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Artists in the digital era have had ever increasing difficulties in protecting their intellectual property. Should you detract from the visual impact of your piece by using a watermark? Is a simple copyright notification on your images enough to dissuade others from illicitly using your material for their own financial gain? More cumbersome than these decisions, until recently, was the monumental task of tracking down any potential misuse of one's artwork across the vast expanse of cyberspace. How can an artist find out how and where their images are being used?
Thanks to Google's new reverse-image search function, this normally unimaginably exhausting chore has become a relatively simple matter. After reading a post on http://ghacks.com, I spent two and a half days searching for my own artwork anywhere it appeared on the Internet. While the search algorithm itself is far from perfect, it works better than any other similar engine I've seen (there are a few, but they've all been rather disappointing IMHO).
First, let me show you how to discover where your images appear. Then we'll go over what you can expect to find, what you can do to benefit from this information, and finally how you might deal with those who are infringing upon your copyright.
To use the new reverse image search function, visit http://images.google.com. Once there, simply drag & drop a picture from your computer onto the input box, where you would usually type your search inquiry. The image will be uploaded to Google (I recommend using small, web-optimized images wherever possible) & your search results will be displayed. On the search results page, you will notice, at the top, that it shows the name of your file. Next to that it may have some text that Google has associated with pictures like yours or it may simply ask you to type in some descriptive text, such as a title, into the box.
Below the input box, you will first see a copy of your picture and the image details. Then Google will list a few website's associated with the descriptive text from the input box. Under this, or near the bottom of your results, it will also show "very similar images". These features are great, but not the crux of what we're discussing, so ignore them for now.
The links to be concerned with are those that have a thumbnail of your artwork directly next to them. Each result will likely show the page title, the date of publication, some descriptive text, and finally the website URL. Pay particular attention to these as you scan through the list & visit any that you do not yourself use or are not otherwise aware of. I recommend simply opening them in new tabs and checking them out a few at a time.
Depending on your body of work & how much it's been passed around, your results will of course vary. For some of my artwork, I found only two or three links, all of which were directly connected to me. My more popular pieces, on the other hand, generated several pages of results, which I carefully sifted through. For the most part, the results were fairly innocuous. The majority of those who were posting my artwork were simply using it to illustrate or adorn their blog articles. I myself take absolutely no offense to this sort of usage, and in fact appreciate the attention, so long as the bloggers are willing to link back to me in some meaningful way & perhaps give me credit where possible.
There will, however, be instances where you will find your artwork being used in manners that might not suit you, or which reflect badly upon your personality as the original artist. My own artwork has been found used in a number of ways over the last few days that have made my temple throb to varying degrees. Some had simply been turned into banner ads promoting events or websites. The worst offenders were those who had taken my artwork, made it their own, taken credit for it, used it to promote themselves &/or their own businesses, & then profited illicitly from my artistic energies and efforts. While I certainly don't like unknowingly being associated with events or websites that I'm unfamiliar with, I take definite umbrage to being fully taken advantage of, as should any artist. Thank you Google for allowing me to at last address these issues.
Now, let's discuss what you can do in these instances, beginning with the most benign, the blogosphere. As stated earlier, most of your search results will probably stem from simple blog posts, facebook or myspace profile pictures, etc. Whether or not you take issue with this sort of use is completely up to you, though I honestly think these people can be of great benefit to an artist; after all, they obviously appreciate your work. In these cases, first check to see if the image being used is being credited to you & whether or not it is linked back to you in some manner. I'd say that of the hundreds of pages I've visited lately, only 10% of them had mentioned me or linked to my website or store. The other 90% typically linked directly to a copy of the image itself. Wherever I could I privately contacted the blog owner & asked if it might be possible for them to alter the post so that it led back to my store & perhaps credited me as the artist. Many times I had to post these requests publicly, via blog comments, because there were no private communications options. Regardless of how these bloggers were contacted, almost all of them were gracious enough to alter their posts. Quite a few of them also contacted me directly, visited my site to see more of my work, & a few have even quickly become friends. These people are the least of your worries & honestly, should be greeted with open arms :)
So what should you do when you find your artwork being used in ways that you simply don't agree with, or which reflect badly on your character? It's ultimately up to you in how to approach it, and of course it will all depend on the instance. In most cases, a firm letter requesting that the image be removed is sufficient. In other instances, you may wish to send an official looking cease and desist order. In the most extreme cases, you may even need to threaten legal action. I'd use this only as a last resort, as I personally don't make empty threats and would thereafter feel obligated to pursue the matter to the utmost of my abilities, until it were resolved. As I'm sure anyone knows, this can be a lengthy, trying, expensive and exhausting process which may or may not come to a satisfactory conclusion.
So who are the worst & most extreme offenders? In my mind, they're those who would profit financially from your artwork without your permission, without giving you credit, and without including you in a share of those profits. These people, knowingly or unknowingly (after all, ignorance of the law is no excuse), have stolen from you as an artist. If your artwork was not licensed to them by you, then they have violated your copyrights & commandeered your intellectual property. If you allow this to go on, you are essentially giving up all claim to your copyright, as it is up to you as an individual to protect your rights.
For my own part, I have only found a few scattered instances in which my artwork was being used for illicit gain by others. In these rare instances, I have sent strongly worded letters with the promise of pursuing legal action if we could not come to some sort of mutual arrangement outside of litigation. In these letters, I have offered them the opportunity to purchase a retro-active licensing agreement & my willingness to let the offenders continue to use my work, once the agreement is in effect. Again, I do not take these situations lightly & I suggest that those of you in similar situations do not either.
the amazing tale of Noam Galai's stolen scream
Don't fret, there are additional resources available to you above and beyond the legal system! First and foremost, in order to properly arm yourself, you will need at least a fundamental understanding of the copyright laws in your country. A good place to start is An Introduction To Copyright Law by Paul C. Rapp. I also recommend reading Copyright Basics from the US Copyright Office. About.com has several informative articles posted on their Copyright for Artists FAQ page, and for further reading, you'll find even more information at StarvingArtistsLaw.com's Copyright Law - Basic Issues page.
Aside from arming yourself with knowledge, there also exist numerous organizations designed to help visual artists to protect their intellectual property rights. Among these are the Artists Rights Society, Anti-Copying In Design (ACID), the American Photographic Artists alliance, the Graphic Artists Guild, the Society Of Illustrators, and the Society Of Children's Book Write's and Illustrators, just to name a few.
You can also ask your friends and fellow artists for assistance via email, social networks, twitter & the like. Creating bad publicity for the most offensive copyright violations is an incredibly powerful method of putting pressure on the violator, especially if they are professionals with something to lose & an image to consider. Make as much noise as you can & your followers can stomach (seriously, don't drive your friends away, no matter how upset & adamant you are).
Seek out others to take up the cause, and help in any such causes you find as well. As artists, we have to come together and speak out against the injustices perpetrated against us if we are to maintain control of our works & profit properly by them. If there isn't one already, there should be a social network of artists whose chief goal is to help protect & promote each others work. If you know of such a network, please let me know. In the meantime, I will continue searching & found one if necessary.
At worst, you may find it necessary to seek legal council. If you don't already have an attorney who is familiar with copyright law, you can find them all over the world with ease via a simple search. If you can't afford to hire an attorney for yourself, then I highly recommend visiting ProBono.net who specialize in providing resources for pro bono and legal services attorneys and others working to assist low income or disadvantaged clients. Many lawyers will be willing to at least give your matter consideration before charging you, so contact your nearest copyright attorney & discuss with them the basic merits of your case before proceeding.
To that end, I thank you for reading my rather long winded article. I don't usually take the time to write such lengthy posts, but I do hope that it has been informative and valuable in some way. I will continue to post updates about my own experiences on my personal blog, http://kennethrougeau.com. If you feel there are additions or corrections that should be made to the overall article in general, please feel free to leave a comment and I will adjust the text as necessary. I certainly appreciate your feedback and am always happy to assist a fellow artist or art enthusiast.