Protecting our Art

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 from me, and a groundswell of support from artists and friends all over the world who saw the original post on Facebook.

Breeze #14  6x6" 2013 Note the signature, hard to miss!

Breeze #14 6×6″ 2013
Note the signature, hard to miss!

Hmmmm. Interesting lack of signature

Hmmmm. Interesting lack of signature.

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.

Under my bed, minus the dustbunnies. Isn't photoshop wonderful?

Under my bed, minus the dust bunnies. Isn’t photoshop wonderful?

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.

Signing: I made it and I take full credit for it.

Signing: I made it and I take full credit for it.

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.

screen shot art page2

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.

A section of an artwork record file.

A section of an artwork record file.

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. Like my Facebook Page for further updates on this topic and other news.

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50 Responses to “Protecting our Art”

  1. One thing many Canadians do not know is that your work is automatically copyright the minute you make it.
    If you need to prove you created it first- posting a dated photo or video online is one way to show this.
    Another is mailing a copy to yourself by registered mail and keeping it sealed until you need it as evidence in court

  2. Lenora Liccioli says:

    You can convert your Word Table to an Excel file by following this procedure –

  3. Many thanks for sharing this issue. The comments are very interesting too. It is something we all need to consider as part of our practice. X

  4. I would like to speak up in defence of online sharing of work. Not of online copying! I live in a very small New Zealand , South Island town. Much of my time I choose to spend making art, particularly fibre art, specifically felt and stitch, but also etching prints. The Internet has opened my eyes to inspiring art and written articles made by others, which would never have been possible if I relied upon seeing it in person where it is exhibited, or sold. In my teaching I do as several of your correspondents do, and discuss the ethics of inspiration and copying the designs of others as part of the courses I run.
    We also discuss it at our COOTS fibre group, members living up to 2.5 hours drive apart, so meeting only about 5 times per year, and exhibiting together once each two years.
    Without access to see the amazing works online our experience and vision of possibilities to develop in our own way would be highly restricted. There are few opportunities to interact with international tutors face to face either in this part of the world. We take the opportunities when they come, if our lives and finances allow.
    The fact that sharing online , as you do too, also allows the possibility of someone copying and ‘stealing’ your work, is part of the dilemma of needing to show it for it to sell, the joy of sharing it with others to exchange understandings and empathy, and worrying about the ownership of your own ideas and inspiration, and where the line is between inspiration and copying, and occasionally theft.
    I am thankful to find a community online that writes and shows pictures of stimulating work. Hopefully the ground between appreciation, inspiration and appropriation becomes apparent in the process to those who need to think about it more.
    Thanks for sharing not just pictures, but thoughts too, and being part of the world wide sharers we can now access from our homes.

    • Lorraine says:

      Angela, Thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your views on the state of art sharing on the internet. I didn’t say it in my post, but I believe the world wide web is, even with its inherent problems, a good thing. I am old enough to recall the days when the only way we heard about other artists was by magazines, and to interact with them was beyond our imagination. Now it can happen every day! I think it’s amazing. And for distant communities it’s an absolute blessing. Sending warm thoughts your way, Lorraine

  5. Susan Gabriel says:

    It’s so great that you read my comments (& others). What a delight. Wished I had met you in person, but have enjoyed the e-mails. Best of luck to you. You have so much talent. My mother would have loved to meet you also. She was a talented artist & lived in Upstate New York, Columbus,Ohio & eastern Maryland. In Md. she showed at art shows many times, got some blue ribbons and seconds and honorable mentions. More important family & friends received & love her artwork. Oils, oil pastels, pencil and also pottery.We have a lot of her work hanging in our home in PA. Again, my best to you. Susan of Mechanicsburg PA

  6. Linda says:

    There is also the case that I experienced, where someone took my workshop ( of techniques I have developed over many years) and then a few months later travelled to another city to teach it. Not exactly copyright infringement but definitely not cool! Also, she did not have enough experience to teach it properly.

    • Lorraine says:

      Hi Linda, Each time I teach a workshop I give a little talk about copyright and art ethics. Personally I encourage people to teach my technique if they want to, and I don’t mind if my work is copied for non-commercial purposes (ie, as personal samples and use, gifts, etc). But posting online without acknowledgement is a huge no-no, especially without expressed permission.
      Usually we preach to the converted in these situations, but it’s good to put our own expectations into words so they are easily recalled and passed on. Plus it alerts those who have slippery intentions.

    • I had some thing similar to this happen with my social media services.
      A young woman came asking for a advice about a social media problem.
      I spent several hours
      helping her, then saw someone post on Facebook a note of thanks to HER for helping solve their social media problem and recommending HER as a social media expert!

  7. Thank you Lorraine for sharing your story and for your points on keeping good records. I am sorry that something stole your beautiful work and tried to pass it off as their own. Can’t believe that people think this is OK – so pleased she has been shut down. I have shared your post on a group that I am a member of – NSW Professional Longarm Quilters. Copyright, etc has been a recent topic of conversation, within our group. I hope you don’t mind that I shared.
    Best wishes

  8. Susan Gabriel says:

    What beautiful work you have done. My mother was an artist, and luckily she never had any of the problems you have had- to my knowledge. I am more into crafts than art. I loved reading your article & learned a lot. One thing my mother was told by a professional artist was not to use a nickname as her signature- she had been using just her middle name. He told her it was better to use her first initial & last name.Don’t know why. Maybe easier to prove it was her work. Best of luck to you in the future. And keep creating the beauty.

    • Lorraine says:

      Way in the past I was signing with my nickname, but realized it didn’t help identify me because only my family used it. If everyone knew it, then it might have worked.

  9. Janet Rhind says:

    Hi Lorraine; Great article. A lesson for us all. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Shayla says:

    Sorry this happened to you but happy you wrote an article about it. Your art is stunning and I doubt I would have seen it otherwise.

  11. Thanks for this post. Sorry you had the hassle, but good attitude about it. I tend to write my contact info on the back of the quilt in permanent ink, but sign (in stitching) on the front but with blendy thread. I should probably be better about that. Thank you for the nudge. And once I quit the travel teaching and start having time to make stuff to sell, I think I shall set up a system similar to yours for documenting. Thanks so much for sharing that!

  12. emily says:

    thank you for this post! i am a painter and i keep very sloppy records – it’s something i’ve long thought about – though not in the context of copying/stealing, and now i’m realizing how much more important it is to get my records in order – your suggestions are very helpful. thank you!

  13. Excellent post, Lorraine!

  14. Jessie says:

    What do you do when your mentor, the quilter you look up to steals your design to use it to sell products? Yep it happened to me. I entered a contest she was judging with my quilt, a year later she duplicates the design and took it to Quilt Market!

    • Lorraine says:

      How long ago did this happen? Does anyone else know?
      Do you have dated photos of your quilt? Do you have photos of your mentor’s quilt – either from the show or online? Can you somehow prove your quilt came before hers? If so you have enough to start. First you must contact your mentor and show her the information and photos that you have. Don’t be judgmental or threatening – a friendly letter, curious about her motive, and wait for her response. Maybe she will apologize – if it were me, I would accept it (and also, keep the email), and let her know you will be keenly interested in the inspirations for her work for a long long time, ahem. If she denies, you can ask her for the earliest dated photo of her quilt, just out of ‘curiosity’. If there isn’t a response in a day or two, then you can approach various organizations (ie, Quilt Market) that deal with her, and present the information. Don’t tell them what to do, just let them deal with it their own way, but insist that they respond to your note and let you know they received it. Take the high road all the way through, but also be firm and persistent. If she did this to you it is possible she did it to others.
      Unfortunately if you don’t have any documentation there isn’t much you can do. This is why I am telling everyone to document, document, document.
      Let us know how you proceed and we (your friends) will be behind you.

      • Jessie says:

        Hi Lorraine thank you so much for your reply. The person who took my design is the most well known modern quilter currently. You know her and I bet most reading this knows her. I sent her a private fb message telling her that the quilt she made looked very similar to the one I had entered in the contest she was judging, to which she replied “I did not have time to add more to the quilt”.

        • Jessie says:


          After her reply fell short of apologizing I deleted her as a friend and unfollowed her so that she cannot take any more designs. If I told you who she is you would not believe it. Its the classic case of the little guy up against the big dog. I’m hopeful that she in her heart knows she did wrong.

          • Jessie says:

            It appears my previous reply didn’t post correctly. My quilt was submitted end of 2013. Its very well documented and seen by the judges. The fact that she duplicated it full knowing others in our guild had judged the same quilt shows me she thinks I would never speak up. I’m just so crushed about this. If she would just apologize I would be able to accept it and move on. I may write her a formal letter.

          • Jessie says:

            Thank you Lorraine for posting this topic, serving all these replies tells us it is not only happening to your art but the art of many others! Since it was brought to her attention I believe she knows in her heart she did wrong. On a positive note one of my quilts will be shown at International Quilt Festival March 26-28th its titled “Come Closer”! Come to the show everyone!

          • Lorraine says:

            Thanks for the update, Jessie – sometimes it’s wise to just let karma do the work.
            And way to go! on your acceptance into that prestigious show. Enjoy the limelight!

          • Jessie says:

            International Quilt Festival Chicago March 26-28 2015!

  15. There are no words that can justify this type of activity. Artists, photographers, musicians, writers will always be vulnerable – especially in a world so driven by the internet. Your advise is good. Thank you for sharing.
    It is my sincere hope that you can move past this, put your creative energies and time where it belongs…. towards your beautiful art.

  16. Great article, I enjoyed reading it and learnt something from it. Thank you. I’m an amateur artist who creates things in my spare time. Not a professional like yourself.

    I would like to ask permission to copy and ‘reproduce’ one of the last lines from your article…. to inspire and motivate others.

    “That’s what we artists have in our arsenal, a living well of creativity that will never be crushed. And we have each other.”

    I find those lines inspirational. I love the way you describe creativity as a living well that can never be crushed. I feel that way about the energy source we have within us, that never leaves us. We just have to remember to leave the tap on! (Not literally.. that would be wasting valuable resource. But know that it’s always there to connect into, tap into when we need it.)

    Really love your work and hope to be able to commission/buy a piece one day. Sooner rather than later!

    all best wishes,
    Rachel (UK)

  17. deyherassary says:

    Thank ou for your post. There are always contrefactors! So glad to see you better now!
    Have a good day!

  18. Anni Hunt says:

    Great post Lorraine! I am shocked that this person thought they could get away with this!

  19. sherrie tj says:

    Thankyou so much about your blog about administration. I need to do it now.
    Are you going to write a book about an artist’s encounters and obstacles and come out the winner?
    Warm regards
    Sherrie T Jewson

  20. Rojean says:

    Very frustrating! Glad she is shut down. Thanks for all the great safety tips.

  21. Jenny Fish says:

    I am glad you had success on this occasion. I usually write my name and year at least in Pigma pen under the binding on the back top left corner as well as putting a label on the back with title, name, who it is for (if applicable), date and place. Maybe I need to consider your tips now I am also doing some art quilts. Actually, now I think about it, the bottom right corner would be better as it won’t be covered by a hanging sleeve.

  22. Lorie says:

    Wonderful, helpful advice. Thanks for taking the time to post this and your methods of record keeping.

  23. Beth Cameron says:

    It’s interesting Lorraine that I saw the post the other day and immediately thought that it was one of your pieces. I therefore clicked on it and saw some other name I didn’t recognize so didn’t check it out any further. I am so glad to hear that the culprit has been shut down. Thanks too for all you ideas for protecting ourselves.

  24. Well said, Lorraine. What a generous service you are providing, with excellent points about how much or how little we can control in the big wide virtual world, the available support of CARFAC, and of course record keeping and screen shots!

    I’d like to add, as a painter, that I keep all of my rough drawings in my studio filing cabinet, right down to the first chicken-scratch thumbnail concept with scribbled notes…and not because I think any museum will want them someday 😉

    • Lorraine says:

      Hi Kathryn, Oh that is an excellent idea. I keep all mine too!They are all in notebooks roughly by year but I am losing track. How do you organize them?

      • Hi Lorraine — just by being anal, I guess… I tend to scrawl dates on my rough sketches, and sometimes fold several versions together with the title of the finished painting written on the outside. Lately I ride the TTC with a small rough sketchbook for idea notes; I number the pages and cross-reference different versions of a thumbnail sketch (usually they’re dated), sometimes even the note “see [whatever] in file folder”… doable ideas are circled and later dated again if a painting is completed… plus there’s a few plain old loose-leaf sheets magnet-stuck to the side of the filing cabinet where it only takes a second to jot down the beginning and completion dates of ongoing work as it happens, with title …sorry, are you still awake?

        • Lorraine says:

          I always thought you were amazing! I wish I’d started doing this from the start. Now I have all these notebooks with drawings and ideas on both sides of the pages. You can’t begin to find or file anything that way. Sigh.

  25. Leonie says:

    I do not always frame my work, sometimes it is laced with a finished hand stitched back or it can be quilted and both have
    hanging sleeves on the back. Sign your name or stamp or whatever you use to identify your work and put it inside the sleeve ( or even under the sleeve) which is hand stitched on, where it doesn’t show. If your work is stolen or “misappropriated”
    you can always prove it is yours.One can roll back or unstitch a sleeve without destroying your work and the proof is there!

    • Lorraine says:

      Hi Leonie, The point of signing on the front where everyone can see it is so that photos on the net can always be proven against the photos in your own computer. Although an artist’s work really IS their signature, the actual signature is key, and that’s what thieves usually remove first ( via photoshop). But there are all kinds of scams and your method is brilliant against physical theft.

      • Leonie says:

        Of course signature on the front Lorraine, I should have clarified that, especially important for online, digital theft. This is an additional safety valve 🙂 So glad you were able to remedy this situation as quickly as you did and had such great support. All best wishes, Lx

  26. arlee says:

    Thank you for the information you’ve presented here–clear and concise, and a few things i hadn’t thought of. Tired of pinners, copiers, thieves and liars!!! They may think it’s easy to steal now on the web, but it’s also easier to catch them.

  27. Sue says:

    Thank you Lorraine for sharing this with us. I did see that this happened and social media sure look over didn’t it. So glad her site is down. I am also glad to see the tips you posted and also glad to see you will keep making art. Thank you! It brings joy to many of us!

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