Recently I had a dismaying experience with another artist. She had posted an image of mine on her site, claiming it as her own, with my signature removed. She had purchased that tiny piece from me in 2013, and to add insult to injury, she was aiming for a profit at nearly twice the price. And even I can’t sell my 6×6” for $200! Her site eventually shut down after several emails, and thanks to a groundswell of support from artists and friends all over the world who saw the post on Facebook.
This specific kind of issue is rare, and it is relatively easy to prove and to deal with. A far greater threat, and much more difficult to manage, is copying – a pervasive problem in this digital age, where artists and perps do not know each other or travel in the same spheres.
But I’ve never been one to wring my hands over this stuff. Worrying about where I show my work, whom I show it to, where I post my images, who shares them, who sees them… it’s impossible to control! Pinterest alone is a giant copyright sucker. Yes, I have had work stolen, and yes again, copied. It’s probably still happening as I speak. But who wants to keep every single thing they make under the bed? There is nothing under my bed.
This post won’t be about Copyright. I am not a lawyer, and the law varies with location. I leave this up to the pros. For many years I have been a paying member of CARFAC (Canadian Artists Representation of Canada), an organization devoted to helping professional Canadian artists gain and maintain respect and fairness in their business. I strongly feel that my support for CARFAC is a kind of insurance for my own and other artists’ integrity in a world that often seems devoted to undermining our work and lives. If a visual artist is in need of legal advice pertaining to her practice, she has access to an extensive connection of printed matter and lawyers via CARFAC. I don’t begrudge them a penny. LOVE.
However, my recent situation got me thinking about how artists can quietly protect and defend themselves should the occasion call for it, without going overboard and feeling nervous every minute. My answer is to keep good records. People always look skeptical when I tell them that 50% of my work is administrative. “Really? Isn’t art supposed to be all about creativity and fun?” Or better yet, “Isn’t the true artistic spirit crushed by administration?” Interesting that administration doesn’t seem to crush health, food production, sports or education. I decided long ago that my creativity includes and embraces administration: I just do it creatively (ie with tea, chocolate, music, or, unfortunately, wine), and I keep it super simple.
Here are four basic administrative tasks I do consistently:
1. Sign work on the front. A contrasting thread in the bottom left or right corner works well. So important if you ever need to prove it’s yours from a photo. In my aforementioned situation, I had solid proof that the artist had removed my signature because I had an original signed photo. Otherwise I had no leg to stand on.
2. Which leads us to photos: I take photos of every piece made, every single one, before it leaves the studio. Even bad photos are better than nothing. It’s not always possible to get awesome photos of every single thing, but I’ve made a habit of getting a clear shot that includes the signature. Cameras and devices embed the date taken, so I try to photograph a piece soon after finishing it. Then it is stored in a file with its title, year and size in the filename: ie SPRING STORM 2014 16X8. The added benefit is that the title, date and size are right there, ready to send off to a client or gallery. And the image is easy to find alphabetically or though a computer Search.
3. Each piece needs its own title (Untitled #22 is better than nothing) included somewhere on the back of the piece or framing structure. This way, if a work is physically stolen, there is also a title to work with. Some artists assign a special numeric system to their works. It’s one of those great ideas I will never personally implement, but I’m all for it. I also just heard about microchipping artwork. Okay, again, not for me but worth mentioning. Thanks, Evelyn!
4. Keep accurate and updated records – title, size, year, date sold, where it sold, to whom if possible, method of payment and amount it sold for. I use a Word table, although were I to begin again, I would use Excel instead. I start a new one every two years. Below is a section from my PIECES 2014-2015 Word file. I fill in whether the pieces are sold, donated, exchanged or uh, decommissioned. Very easy to retrieve and check years later. One friend of mine also embeds the image of the work. I was able to find all that information when the situation above came up – date of sale, amount paid, method of payment, how shipped.
Once set up, these steps are easy to complete on a regular basis: one, two, three, four. Not only are you prepared for the worst, you are also organized and ready for the business of art.
Now if you find out about an online copyright issue relating to your own work, it’s important to capture Screen Shots of everything. If you don’t know how to do a Screen Shot, look it up on Google. It’s super easy. Then, whether you proceed further or not, there is proof and dates. When you discover copying or any other ethical issue involving another artist, that artist should be contacted immediately and sent the relevant link or photos. What is the next step? One thing for sure, as strongly as you feel, never act with anger and vengeance in mind. Make sure to approach every move with a calm clear attitude and equanimity. (this is an edit: I want to add, please remember to be kind and forgive, if forgiveness is asked for. If this is a first time offender, then she will learn from it and grow. In my own life I have required forgiveness and I am very grateful for having been given the chance to move on and be a better person. The point is not to destroy, but to teach. So keep this in mind, we are all fallible creatures. Now in the case of serial offenders… that’s a different story!)
As for me, my episode with the dishonest artist was more of a curiosity than a downer. There wasn’t much to worry about really: it was an isolated case, by a perpetrator who was clearly unacquainted with basic art ethics (or perhaps any ethics at all). I mean really, what artist can get away for long with peddling other artists’ work? On the plus side, I was very pleased that my accurate records came in handy once again. In any case, theft, copying, and whatever else that comes up in the digital world will never stop me. As long as my body cooperates, my plan is to stay one step ahead. That’s what we artists have in our arsenal, a living well of creativity that will never be crushed. And we have each other. Let’s keep good records, take care of each other and stay vigilant out there!
I invite you to share any other tips or stories you might have to help our art community below, or add your comments to my Facebook Page.