"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.

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 scienceblogging.org , 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 Scienceblogs.com 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.

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 Tineye.com, 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.

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