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10 things I’ve learned from having my work stolen online

An online manufacturer stole a design I created for their line of watches. Here’s what I took away from the experience.


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Internet Culture


Last week I was in Austin for SXSW when I woke up on Saturday morning to an Instagram comment pointing me to a retailer selling a watch that is an exact duplicate of a geometric design I have been creating for a series of postcards since 2011.

An exact copy. No changes to any elements of this design, not even the color. I was shocked—I mean, 29.50 for a watch design? How many were sold? How many were out there? When did this happen? This retailer had over 100K followers on instagram and a few thousand on Facebook.

I immediately freaked out and barraged this retailer’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts; a lot of my followers did the same. They took it down immediately. Not a word, no response. They even blocked my friends and me. But at least the watch is off of the site, or rather “sold out.” That’s what I wanted.

When I thought the power of social media had once again won the battle, a few people informed me of another shop selling the exact watch.

After I returned home, I took some time to find as many sites selling these watches as I can. By this time, a few companies already voluntarily took off the design from their site. I found a total of eight retailers + 3 wholesalers selling the same watch. One of the retailers kindly told me that the manufacturer of the watch is actually one of the biggest watch companies in the world and that they “couldn’t believe it.”

At this point, it wasn’t about the small retailers, it was a manufacturer. It wasn’t battling one organization. It was battling the top of the chain—the guy who makes and distributes the goods. I almost didn’t even want to care about this anymore. The reality is that this design is out there, and the sad truth is that this design (the first of its series and one of my favorite series to date) is being used and abused on these watches sold at $8 a pop at wholesale—probably cheaply made too.

When you’re a creative person, your work is bound to circulate in some form or another. But when it’s a complete rip off, that’s when shit gets real. So many of us have been victimized by big and small companies, some ended up nowhere, some ended up in a settlement, some of us are lucky to have influence and thus a fanbase to help deter us from theft. For us smalltime folks who don’t have thousands of followings to help protect our work, should we give up? Not waste energy? When the situation is out of hand, do we just wash of it and remind ourselves that people like our work, that we should be honored, or—here’s one I hear the most—that we’ve made it and let it go?

No. Absolutely not.

Is there an ego behind this? Yes, there is. There’s no shame in that. Take pride in your work. Don’t be egotistical—that’s different. We are our own worst critics when it comes to ourselves and our work, but in the end, what we post and share is what we are proud of, especially personal projects. These things are our livelihood. I don’t know about you, but whenever I create something I like—it’s rare—that feeling of self-encouragement is something to be immensely proud of.

When our work is stolen and reproduced for profit, it takes away from the value of our work, of what we do, from countless internal and external battles on whether if we’ve made the right decision going into a creative field, and from all the days of blockage we experience before we finally find inspiration to make work that is exciting to us. When one of us gets ripped off and lets it go (even if they can do something about it), it’s just one more OK for companies to diminish the value of creatives. Because to them, it’s just an image, and all they have to do is save it, print it and sell it.

So if this happens to you, please wreak havoc.

But before you do, here are a few things I’ve learned from my experience so far (because it’s not over) that you may benefit from, and please feel free to chime in.

1) Research and find the root of the distribution before you go nuts.

Yes, in my situation the retailer is at fault in some way, but I’m going to give them benefit of the doubt here as they aren’t the ones producing the work. They should immediately stop the sale of this watch, but honestly I should have channeled my efforts to the root of the problem instead of provoking just one of the many retailers. Sometimes people make honest mistakes and are given designs or files and don’t do proper research. Whatever it is, find the root of it before you wreak havoc.

Also, take screenshots of everything. I am documenting everything right now so if I do press charges, I have evidence to distribution and perhaps numbers involved in the transaction.

2) Be nice.

This was a tip from the girl behind Aspen Summit. I wanted to be mean and threatening, but after emailing the retailers, all of them agreed to take the watches from the site, and a few even gave me insight on who they purchased the lot from.

3) Send a cease and desist letter.

This is if being nice didn’t work. Obviously.

4) Get a copyright registration.

I finally got mine for this particular design and it was $35 at the copyright office. I paid online. Honestly if you post work online that you think may be a big hit, do this right away. I was told you may be able to waive attorney fees if anything comes up if you register within three months of publishing/creating the work. Also know that once you create your original work, the copyright is immediately attached to your work. However, getting it officially registered gives you more momentum and makes it easier to pursue charges/legal situations.

5) Watermark your work.

I’m still not into the watermark thing as people can easily take it off or it just looks stupid—but any sort of physical evidence of ‘copyright’ statement may ward off potential thieves. *updateAndy Detskas (a fellow typeforce participant) informed me of a digital watermark that can embedded into your work and can’t be removed. Go to Digimarc for more information!

6) Talk about it online.

Everyone has Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram but not everyone understands infringement or knows this is happening as often as it is. Everyone’s friend of friend had gotten ripped off by Urban Outfitters or some other big name companies—and some just let it go. If there is more discussion about these situations, companies of all sizes will be more likely to tread lightly, and do proper research before anything is distributed.

7) Be protective of your work, but don’t be a fucking psycho about it.

I still completely believe that being creative is about being collaborative and open—which means our work is meant to be borrowed and incite inspiration for ones who seek it. When Picasso said “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” he is saying the best of us take something and own it for ourselves. We are all copycats, so how do we make this or that into our own style, our own aesthetic, our own words?

8) Don’t let this stop you from sharing.

So many moments this year I wonder why I still share and post online. I know the potential trouble that will come with it, but in the end I still believe what I create is meant to be shared. Sharing is part of my process and collaboration, and because of it my own standard for my work has been consistently rising, not to mention I have made friends from sharing our work with each other. I’m not gonna let any companies in China stop me from that. I just need to be more careful about it (aka no more high-res desktop wallpapers).

9) Think about what it means to you

What do you want out of this? Royalty? Credit? What does it mean to you to fight if this goes beyond a cease and desist? This is something I am thinking about now, which is the driving force behind this post.

10) Let it go if it’s causing you too much stress.

Honestly, if this is just giving you too much emotional damage to be productive, then shit, just let it go. You can battle this stuff in different ways.

This article was originally featured on the author’s website and republished with permission. You can find the original here. Shawna X is a young creative lady in Chicago who works at VSA Partners. Outside of work, freelance & random doodling, Shawna X makes and sells cards; she was selected last summer to be part of Chicago’s Etsy Pop-Up Shop at West Elm.

Photo via Scott Beale/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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