The photojournalist Daniel Morel was recently awarded damages of $1.2 million by a U.S. court as recompense for the unauthorised re-distribution of his images by industry giants AFP and Getty Images. However while David Morel has been successful, there are many more artists for whom the theft of their work by larger corporations leaves them feeling powerless.
The large holders of intellectual property in popular works are quick to shut down projects that they feel are infringing. An attempt to kickstart a sequel to the popular children’s novel Where the Wild Things Are was rapidly shut down by the original publisher HarperCollins, and a charity gorilla imitating Freddie Mercury’s famous look had to be pulled from display after complaints by his estate. But what do individual artists feel like when it is their work, and not that of a large and powerful corporation, that is being taken and used without permission?
In a digital environment that makes it easy for images to be taken from their original source artists are increasingly finding that their works are ending up in unexpected places earning money for unexpected groups. Swedish photographer Tuana Aziz for example was unhappy when he found that one of his photos posted online was being used by clothing retailer Mango as the design for one of its t-shirts without his knowledge. And his is not an isolated case. Indeed some creators are of the opinion that incidents like this are inevitable for artists: it’s a case of “when”, not “if”.
It may very well be the case that this is due to legitimate confusion on the part of the corporations. Instagram alone had over a billion photos uploaded by 2012 and is only one amongst a vast sea of online image platforms. With such a volume of data pouring onto the web it is easy to see how the works can get disconnected from information about their authors and rights. Users can get confused over what can and can’t be done.
Nonetheless there is anger amongst artists at what they often view as the theft of their works. There is the perception that artists are being unfairly taken advantage of by large corporations who are either neglecting to do a diligent search for the author or who are simply ignoring them. The use of their works is often described in terms such as stealing, theft, ripped off, and wrong. An artist who found his subway map incorporated into a blockbuster videogame without his permission was “furious” and the artist behind conceptual floating island images that he claims were copied by Avatar has sued the producers for $50 million. Particularly galling was the discovery by several photographers that their works were being used by the official Canadian Intellectual Property Rights Group website without permission. Irony abounds when even the supposed champions of intellectual property are caught red-handed.
Very often there is a distinct sense of powerlessness felt by artists when they find that their work has been taken. They face a legal struggle with corporations that are much larger and have access to greater resources than any individual can get their hands on: The balance of power is against them.
There have been attempts to hit back nonetheless. Artists have taken to social media to call out their infringer’s and have publicly criticised websites like Pintrest for enabling the theft of their images. Guides have been written to make artists aware of their options. And it is clear from these stories that social shaming can have an effect. By making their problem very public artists force companies to recognise and deal with their issues.