crime if you use an image that you randomly found on Google and use it for your blog, product or company?
But what if you’re the maker of this image? When someone steals your work, you might feel helpless and don’t know what to do. But actually, you can do something and you’re fully in your right to do so.

As an illustrator it has happened, and still happens, to me often. In the first few years of my career I didn’t know how to respond. When I came in contact with my legal advisor she ensured me I was in my full right when someone used my work without asking or crediting me.
Then, it happened again, and I was fed up with it an decided to legal action.

Because this can be quite intimidating, I wrote down how it works.

copyright infringement

Taking without asking is always wrong

First of all: anyone that randomly takes an image from the internet for their own gain must know that most images are made with love and care by an actual person. People tend to forget that.
The image that was stolen from me was an illustration I made with a lot of love for an online magazine and took me hours to create. To see it spread over the web without any regard to me, hurt me on a personal level.

Stealing apples
Imagine you are walking down a street with little shops. You pass one that sells fruit and the owner has laid out their apples, pears and oranges in baskets in front of their shop. They look delicious and you really want an apple. What’s your next step? Do you just take one without asking the shop owner how much they cost and walk away without paying? I sincerely hope you don’t.
Even when you have no money and you’re really hungry, you can always ask the shop owner if they can spare one. Always ask first.
The same thing goes for images you found online: always ask the maker.

5 common excuses people use when they steal an image

1. “I’ve put your name on the website/blog/product.”

Not good enough. Even if they credit the maker, that still doesn’t mean you can share it. You always need consent of the maker.

2. “I found it on Google and didn’t know it was copyrighted.”

If someone runs a business and they don’t know Google isn’t a stock image website, they should educate themselves first. Google is a resource website where you can find information on all topics in the world, and also related images. It’s not a free database of images people can use.

3. “I couldn’t find the maker of the image.”

If they don’t know who made it, or can’t contact them: don’t use the image. Further more: you can use Google reverse image search to find out who the original maker is. If you still can’t find it: don’t use the image.

4. “Our intern/freelance contributor uploaded your image.”

Doesn’t matter: the owner of the website is responsible for all things uploaded on their website.

5. “I found it on another website, and it wasn’t credited there.”

“But someone else stole apples too!” Then they both are in the wrong and you can send them both a legal letter. Just because it was published already somewhere else, doesn’t mean it’s up for grabs.

Above: the work that was taken by a dozen websites who used it, didn’t credit me and even edited it.

How to protect your work

Protect your work as much as you can
Better safe than sorry: watermark your work as much as you can. Make sure it’s not that easy to steal your image. Add a copyright sign with your full name in all the images you put online. You can see an example of mine above.

Track down the infringer
Google reverse image search is a brilliant tool to see where your image has been uploaded.

Prepare for confrontation
Make sure you know enough about copyright and licenses before entering the battle. You can take on a legal advisor to help you with this. I wrote a blog about copyrights in Dutch a while ago, which you can read if you’re under Dutch law.

Collect evidence
Make screenshots of the websites/platforms that used your work, and save the addresses. If they copied your work and made a physical product, buy the product as proof.

What is your goal?
Do you want them to stop using your image, or do you want financial compensation as well? Decide beforehand what your goal is.
You can even ask them to work with you next time, and pay you for your work.

Contact the infringer
Look for the contact details of the infringer. This doesn’t have to be a written letter necessarily, it can also be an email.
It should contain the following:

– What the infringement is;
– Where the infringement has been found;
– What your damage is;
– The kind of solution/settlement you’re offering;
– The time limit you’re giving the infringer to meet your settlement.

Wait and negotiate
Then you wait until the term you set has passed. Check if the infringer did everything you asked for. If they didn’t, send them another letter or email but be even more firm this time. If you haven’t already, get a legal advisor involved, or buy a warrant from Charlotte’s Law.
In most cases, a firm letter will settle it but if they don’t cooperate, you can take the next step and fight it in court.

These steps are written with help from Charlotte’s Law-blog. You can read more in Dutch about copyright infringement on her blog. If you speak Dutch, don’t miss that.

What if you are the one wanting to use an image you found online?

  • First, figure out who the maker is. Again, use Google reverse image search. If you can’t find the maker, do not use the image.
  • If you do know who the maker is, contact them and ask for permission to use the image and let them know what you will be using it for (what/where/how long). Offer money for a license. This is only fair.
  • Do not edit the image, ever. If you need adjustments, ask the maker to do so.
Comic Marloes de Vries

Left: my original comic, as uploaded on Facebook and Instagram. Right: the edited comic with translation, without my consent.

If you know someone who needs help with copyright infringement, do send this blog to them. Spread the word, help creative makers around the globe.




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