Web Theft: What to do!

by Susan Kirkland
ONE OF THE ABSOLUTELY FREE THINGS we used to do when we were in art college was window shop. And lately, there's been a lot of that on the ever so fluid web. What should you do if someone steals some of your work online? Contrary to popular belief, things online are not free for the taking. Just ask the guy who downloaded all those songs in Boston who may end up spending $6,750,000 as a result of a recent court judgment.

It's hard to understand how someone can be so disrespectful to the artists and writers whose work he stole. First, give your adoring fans the benefit of the doubt. I say this because that line "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" makes my blood boil. But not everyone is as aware as we are about copyright laws and fair use. If you need to brush up on copyright law, there's a neat little tutorial posted on the University of Texas website.

Debbie Stier, SVP, and Associate Publisher at HarperStudio says:

"My true rule is that you should rock the boat. Don't let fear stop you, don't let what other people might think stop you, just push it as far as you can; rock the boat, take risks, and experiment."

Read more of this kind of courage building stuff for creatives here. Douglas Eby looks into the heart and soul of the creative and shows us how to go where we want fearlessly.

pirate_sites.pngThe antithesis of this is, of course, copying someone else's work. Should we have pity on the cretin who is too fearful to explore on his own and take the same risks we take in the normal course of our design day? Nah, go for the jugular. It's one thing to design an image and be well compensated for it, but stealing the work product of another is just pond scum behavior. Makes me want to grip the coward by the shoulders and shake, shake, shake while I chide them about doing their own thing and stop trying to do mine.

Jeff, the owner of Creative Armada, did a google search on his company name to see how he was doing with SEO. Shock and surprise when a relatively new company competing in the same industry popped up. They were using the name The Creative Armada with a very similar logo and feel to the website. Here are some steps you can take should you find yourself in the same position.

First, make sure your work predates the suspected theft. Then run the site pages through www.copyscape.com, which compares offending pages to the originals by highlighting the copied work. Make screen shots of the comparisons as proof. You can find the site owner through Whois or the Domain White Pages. Next, send a cease and desist letter and copy yourself and, if you have one, your attorney.

Chilling effects has a collection of cease and desist letters from various law firms, including such gems with cloaked daggers like this:

"This letter is intended to secure your voluntary agreement to cease from violating [insert your name] intellectual property rights."

Catch that word voluntary? You are giving them an opportunity to voluntarily remove the reputation soiling, equity diminishing version of your work before you totally take them to the cleaners. It's a good idea to include a list of things you will pursue if the offender does not remove the pirated version of your work within the time limit (per the DCMA: notify his ISP of plagiarism, notify Google and request the site no longer be indexed, etc.). If you don't set a time limit (e.g. 48 hours), you will have no recourse against the excuse of "I just haven't had the time."

The devil is in the details. Check back when the deadline arrives. If they have not complied with your request by the deadline you set, take the following actions in the order of your choice. First, and probably the most enjoyable part of your revenge, is publicity. An act of theft deserves the very best publicity. Pirated Sites advertises online thieves. Then contact their hosting company. Hosting companies can be a party to copyright infringement lawsuits, so they will pay attention. You can use Google's DCMA takedown provision to ask the ISP hosting the site in violation to remove offending content. Here's Google's description of how to submit a request.

Google will respond with:

"It is our policy to respond to notices of alleged infringement that comply with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (the text of which can be found at the U.S. Copyright Office web Site, http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright/) and other applicable intellectual property laws, which may include removing or disabling access to material claimed to be the subject of infringing activity . . . " and then they will tell you how to proceed.

If, after doing all this, your thief continues to use the work, you may need to contact an attorney. Most offer a free initial consultation. Before you do, if you think you will wind up in court, file a federal copyright. "Before an infringement suit may be filed in court, registration is necessary for works of U. S. origin." This document: www.copyright.gov/circs/circ1.pdf (PDF) has a very good overview.

Another useful resource is this site on plagiarism, www.plagiarismtoday.com Take a look when you're not doing cold calls, which I know you are making every time you have down time, right? I would like to note that many of these tips are from some very Wise Women that I know who spend their lives making fantastic websites.

pirate_01.jpgAnd finally, here's a real life story of what happens when you follow through (it's also a good example of how designers should take the opportunity to educate the general population on these fine points):

Many years ago, one of my clients was getting heavy traffic on her small site. Looking at site stats, I saw heavy linkage to one of her illustrations. It turned out that a teacher in middle school was using an illustration for one of her teacher pages by direct linking. I changed the illustration to a new name, then sent an email to the school supervisor, explaining that this was theft, and asked for compensation for server usage and if my client wished, copyright infringement. This had been going on for years.

They asked how much we wanted. I told the school district that server consumption was an added issue and I wanted to see a token payment paid thru a public voucher so the school board would see it on the books. The amount wasn't important, but the education quotient on web theft for teachers was priceless. I wanted them to learn about how the internet really works, what copyright infringement is, and what it means to link to a server to enable the use of another person's images/work.

They were prompt on their response. I received a token payment of $100, the amount of which bypassed their petty cash and went on the public books; then they sent me their updated policy manuals including a schedule of classes for teachers to learn how it all works.

It wasn't the nominal $100 that pleased me. It was that this school district took real action about something they obviously didn't consider, the teachers learned, and then passed it on to students. A win-win for everyone.

Thanks to Patrice Olivier-Wilson for sharing that so we can all learn from her experience.

      Susan Kirkland

See Susan's Blog: blogs.graphicdesignforum.com

cover MY SECOND EDITION is ready and waiting for you at bookstores and Amazon; it's been updated and the resource guide has been completely revamped.

Whether you are employed or freelancing, Start and Run a Creative Services Business will help you avoid the pitfalls of being a trusting creative in a dog-eat-dog world. I've shared all my mistakes and wild adventures both as an employee and as a freelance designer to help you avoid some of the pitfalls. My book prepares you for unscrupulous characters disguised as customers, vendors and professional peers and shows you how to protect yourself. You can read excerpts at www.sdkirkland.com/ and view my online portfolio, plus download my first promotional piece, Melon at the Plaza, NYC. Good luck and make great art!

27th Anniversary for DTG Magazine


On February 24th, Mathew Farney said:

Indeed, the web is not out there for everyone to copy and use it as they wish. Still, without a copyright sign, there isn't much a blog owner can do when someone uses his words without giving credit.
Mathew Farney | Web Hosting

On September 11th, McleanKathryn31 said:

Following my own monitoring, billions of persons all over the world be taught how to protect their own computer. Thus, there's good chances they would be safe from any intrusion by criminals!

On October 7th, CindyGALLAGHER said:

It's great that we are able to receive the DTG newsletter and this opens completely new possibilities.

On November 13th, personal loans said:

It's well known that money makes people do criminal things. But how to act if someone doesn't have money? The one way is NOT to rip off other people's work.

On November 17th, home loans said:

Don't you know that this is high time to get the loan, which would realize your dreams of sugar plumbs for Christmas!

On June 20th, Brian D. Watters said:

This is so weird. I too have had images stolen, one of which I found on this web site. I thought it ironic that the same web site also published this article on what to do if your work is stolen.

I created my image in 2004 and it's a self portrait which I titled "Picking Up the Pieces". The article here on graphic-design.com also uses my title in the title of the article.


Any suggestions on how I should proceed?

Sincerely, Brian D. Watters

On June 21st, Fred Showker said:


Yes, this is totally weird. That article was sent in by George Engel, a long-time contributor to DTG ... that illustration came along with the article and -- quite frankly -- we thought nothing of it.

I guess that's a problem on my part, since I'm supposed to be checking everything -- which we usually do. But we've trusted George for over 20 years.


Well, I'm happy to REMOVE the image, at your request --
or, if you prefer, I'm happy to give you CREDIT for the photo, along with a link to your site. (Which is what people whould usually rather have!)

At any rate, you tell us what you want.

And, thanks for commenting -- many, many, many commenters are just Blackhat SEO operatives trying to get their client's links published in the Design Center ... we trash those -- but it's ALWAYS nice to get genuine comments that contribute something to all our readers!


DTG Magazine ... Online since 1988

On June 21st, George Engel said:

Re: Brian Watters comment:

At no time did I see his copyright symbol on his work. Also I used the work only for non-profit User Group Newsletter and DT&G.

No money changed hands ever! Apologies to Brian and DT&G. The title was fantastic, as was the artwork. Whenever an article appears in our non-profit newsletter, I request the authors permission for reprint, whenever possible.

Again, apologies to Brian.

George Engel