Katie Shanahan and Rachel Dukes both had their art stolen in 2013. The two artists found their work copied without credit online and abroad, and stuck with little recourse.
Shanahan ("Silly Kingdom") and Dukes ("Frankie Comics" and "Intentionally Left Blank") told their stories at the 2014 Toronto Comic Arts Festival, as part of a panel on art theft. Erica Friedman, president of the Yuricon publishing company, moderated the panel while dishing advice on how to fight websites like 9Gag and FunnyJunk.
Shanahan, a Toronto native, was overjoyed when one of her webcomics went viral. It was one of her first viral images, and depicted a young woman stealing the bed sheets from her partner and running her feet up along his back.
"At first it's exciting because all of your stuff is out there, but then it gets crazy as things get reposted and reblogged, maybe without a link back," she said.
She found it on Reddit, Tumblr, and eventually on image aggregate websites like Imgur without her credit. She says that bothered her, but didn't take much action to prevent it.
"One day I got an e-mail from a fan who said, 'Hey, I don't know if you noticed this but I found [your picture] on a billboard in Hungary," Shanahan said, pointing to a photo behind her of the billboard. The drawing is so similar to her art that the crowd began to laugh at the almost line-for-line tracing of Shanahan's image.
Not able to afford legal fees, she asked for advice on Facebook, where the overwhelming consensus was to sue. Shanahan took a calmer option, sending a polite letter that asked either for compensation or to have the billboard taken down. Given the two choices, the company decided to take down the billboard rather than pay her.
"I was happy they talked to me at all," said Shanahan, although she would have preferred the payment.
Dukes was luckier, in a way. She'd trademarked a green recycling symbol with a heart in the centee as a logo for her now-defunct small press outfit, Poseur Ink. When the logo started appearing on t-shirts in big box retailers like Sears, Dukes had a means to sue them. What made the theft all the more biting was that one of these companies was aware that the logo was hers.
"They're profiting significantly off this thing I created and they worked with me in the past," she said, still frustrated. Dukes sent out cease and desist letters, kickstarting a year of litigation. Dukes eventually won the case, but the settlement only covered her legal fees, nor can she mention any of the stores who carried the infringing merchandise.
"So for a year's worth of work and stress and constant contact, there was really no compensation in the end," she said, but noted those stores now no longer sell products with her logo. "I figure that's as good a win as you're going to get."
Dukes still sees copies of her logo on Etsy, an online arts and craft store. Users regularly sell shirts and bags on the website with what she sees as derivative versions of her logo. Behind her, the screen projects a collection of photos of items for sale as recently as last week on Etsy that have a recycling symbol with a heart in the center. She's given up on trying to fight them all.
Friedman argued that the reason behind copying online is a lack of knowledge about copyright. No one on the panel had a problem with works inspired by their art, but many young artists or companies infringing don't know the difference between that and a derivative work.
Friedman once asked a Yahoo! group page, a free website Yahoo! offers to small communities, to stop using one of her images as their logo. "They sent me an e-mail back saying, 'You don't have to be so mean!'" Friedman recalled. She replied back, "You don't have to be an idiot."
A work is copyrighted the moment it's published, but the creator also needs to prove that their work was published first. "But the internet makes it a lot harder," Friedman said. "[Sometimes] the issue is not proof. It's whether you have time and energy to fight this battle."
"If it was a big box store, I would feel the need to go out and fight it," said Shanahan. "But with this billboard I just kept an eye on it. I didn't have the time."
All three panelists agreed that the most tedious battles, however, are with comedy websites that repost images while cutting off the credit.
Dukes' "Life with/out a Cat", a comic she posted on her journal "Intentionally Left Blank," was picked up by 9Gag, FunnyJunk and Cheezburger with credit cropped out. At the time Dukes was working on her master's thesis, and didn't have a chance to respond.
Back in November, however, she examined how many views the uncredited version accumulated during the 11 months prior using Google reverse image search. By her estimates, that version had about 588,000 views, more than six times as many views as the one with her name on it. Only 12 percent of people who saw the comic had a chance of finding her website.
As Dukes recalled this information, her voice grew a lot louder. Shanahan patted her on the arm. Dukes took a deep breath and then laughed, "I'm really stressed right here."
"Most people on the internet are like my mother," Dukes said. "They have no clue how to reverse Google image search something for the original author."
Dukes asked 9Gag to replace the image with the properly credited version but has yet to hear a response. Most of the websites did, however. Buzzfeed even pays a stipend if they find an image was used without the creator's permission.
Shanahan and Dukes have since found more ways to combat art theft. "All-New X-Men" artist Stuart Immonen pointed Shanahan towards the Artists' Legal Advice Service, a Toronto-based non-profit. Dukes recommended contacting Google to block websites that only host derivative works or Tumblr to have an uncredited version taken down from the social network.
For professional artists, Friedman suggested hiring a business lawyer or watermarking comics if all else fails.
"I know this sounds like a really daunting thing to put your comics online -- but please, please keep posting your stuff," Dukes said to the audience, many of whom took notes throughout the panel.
"It's completely worth it," she continued. "It's better to share your work and have these experiences interacting with people than to not."