Once or twice a year, graphic and comic artist Mirko Ilic will browse through online shops like Zazzle or Behappy, where user-generated content gets repurposed to create products and apparel. He’s not looking to buy anything, he’s searching the titles of his own works to see how often his copyrighted images have been used without his permission for keychains, mugs, and greeting cards. It’s a familiar story—one that artists, writers, and designers have been battling with for years. When something is popular (and therefore has worth to the Zazzles of the world) there will inevitably be copycats. In some ways it’s a compliment, but its mostly just frustrating, another sign of how complex and difficult the internet is to marshal.
Ilic has found that his “Liberty and Justice Kiss” is particularly popular amongst bootleggers. A few years ago, street vendors in New York City sold plastic badges and cheap cotton tees with pixelated, home-printed versions of Ilic’s iconic illustration. Now, it’s even easier to source the image online and then print and sell the “customized” product via online marketplaces. Unsuspecting buyers—and even unsuspecting sellers—have made things exponentially worse in just a short amount of time, and today the problem of bootlegging has become more pervasive than it ever was.
Of course, it’s not always an innocent mistake. As Ilic points out, the people who bootleg and sell copyrighted products online often claim authorship, as if finding and reusing the image is a creative act, and their profiles on Zazzle include small bios about them, “the designer.” This presents a whole new, very problematic level of copycatting. The issue isn’t just financial anymore; it’s also a question of meaning and worth beyond the price tag. Selecting an image, choosing its size, and then getting it printed on a piece of merchandizing is, for many, becoming conflated with the idea of ownership and being an actual designer. Similar to the way “everyone can be a writer” in the wake of blogging and social media, it’s now a case of “everyone can be a designer” when it’s so easy to Google search an image, make a product out of it, and then sell it as your own.
The “designers” of bootlegged products and the merchandise companies that print them make money from the work, while the actual designers like Ilic are left out of the financial equation entirely. It’s up to them to trawl through online shops, find examples of stolen work, and to send requests to remove the copyright infringements. It’s a hard slog.
Zazzle does not manually review all designs that are uploaded to its site, but a press representative told me, “When a product is brought to our attention that violates our terms of service, we take swift action to remove it.”
Another user-generated marketplace that Ilic has approached in the past, but which was unable to make a statement for this article, claimed no responsibility whatsoever. They reasoned that with so many people uploading content to their shop every day, it’s impossible to check everything. They say it’s the buyer’s responsibility to check the legality of the items they purchase, which has got to be one of the feeblest excuses we’ve ever heard from any company that would have us believe it’s operating as a legitimate business.
“The internet increases the visibility of artists around the world, but at the same time it increases the possibility of abuse of that art without any legal protection,” says Ilic. “I’m not talking about sharing art on Tumblr or Pinterest, I’m talking about big companies producing mechandise and making money.”
The problem of image re-appropriation is one many designers and artists face, especially when an image of theirs becomes iconic. Rip-offs range from the outright obvious—as with the “Liberty and Justice” keychains—to more subtle, legally complex examples, like when someone samples, references, or pays homage to another designer in an artwork that they produce. It’s even more complicated in terms of copyright infringement when it’s not a physical image being reproduced, but a slogan or quote untethered from its original often long lost context.
Anthony Burrill recently considered this in detail. His “WORK HARD & BE NICE TO PEOPLE” posters are continually a source of “inspiration” for Etsy users, some of whom straight up copy his type and layout for their own posters, while others take a more calligraphic approach. It suggests again that many people are either openly profiting from stolen work, or that they actually consider the act of online discovery and blatant re-use their creative process.
Burrill asks himself, “Should I be okay with it and accept it as part of how a piece of work gains popularity and eventually gets replicated over and over? Or should I email every one of the people who’ve made their own version, pointing out the error of their ways?”
Milton Glaser’s iconic “I Love NY” graphic is perhaps the most notorious example of a truly iconic piece of graphic design that has been appropriated on a mass scale for an endless range of products, everything from shirts to shoes, kettles and carpets. When I asked Glaser about the issue, he takes a pragmatic, hard-boiled approach:
“Sometimes life is tough—all designers want to be influential and see how their work influences others. What is problematic is when influence becomes mindless copying that misunderstands the original intention.
“By and large, the human species survives by duplicating the success of others. You may not be happy when your ideas are stolen, but sometimes it’s inevitable.”
What’s certain is that in the internet era, it’s increasingly probable that as designer, your work will be dragged and dropped onto something that’s sold somewhere, and you either won’t know, can’t stop it, or won’t make it penny from the sale (or all of the above). Or to look at it another way, it’s a brand new problem that needs a new kind of solution. Luckily, that’s what designers are best at.