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It’s time for Illustrators to take back the Net

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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“If you put an image online, expect it to be stolen.”

“I got it from Google Images; it’s free.”

“Why do you care if people steal your work? It’s free exposure.”

Illustrators, photographers artists and painters have likely all heard these lines or ones like them before. As the information-carrying capacity of the internet has grown and new and innovative platforms have eased our ability to share images,  it’s been like a feudal system with bloggy landowners plundering the product of illustrator’s toil.

Well, I say it’s time illustrators moved up the timeline from medieval feudalism to The Wild West. Reload your Wacom tablets and round up an ink-stained posse, Wyatt Earp-style.

Reload your digital painting tablets and sally forth! (© Glendon Mellow)

Open season on science blogs

Since I mainly illustrate for science blogs and publications, my examples and experiences are shaded by that. However, from my network of  illustrators on G+, Twitter, FB and RL, I know that these experiences cross all genres from fantasy to comics, to photography and advertising.  The internet has made it possible for even the most unusual and niche artwork to find its audience and market.  From personal experience, I had my one of my first professional commissions from a science blogger who backtracked my link after I left a comment about her post. Most of my other commissions have originated with people who know my images from my blog., some of whom I have never met in person or talked to on the phone, and one who I know only by a pseudonym. The internet makes these connections easier.  It’s also incredibly easy for images to be lifted from one site and dropped into another.

When I speak with some artists exhibiting trepidation about showing online, they invariably want to disable right-clicking to prevent image theft. This doesn’t work really well.  Images can easily be swiped by doing a Print Screen, and cropping the desired image out of the screenshot. It barely slows an image thief down.

And the problem is rampant. Last year on The Flying Trilobite, I blogged a rant about how many science bloggers will include meticulous references and bibliographies to papers and sources, only to lift every single image and display them uncited. I did a quick comparison the next day of multiple blogs across various networks on , small sample size, but just to get the idea across. The ranting post and comparison post are two of the top 5 most-read posts I’ve put up on The Flying Trilobite after more than 4 years of blogging.

Of course the problem isn’t just on science blogs. And there is a line between plagiarism and an artistic mash-up.

At the moment, collecting royalties from image use online is very difficult. Symbiartic has no budget for using images: we ask permission, unless it’s in public domain. But the buck has to stop at loss of proper attribution to the creator. If we aren’t recognized for our work, we have nothing.

Exploring the wild frontier

Here’s a few experiences I’ve had and heard of that I think demonstrate important ways that illustrators can take back the Net.

  • A number of years ago, Toronto-based illustrator Anita Kunz had one of her images used without permission in another country. The guilty organization apparently claimed since they were a not-for-profit , they didn’t believe they had to pay for use (prompting an apt comment from one commenter, “I guess this means it would be okay for him to steal your car as well…we should all go non-profit”). After some consideration, Kunz sent the organization a letter, and an invoice. And got paid. The gutsy move paid off. This wasn’t online; but I think the principle is similar. More illustrators should do this, imo.  I wouldn’t describe it as gutsy if it became common practice.
  • While criticizing how easy it is for attribution to be lost altogether on the Tumblr platform, I posted an image that had been reblogged 535 with no creator listed. Using various online tools, I attempted to figure out who created the very cool octopus island. Within 9 hours of my post, a reader on my blog successfully identified the artist.  Casting a wide net to find a creator of an apparently orphaned image is possible. But blog platforms shouldn’t make it so easy to drop attribution altogether.
  • Last March, PZ Myers of Pharyngula was looking for some new banner artwork for his blog. He received a ton of interesting submissions.  His commenters have an often undeserved reputation for being ferocious and nasty, but I waded in anyway at comment #80 and said, “As an artist fan of yours PZ, I’ve got to say as cool as these look, there are possibly some copyright problems. That last image #35 (sorry Troy) is © 2006 Fantasy Flight and painted byMichael Komarck. I can’t speak for Mr. Komarck, but are there permissions for these?” and “In general it’s also nice to see some acknowledgement to the source of these remixed images – at least three are originally by Haeckel. They may have entered public domain, but it’s important to acknowledge who created the images.” And you know what?  The den of Pharyngulites agreed, apologized and started listing where they took the images from. And PZ didn’t use ‘em all, though I can’t say I know for sure how much he was able to check. Discussion ensued about whether PZ’s paycheque from made much of the image’s use out of bounds due to Creative Commons Licences by the creators. Sometimes all it takes is opening a discussion.

    The Copyright Sheriff is in town... (© Glendon Mellow)

Creative Commons Licences – enforcing the shiny silver star of copyright

When I first began tentatively posting my paintings online, I was quickly referred by another artist to this post by Charley Parker of Lines and Colors: How Not to Display Your Artwork on the Web. In it, Charley outlines dire mistakes like tiny cropped thumbnail galleries and sites with pop-up ads.  Kalliopi Monoyios posted about 3 Marketing Mistakes young Illustrators Make this week (I’ve been making 1 of those mistakes regularly. Oops.).  There’s valuable tips in Charley and Kalliopi’s posts that shouldn’t be missed. And I would add to them helping maintain the integrity of Creative Commons Licences not just for your own work, but on the work of others you see should be an essential duty for illustrators online.

About a week ago, my SciAm bloggy peep and master insect photographer Alex Wild posted on Compound Eye Creative Commons Is Not Public Domain. Alex doesn’t use the Creative Commons Licences because the people who copy them often mistakenly assume it automatically renders an image public domain.

The licences, as Alex agrees, are elegant and descriptive. I myself use the Attribution-Non-Commercial-No-Derivs-3.0 licence for my work online, which simply states people are free to re-post my artwork so long as I receive credit, no money is made by someone as a result of using it, and no derivatives are made from it (such as cropping or altering the colour). Generally, I am a fan of the open access of content online that advocates like Cory Doctorow or Bora Zivkovic endorse.

I’ll say it again: without credit, illustrators have nothing.

Alex is correct that many users don’t understand or choose to ignore the meaning behind the various Creative Commons Licences.  Where I part with him is on giving up on Creative Commons altogether. I disagree. Creative Commons is one of the best tools illustrators have, and it needs to be enforced.  And if illustrators themselves won’t pitch in (as Alex himself did in his post) then who will?

I love the Twitter conversation that resulted after Alex’s post: in it, Kalliopi, Alex and Southern Fried Scientist suggested the hashtags #picthieves or #©fail for tweeting about image-use violation cowboys.

I’m your huckleberry

Here’s how I suggest illustrators take back the internet.

1. Use Google Search by Image and Tineye to control your own brand. By putting an image or image url into Google Image Search or, you can find out in seconds who has been using your work. I don’t know if I can emphasize enough how liberating these tools are for an artist. It’s like following a trail of hoof-prints back to the bandit’s hideout. If you spot work you recognize by a colleague being misused, let them know.

2. Comment on the blog post or site that an image is uncredited. Asking for payment or removal should become more common. Remember, by saying something publicly instead of just a quiet email, you’re also reminding all the readers that this is mistaken or unfair behaviour. Most bloggers are not being intentionally cruel, they’re just suffering a sort of blogging myopia when it comes to images. Open people’s eyes gently.

3. Form a posse to take down the worst offenders. The ART Evolved paleo crew formed a posse when it became clear there were unrepentant violations of member’s artwork. It’s amazing the pressure multiple voices can have. Site administrators or hosts will often rush in to help if you can prove it.

4. Keep talking about it. Using a hashtag like #picthieves or #©fail is a brilliant idea.  For too long, bloggers who get paid to use images on aggregating sites have been unfairly poaching artwork. Spread the message where the audience lives, on Twitter, Facebook and G+.  Write posts on how to post images properly.


Illustrators can’t have a career unless our identities and web presences are known.  We need to take back control of our images at every turn and ask our peers to help us point out violations. Just as blogging and social media promotes our work and let’s us share, let’s use our communities to protect one another.  Form a posse.  We have the tools to do it now.

Guard your herd of images from rustlers, and help your neighbours. (© Glendon Mellow)

[All images in this post are © Glendon Mellow Under CCL Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.  So share them responsibly.]

Glendon Mellow About the Author: Glendon Mellow is a fine artist, illustrator and tattoo designer working in oil and digital media based in Toronto, Canada. He tweets @FlyingTrilobite and is on Instagram. You can see Glendon's work-in-progress at The Flying Trilobite blog and portfolio at Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Alex Wild 10:40 am 09/9/2011

    Although I wish there were some other way to resolve the fuzziness over what constitutes “Commercial Use”, I suspect we’re going to need a few good court cases to establish firmer precedent with the boundaries.

    Someone who posted a CC-NC photo that was used by, for example, WIRED, is actually going to have to step up and sue. And the alleged infringing party is going to have to stand firm without settling.

    Both of these are unlikely occurrences, as CC-friendly artists are probably less litigious than their non-CC colleagues (something media outlets are banking on when they infringe), and most online news outlets would probably settle out of court at the first whiff of a real lawyer.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Southern Fried Scientist 11:31 am 09/9/2011

    Unfortunately, it seems as though Twitter breaks the hashtag at a symbol, so #©fail doesn’t work. Bummer, as I really liked that one.

    Link to this
  3. 3. makinaro 11:32 am 09/9/2011

    This is excellent and much needed. I’ve already begun googling EVERYTHING @_@

    A while back I had a comic get passed around with all the credit going to the original reposter. Luckily my URL was on it, but I still went around and emailed folks to thank them for reposting it (passive aggressive? maybe… more polite? Yeah). I actually got to know a lot of great bloggers from it, and the majority just genuinely didn’t know, which is why it helps to be polite and assume ignorance before malice.

    Love what’s been happening here!

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  4. 4. Kevbonham 3:02 pm 09/9/2011

    So if I write a blog post and find an image using google, how much of a responsibility do I have to go wade through the uses and figure out it’s origin? Since reading an earlier post on this blog, I started putting in a bit more effort than I used to, but writing already takes so much time, that this is an easy step to skip.

    On the one hand, I don’t want to give support (by linking) to a site that doesn’t give attribution for their images, but if they don’t give attribution, do I need to do a tineye search myself or just refrain from using that image? And how am I supposed to know if I’ve dug deep enough down the rabbit hole to be at the original source?

    I want to give credit where credit is due, but it’s hard for those of us without a visible stake in the fight to know what the rules are (I used to use images without attribution without realizing I was doing anything wrong).

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  5. 5. johnhawks 7:17 pm 09/9/2011

    I think people need to keep in mind the “picture worth a thousand words” rule. If you use a picture, think for a moment about how much time the artist invested to create that (or the photographer to take the many, many shots from which that one was chosen). Would you repost the entirety of a 1000-word blog post without citation or credit? If you can’t find the source, don’t use it!

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  6. 6. JRWermuth 7:50 pm 09/9/2011

    It is a real world out there. Your statement, “If we aren’t recognized for our work, we have nothing.” is very sad and most likely very untrue. Would you really have NOTHING if your work was copied for better or less?
    While I am factitious in my respect of (c) material, I have had my plans, designs, work… used to move culture forward innumerable times. Realistically, a deep breath is required but certainly not counseling.
    C’mon Glendon, please don’t waste time trying to get anyone to believe that you have nothing more than your doodles. Think about it, some of the best ideas, musical scores, artwork, and even doodles come from the time-honored tradition of copying. What would be better than to see a reflection of your work somewhere between “the garbage and the flowers?” Keep on working Mr. G.

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  7. 7. Glendon Mellow 8:06 am 09/10/2011

    Alex #1, I agree litigation may alter the landscape somewhat. But so would the sustained pressure of many voices expressing their distaste. A brand like Wired can only lose so much ground if its consumers and creative help are unhappy with it.

    Ah: Good point, Southern Fried! #picthieves it is then.

    Maki: I agree on both counts. Illustrators need to clearly sign their work, preferably with an url. And also I agree it’s not worth being a jerk, at least not at first. As I said, some people just have a sort of myopia to the problem. Doctorow said, “So yeah, if you want to try to control individual copies of your work on the internet, go ahead and try. I think it’s a fool’s errand, and so does almost every technical expert in the world, but what do we know?”

    I tend to agree with him, and that more open sharing is a good thing for artists. However I also think its possible to shift the culture a bit so that people at least attribute the name and link of the creator.

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  8. 8. Glendon Mellow 8:11 am 09/10/2011

    #4 Kevbonham, you’re correct, it is technologically a very easy step to skip. Glad you’re trying though. John Hawks pretty much has my comment covered.

    I think as a blogger, you need to start finding sources where use of the images isn’t as likely to do harm. I wish more artists prominently put Creative Commons Licences on their sites so people would at least know what the rules are (remember, as Alex Wild says, CCL does not equal Public Domain!). Images on Wikipedia should generally be free from restrictions on reposting, although there are many instances where the creator didn’t give away the image for use, someone else uploaded it. But that’s a good place to start. Or on deviantArt, where many artists use CCL, and those that don’t are easy to contact quickly.

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  9. 9. Glendon Mellow 8:17 am 09/10/2011

    Thanks JRWermuth #6!

    Yes, I have my wife and our baby son, and many other things I’m happy are in my life. But as an illustrator, if my work is shared and no one knows who did it then as an illustrator I have nothing.

    By putting my images online under Creative Commons almost since I started blogging, its allowed other bloggers who’ve become fans of my art to post them on their blogs and say “hey! Look over there at this guy!”. It’s also led me on the course to a very slowly building business model where people see the work, like it, and say to themselves “I want a Glendon Mellow painting for *me*” and then commission something. I make more $$ from commissions right now than from selling prints.

    There’s also a big difference between swiping an image (“copying” as you say) and sharing one. If the artist is given attribution and a link, hey, that’s sharing. Which is cool.

    The example I used above of an image being reshared on Tumblr over 500 times without any attribution is part of the problem. It’s easy to say cool, and click Reshare, but it’s also disrespectful to the coolness of the artist.

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  10. 10. gmperkins 2:21 pm 09/10/2011

    This issue has been discused/debated for over 10 years now. It has been brought to the attentions of the US Congress (along with many privacy issues) and I am certain that after years and years of careful contemplation, that they will soon create appropriate laws that handle this matter with all the due respect and grace it deserves.

    /sarcasm off

    Ah well, this is an important topic and a first step would be proper citation, perhaps a standard app that embeds and retrieves author name and contact info. Hard to enforce its use but it would be a nice start. I used to discuss this years ago but haven’t followed the latest ideas and papers on protecting content. We do want the Internet to be “free” and “easy to use”, thus the issue of balancing ease and use. Anyways, it isn’t easy to make embedded info secure (it is easy to remnove) but I think it would help to have a standard (this stuff exists, just no standard for the Internet). That way search engines like google could build of where their work resides on the internet, that would be very useful to the author as well as those who wantt to use their illustrations (this idea really applies to all content). Could even be some money in it or google/search engines, from a small fee they could charge authors for tracking their content. Plus with all the image search technology and text search I bet the could hunt down most uses that have tried to scam the omage/content without proper citation.

    The above is a patent idea I give away for free. Hopefully some researchers at google like it and make it happen. Free app (easy to make and define) for the standard + the methodology of how to create and manage the . Could write that up in a week. The greatest efort would be a prior work/patent search, like I said, out of the loop on this work the past number of years.

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  11. 11. Alvin Phee 4:06 pm 09/10/2011

    If it’s on the net, anyone can use it. That is how the net rolls baby!¬!¬!

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  12. 12. 3dognight 3:20 pm 09/11/2011

    The idea of an embedded app or signature came to me as well. It may be easy to remove, but it seems a lot of times the lack of attribution is ignorance or because it’s too much work to find the originator. I think most of the time whatever is embedded would be left intact.

    A number of years ago I ran a website for a dog club. We tried to protect the images, but one day by chance I did a search for the breed name on the MSNBC site. To my horror I found a photo of an impeccably-groomed, carefully-bred and beautifully-mannered dog that had been screen-scraped from our site illustrating an article on dog bites. What was worse, the image had been cropped badly, leaving the label with the dog’s registered name readable. It took some effort to get in touch with them and get a response. I was told the story had been picked up from an affiliate news station. I then called them and complained. At least they removed the photo promptly.

    This illustrates another problem that can happen as a result of image theft.

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  13. 13. Glendon Mellow 12:32 am 09/12/2011

    To answer Alvin #11, I agree more sharing is healthy for the internet – that’s why I use Creative Commons. More people should allow images to be used, even if there are some reasonable restrictions in use. And those reasonable restrictions should start with growing a an online culture that values creators.

    Creators who make content drive the internet far more than those who share it.

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  14. 14. Glendon Mellow 1:47 pm 09/12/2011

    gmperkins and 3DogNight, that would be an excellent idea – but there are almost always workaounds that strip out information embedded in an image.

    I posit that Tineye and Google Search by Image effectively allow illustrators the same level of control over our work. Will it take more time to do? Yes, but if it matters to us, then we should make the time.

    Link to this

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