HOWTO make art without getting "ripped off" online

Artist Gwenn Seemel's post, "How I make sure my art doesn't get ripped off on the Internet" is a wonderfully calm, sensible and practical approach to living as a 21st century artist in an age where reproduction is a given. Seemel starts from six simple points:

1) Be original. I aim to make art so original that no one will question who made it.

2) Sell only live art. I've given up on the idea that art in reproduction is for sale and I focus on making work that is better in person than in reproduction.

3) Pursue credit in innovative ways. No one has ever claimed a reproduction of my work as their own, but when I've known about images of my work being used without any mention of my name I've approached the situation as a teaching opportunity or used it as an illustrative point.

4) Embrace the copying of style. Lots of people make originals that resemble mine somewhat, and it makes me feel pretty good about my work.

5) Don't assume that anyone is copying style. It's usually pretty difficult to be sure that anyone is copying anyone else. That said, if another artist was making and selling works that I was certain were copies of my paintings, I would probably talk about them on my blog. It would drive Internet traffic looking for them to me.

6) Be clear about what you want from the world and from the Internet. I make sure everyone knows where I stand with regards to copyright. At the bottom of every page of my site, there's a smiley face instead of a ©. Click on the face and it takes you to a page that fully explains my beliefs.

Seemel then goes on to explain these steps in detail, talking about her mindset as she approaches the net, her public, other artists, her customers and her work, and how this approach makes it possible for her to get paid, get along, and be happy and artistically fulfilled: "Everything from screaming about your intellectual property rights and threatening lawyers to shrink-wrapping your images online and making them not right-click-able is just burying your head in the sand. An open source world is the one we've always lived in: it's the one we built."

How I make sure my art doesn't get ripped off on the Internet (via David Isenberg)


  1. I disagree with the implication that artists who are worried about protecting their copyright are merely not sufficiently present in their work.

    1. “I disagree with the implication that artists who are worried about protecting their copyright are merely not sufficiently present in their work.”

      Yeah, there is a bit of victim-blaming and slight amount of new-media elitism involved. While business-wise, some of the advice makes sense if you can or wish to modify your presentation and approach, it’s an imperfect “solution” because there’s still a need for good, traditional art.

      “6) Be clear about what you want from the world and from the Internet. I make sure everyone knows where I stand with regards to copyright. At the bottom of every page of my site, there’s a smiley face instead of a ©. Click on the face and it takes you to a page that fully explains my beliefs. ”

      This, I don’t understand how a thief is going to be shamed into not stealing your work and representing as her own. For an imperfect analogy, tt reminds me of the old adage that you should tell a murderer your life story so that “humanizes” you to them. A thief isn’t going to put your needs above theirs if they’re cheap and desperate enough to outright steal images.

      A paragraph isn’t going to change their conception of art and theft, either.

    2. “I disagree with the implication that artists who are worried about protecting their copyright are merely not sufficiently present in their work.”
      I completely agree with you. For some people, their presence in their work may make them guard it all the more. When it comes down to it, there’s no “one fits all” model.

      I had a funny experience with this sort of thing recently. For years I’d put my photos online under a CC BY-NC-SA licence and it was nice to see the occasional link back etc. Then a few weeks ago, there was a link back that used the image as a header for a religious post, on a religious site. All of a sudden I found that my image had been associated with something I was wholly opposed to.

      Other than relying on the good will of the person who uses your images, you have no recourse to remove that association. That disturbed me more than someone stealing it to make money. There and then I decided to no longer release my photos under a CC licence until I had decided where I stood on it (not that that matters to thieves of course).

  2. 7) Don’t post it to DeviantArt. There’s a small subsection on the site that’s not furry, catgirl, anime, or erotic sonic the hedgehog fanart, so somebody will probably trace or otherwise steal yours for a design if it’s good enough.

  3. I am not worried about someone copying my style for painting styles generally last for hundreds of years; (compare a Caravaggio to a Rembrandt or an Egon Schiele to MTV’s Aeon Flux), I am worried about stealing my ideas and compositions, or as Gwenn puts it, my conversation.

    1. Copyright doesn’t apply to ideas, only expressions of ideas, so only the concern over the copying of your compositions is warranted. If you’re concerned about someone copying your ideas (note that I didn’t use to term “steal” because it’s impossible to “steal” an idea unless you can force the originator of the idea to forget it) then you should avoid expressing your ideas altogether.

      The copying of ideas is inherent in artistic expression and in human communication. If you can’t copy ideas, you can’t learn anything and you can’t understand other people. If you can’t copy ideas, you can’t create art. As Gwenn stated, art is a conversation, and you can’t say that you’ve never repeated a conversation that you’ve had with one person to another person.

      1. Sagodjur,

        Thank you for your post.

        I know this a bit off topic, because I am not specifically concerned with the business side of art, but I wonder if anybody knows of any articles, books, resources, that deal with the topic of “intellectual property” and copyright in terms of human behavior rather than in terms of business.

        There’s a good piece in the Nation this week and I’ve been reading Ursula Le Guin’s thoughts on the topic, but I find it odd that much of the thought out there is framed strictly in terms of business.

        For my own purposes I have been working with the viewpoint that human beings are natural copy machines. Sexual reproduction=replication. Learning language=mimicry. Learning just about anything=co-opting. Being a part of a community=mimicry. “Social exclusion leads to unconscious mimicry.”

        Even further off topic, perhaps:
        Other than the fact that it is how some people earn a living, are there other reasons persons or organizations bristle at the thought of being copied? Is there an element of a young child being annoyed at a sibling for that annoying copying thing?

        Apologies for ugly links:

  4. She raises some excellent points.

    If someone is being blatantly dishonest and stealing your work, as happened to a paleontologist/artist on deviantArt recently, there, are things you can do about it.

    I wrote about it here.

  5. I think she’s right about selling originals for money and letting the reproductions be scattered to the four winds, since there’s nothing you can do about others reproducing your pictures. Well, there is something you can do, but that thing means being a policeman instead of an artist. That sucks – don’t bother.

    But I make electronic gizmos instead of two-dimensional art, so copying of images is not a problem for me.

  6. It’s great that she found tactics that work for her and that she doesn’t let the fear of theft cripple her as an artist.

    It must be pointed out, however, that #2 can only apply to traditional-media artists. Many illustrators and concept artists create digital files as final artwork. There is no ‘live art’, no original canvas. Technically, a digital file is always, using her term, in reproduction, whether it is copied and sent to the client, or used on a website, etc… So reproductions still must be regarded as a legitimate product for sale… otherwise, I guess I’m out of business ;)

    1. Yeah this includes me as well. I work in vector art for my finals, and do a lot of my sketching in Photoshop.

      And while I think my style is somewhat recognizable, the biggest issue is that I do a lot of work for clients, and I don’t like the idea of putting artwork out there that others can use freely when a client paid properly for the custom work. They shouldn’t be penalized for the ease of appropriation in the digital realm.

  7. As Sekino mentioned, this advice is good for traditional-media artists only. If I were a painter, like she is, I wouldn’t be worried about being ripped off on the internet either. But for the rest of us, it doesn’t apply much at all.

  8. To Sekino #10
    As both a traditional and digital painter, that’s not entirely true: most digital painters, whether using Photoshop, Gimp or ArtRage use multiple layers in a painting to paint the different elements separately or try different techniques. They’re flattened when making the final jpg, png or whatever.

    Conceivably if you had to prove an image to be yours, you could send an arbitrator your layered file, which would be quite difficult to imitate, and function as a kind-of original.

    1. I know (I use a lot of PS myself for my illustrations), but I didn’t mean that digital artists can’t prove that their work is theirs. I was commenting about her stating that she had ‘given up on the idea that art in reproduction is for sale’.

      If she means that literally, than that would mean digital art wouldn’t qualify as suitable for sale.

  9. I can’t think of any of my friends who are worried about having their style bitten or a concept stolen… We are worried about online piracy. “Be original” is great advice for any artist, but friends of mine have had their work reprinted by mass produced hard back books out of China… or used as soundtracks for films (that they didn’t agree with politically)… or used on tee shirts that were sold at Nordstrom and Hot Topic… or used in other artist’s portfolios!

    I like to think that despite the risks, we are more likely to gain from posting our work online than not… but largely this advice seems out of touch with real world IP theft.

  10. good high res copy’s of digital art are still hard to come by – finding things on the web usually lead to crappy quality. I’d think anybody is welcome to those

  11. I totally agree with point #2. If your stuff can be totally reproduced in a digital format, don’t expect to make any money off of it AFTER releasing it to the public. Once the information is on the net, it’s worthless in a sense, since it is out of your control.

    You might still be able to make money with it, but you need to expect the worst and there is no way to avoid that in my opinion, because of the way the internet works.

  12. It’s not surprising that an artist would have an creative philosophy of art, including a personalized approach to the business of art. But as much as I respect her spirit, intelligence, and perspective, I think it underscores the continuing necessity of carefully articulated copyright and patent law, and the value of specialized lawyers who help enforce those legal standards for those of us who have invested our lives in developing fresh ideas, new tools and techniques, and original end-products of all kinds.

    That some school kid will cut-and-paste something I created into their homework is disturbing only because I feel bad that they have so little confidence in their own genius and are unlikely to become more than parking lot attendants or accountants. But when an established author, painter, songwriter, or film-maker steals something original that I have invested my life in, and makes millions on it without paying royalties, that needs to be seen as worthy of court intervention.

    1. Anon, I think it is an overstatement that a plagiarizing school child will end up as a “failure.” (Assuming all parking lot attendants and accountants are failures? Didn’t T.S. Eliot work at a bank?)

      It’s odd that we are surprised when school children engage in such behavior. Perhaps these hordes of plagiarizing students have caught wind of our collective fetish with competition and process improvement, among other things.

      With this conversation we get into pedagogy theory, which I am certainly not conversant in.


      Is it still a good use of a school child’s time to summarize the writing of another in her own words? Or should she spend that time sifting the nearly endless source of information that is the interwebs in an attempt to absorb more?

      Look deeply into one, or shallowly into many?

      Is it good enough to read and understand, or must she be able to regurgitate in writing? What if she can copy and paste and then speak intelligently about what she has copied and pasted? That’s good, no?

  13. Good point, Sekino. You certainly can.

    When I sell original art, I often retain the copyright, and inform the buyer I will likely also sell prints of the work. Usually they’re thrilled with the original, and don’t mind.

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