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How Do You Protect Your Artwork?

April 10, 2010

(Illustration by Matti Kemppainen)

Over the past few days, there’s been a lot of talk about copyright here at Escape From Illustration Island.

In case you missed it, here are a few links:

Many artists contributed to stimulating discussions taking place in the comments of those posts, so I thought I’d follow up by inviting you all to participate in this week’s Weekend Forum:

How Do You Protect Your Artwork?

Do you use a watermark?

Do you display a copyright?

Do you protest the “unfair” use of your work?

Do you care?

Please share your thoughts and find out what your fellow artists have to say in the comments section of this post.  If you like, you can customize your comment with a Gravatar.

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About Matti Kemppainen:

I’m a illustrator living and working in lovely Helsinki. I studied new media in Hyper Island in Sweden and have since worked in house at web design and advertising agencies, all the while doing freelance illustration at night.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2010 10:43 AM

    To start things off, I’ll say that I only have a moderate interest in protecting my work. Perhaps it’s because of the overwhelming scope of the internet, but that’s just part of the picture for me.

    Mainly, I believe that no matter how many times my work is stolen, nobody can take away my creativity and my ability to produce more work. The creative, intellectual property that is in my head is mine to lose or use.

    Also, I just can’t come to terms with how much a watermark degrades the visual impact of an image, so I don’t think I’ll ever use one. You shouldn’t have to take this step to protect your work, although many artists take comfort in a watermark’s ability to discourage thieves.

    The one thing I do is place a simple copyright statement with my images (© Thomas James Illustration 2010), because I feel like that’s the least I can do to claim the work as my own.

    How do you protect your work, and how important is it to you?


  2. April 10, 2010 11:54 AM

    I break it down into two categories: theft for financial gain and everything else. It can be irksome if art is used without permission in articles, blog posts, as tattoos, but it’s hard to track and not really a worry. It’s when it’s stolen for a buck that I get cranky: companies who do rip offs, artists selling prints that aren’t their own.

    Everything else seems petty to worry about. You’re right: no one can take my ability to make more work. And our work should be an idea that flows from person to person.

    • April 10, 2010 3:20 PM

      Yep Cat, I’m totally with you there!

      To me, it’s only really “stealing” when someone else is trying to make profit off of my work or they try to claim it as their own. Otherwise I just consider “everything else” to be free promotion. As long as it’s ultimately not hurting someone (defamation, discrimination, an article I highly disagree with, ect) or financially gaining someone else, if I were to start getting annoyed at every infraction of my work then I’d no time for anything else. I certainly wouldn’t have time to create! And isn’t that what we do?

      I think I will start tagging my work with my website along the bottom or something, just so the advertising can serve it’s full purpose! :)

  3. sketch permalink
    April 10, 2010 1:07 PM

    I have a question about art and likenesses. If I paint a portrait of a famous person, but not based on any photograph, rather, my interpretation of that person, do I have the right to sell prints or an original painting? Do I have to get approval from the person? What about caricatures?

    • April 10, 2010 3:35 PM

      When it comes to caricatures, if you live in the US, then there are laws about a work being a parody. I’m pretty sure caricature is considered parody ;)

      I know a lot of people have different opinions about reference. Mine is that it’s a well known fact within the illustration industry that artists use reference. Unless you copied *exactly* from the reference copyrighted to someone else, I don’t credit the reference. I usually use anywhere from 3-50+ images as reference in any one piece I do, from a sketch all the way to my fully fledged paintings. To credit everyone would be tiresome and I’m fairly certain no one cares.

      I think a good measure of when to credit or not is to back away from your piece, look at your reference and if your piece looks like a carbon copy of the reference, give some credit. If you couldn’t get a team of people to figure out which parts of the image were referenced and which weren’t, then don’t bother with it.

      Some people make a big song and dance about giving credit and all… To me, it’s generally overkill. Just don’t lie if someone asked if you have used reference! (Usually what happens to me is that people tell me that,”you should really use some reference” in my work- I always do!!! XD You can’t win!)

    • April 10, 2010 3:51 PM

      I think I may have misunderstood your original question, I got caught up in the caricature part of it… Um, I’d personally have a hard time painting a portrait of someone without looking at them. Would it even end up looking like them?

      As far as the implications of selling artwork based on someone else’s likeness, I’m pretty sure caricature artists do that a lot. People who do editorials certainly do so for payment without the consent of the person they are painting. I mean, look at how many people have painted President Obama? Think they all asked him for his permission to paint him and sell the painting(s)? I don’t think you need to worry about that part of it too much. Especially if it’s just a straight up portrait. If you are making a mockery of someone in a painting, you could potentially be getting into hot water there.

    • Diana Ponce permalink
      April 11, 2010 1:39 PM

      As mentioned, caricatures are usually permissible as they are considered a parody. I believe usage for an editorial piece is also allowable. Portraits may be another issue as the right of celebrity comes into effect. Many famous people license images of themselves and require an agreement for anyone else to do so. Sale of a painting may be okay, but using the images for use on other items may not be.

      • sketch permalink
        April 11, 2010 2:46 PM

        Thank you Char and Diana for your comments. It helps a lot!!

    • February 1, 2012 3:04 AM

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    • February 3, 2012 4:05 AM

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    • February 4, 2012 2:32 AM

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  4. April 10, 2010 2:19 PM

    I´m with Thomas on most points. It is the the Image that can be stolen, but not the skills to back the work up. That´s why art theft is overrated by some or the other sort of “dramaqueens” of some communities.

    When I look around and see works from top notch artists on the web, they often don´t have significant watermarks and they are widespread over the internet.

    That makes me think about how bad this kind of “sharing” really is, because everyone knows who the original artist is, and is this kind of free exposure negative for them?

    It smells more like over-glorification of ones self if images from emerging artists are plastered with big copyright signs, compared to the ones that are established.

    In case of the blog usage of illustrations i have to say, it depends: I have no problem with personal blogs, features and people that share my works, I´m fine with that.
    But when it comes to any commercial use, people need to make them self clear that they are doing business, and if this is their kind of business to not pay artists for making money with the artists work -they will not make it in the long run.

  5. Catherine permalink
    April 10, 2010 4:46 PM

    I care if people don’t offer credit or engage in unfair usage of my work.

    But I think I’ve gotten over the whole “I must slap a watermark on everything” obsession, and now I prefer to sign my art in places where it becomes a pain to get rid of.

    Overall, I think reaction is governed by the severity of the misuse.

    • April 11, 2010 8:40 AM

      Hi Catherine,
      I agree that each situation is unique and demands a unique response. I’m curious about what you’ve said about where you sign your work. Do you have an example of what you mean by that?

  6. Diana Ponce permalink
    April 11, 2010 1:29 PM

    I have been quite diligent in protecting my images regardless of where they appear, print or web. I register my work with the US Copyright Office and mark my work (online) with my name and ©. I also don’t like to mark up my work with watermarks, so I try to be as subtle as possible balancing the information and the artwork. While nothing is 100% protection, it serves as both a deterrent as well as helpful for those trying to locate me when there is no link.

    I consider myself as a commercial artist and business owner, the images I create are the content that bring me an income. I do my best to protect my IP from unscrupulous individuals or companies from using it for profit without my consent or compensation. Anyone wanting to use my work for something that garners them an income or profit, needs to negotiate a fee from me. I do allow my images to be reposted at design and illustration related sites (with link back to me and credit), but it is best when that usage is requested. My concern (as I noted on another EFII post) is that in the endless game of ‘telephone’ that the Internet can be, when re-posted over and over many times credits and links get lost along the way, which is how people often find their work in someone’s Esty store or on products in a manufacturers new product line (or worse, on a site that may be personally offensive to them).

    The risks I take with putting my work out there never stop me from being creative, but the work I have already generated can continue to earn me a living which is why I protect it all. If I had a brick and mortar business I would most certainly have locks on my door and display my items in a secure way, but would not stop those looking to browse, take a brochure or prevent someone from writing up a story about my shop.

    • April 11, 2010 9:11 PM

      Thanks Diana, for that thoughtful and well-stated response. It’s nice to know that you’ve found a balance between protecting your work and putting it out there to promote yourself.

  7. January 11, 2011 2:29 PM

    I went back to look at my portfolio to see how much effort I put into preventing image theft, but honestly, it’s half-hearted at best. I went through a phase because of the type of business I do (retail apparel designs) but now-a-days I don’t really care. I did notice that when I was really concerned about theft, I used my mobile me and iWeb settings to make it harder for the drag-n’-droppers to snag images from my site. So the portfolio for the most part is next to impossible to download, but other images at my site are free game. Besides, with over 300 images there, a thief would get real tired real fast. And the images don’t open very large. So even a screen shot doesn’t leave something that can be used for production.

    That being said, I know that once something is on the internet, it’s probably because it was purposefully put there. So if artists don’t want to be knocked off, or influence other artists, or even give competing companies edgy references to improve their art departments with, then they should keep the images to themselves. I have more illustrations that are NOT online than are. A part of that is out of respect for the client, and not enabling their competitors to spy on lines and concepts before going into production or being shown to salespeople and buyers. And I don’t even have time to do personal works much less put any online.

  8. March 3, 2011 1:11 PM

    If at all possible, I include a copyright symbol near my signature, even if the publishing rights to the artwork is owned by someone else (I do game illustration, so it’s common). Beyond that, on my website pics I put a watermark with my name, website, and the copyright symbol (with a mention of the company that owns the rights just to be on the safe side). Though I don’t typically put it across the heart of the picture, I put it in a place it would be hard to edit out.
    Even then, the pictures were showing up on websites, and people’s website “collections”, so now I’ve made sure that the images have contact and copyright information right in the metadata. You go into Photoshop and under FILE>FILE INFO there is a bunch of fields that photographers commonly put data into. You can select the copyright status to “copyright” and the symbol will show up at the top of the window in the title, even if it is saved into another format. (Unfortunately websites like Facebook commonly strip out information like this when optimizing while the images are re-scaled, which is technically illegal).
    As of Photoshop CS2, you can’t “batch” change this info, you would have to do it one at a time, making you re-save each JPEG which causes some small data loss. However Adobe Bridge will allow you to do all these changes to the metadata in all the pictures in an entire folder without having to re-save them all. I re-uploaded all the changed pictures back into my website after doing this.
    If you’re really concerned about copying, you can have the pictures displayed under some Flash or equivalent HTML code, that way they can’t be easily copied unless resorting to using a screen shot program.

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