Last weekend, we saw a lot of familiar posters at this year’s Women’s March: Floating above the expected swarms of knitted pink beanies were images of Princess Leia, rising fists, and Shepard Fairey’s “WE THE PEOPLE.”
The designs that have come to represent last year’s moment are fixed in our cultural memory. But many of the women behind the most recognizable images have spent the past year fighting a battle that they didn’t expect to face. The anniversary of the Women’s March marks a year spent pouring time, labor, and hard-earned money into preserving the dignity of a design they made for the movement, as it gets repeatedly ripped-off by corporations and individuals selling it online.
Protest art has been part of our culture for a long time, and co-opting the art of social change is in no way a new story (for some history, read the case of the “Fuck housework” poster by Virtue Hathaway in 1971). But the internet has changed the visibility and accessibility of protest art in a completely unprecedented way: social media makes it easy for an image to spread across the globe almost instantly, and lose its credit line just as fast. Meanwhile, the political climate has given artists and designers a market for turning their protest art into products for sale—though not without criticism—in a manner that feels distinctly of our time.
Copyright infringement is not a new phenomenon for artists and designers, and for anyone currently facing the problem, we’ve written a guide to what you need to know, which you can read here. But the law is especially murky and confusing when the ripped-off image you’ve created is intended for others to freely download for the purpose of protest. It’s also incredibly cynical when the original design was being sold for the sole purpose of donating its proceeds to charities under siege with the new U.S. administration.
For the artists whose illustrations went viral, what started as an act of creative expression and defiance has now turned into a long, laborious series of legal battles. We caught up with three women behind memorable Women’s March designs to hear about their experiences a year later, and to see what we can learn about the complex new world of print-on-demand political merchandise, cyber law, and unexpected viral exposure.
‘Femme Fists’, Deva Pardue: “This experience has been so draining, it almost makes me want to give up.”
Just over a year ago, New York based Deva Pardue, now the design director of The Wing, created an illustration to express her feelings about the inauguration of Donald Trump. Called ‘Femme Fists’, the picture went viral on Instagram during the days leading up to the Women’s March, and was shared by Rihanna, Reese Witherspoon, and Naomi Campbell. Pardue then released a high-res PDF of ‘Femme Fists’ for people to download and print at home for signage. Over 4,000 people in the U.S. and more abroad downloaded it.
The joy people took from Femme Fists inspired Pardue to launch For All Womankind, a part-time business for selling her designs to raise money for the Center for Reproductive Rights and Emily’s List—two non-profits in support of women and reproductive freedom. Since December 2016, she’s raised over $17,000 for the causes, working from home at night to wrap and ship products and answer emails.
In October last year, Pardue received messages on social media with screenshots of a T-shirt with the very same ‘Femme Fists’ image on it sold by Modcloth, a company owned by Walmart. Her lawyer sent two cease and desist letters to the corporations, without getting any response. So Pardue took to Twitter.
“After some public shaming, they finally decided to respond, offering to donate the proceeds they’d made,” Pardue says. According to Modcloth, the retailer had sold 100 units and made $2,000 before taking the shirt down. But when Pardue asked for proof of the number of sales, the company began ignoring her again. “We’ve asked to be directed to the legal team and for reimbursement for my legal fees as well, but they won’t respond again. It’s so draining.”
“It’s about choosing the times when it’s really not OK that someone is copying it,” says Pardue.
Unfortunately, this is not a completely new experience for Pardue. A South African department store has been ignoring cease and desist letters from the designer for quite some time. Recently, social media followers have also brought two more rip-offs to Pardue’s attention: a high-end department store in the UK is selling a boutique book that features a copy of Femme Fists inside it, and retail chain Home Goods is selling a version of the artwork for $9.99. The latter company has modified it, embarrassingly, to include make-up held in each of the fists.
It’s expected for protest images to circulate and take a life of their own, to inspire similar versions, homages, and iterations. This is part of why a lot of people make protest art. But when a corporation picks it up, they’re stealing the design of an individual without giving credit or money to them, which is illegal. Next, they’re profiting from a grassroots movement that the image emerged from. And lastly, as in Pardue’s case, they’re making money off of a design that was being sold to raise money for charities.
The designer’s advice to others facing a similar problem is to “pick your battles” as the problem is so pervasive. “It’s about choosing the times when it’s really not OK that someone is copying it.”
For this year’s march, Pardue chose not to release a PDF of ‘Femme Fists’ for signage. After all the copyright infringements that she’s faced, she decided instead to partner with retailer Garmentory, which printed thousands of the posters, shipped them all around the U.S., and handed them out for free. That way, Pardue could ensure that she had at least some control over how the design is being used.
‘A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance’, Hayley Gilmore: “Even if you feel defeated, your work still matters.”
Shortly after Carrie Fisher’s death, and right before the 2017 Women’s March, the Mississippi-based graphic designer Hayley Gilmore created a tribute to Princess Leia with the slogan “A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance” pasted across it.
Gilmore pinned a link to a high-res version of the design to her Twitter for people to download for the Women’s March. Soon, the poster went viral, and on the day of the march, it was spotted across the globe, from the streets of Gilmore’s hometown to cities in New Zealand. Now, the poster is part of the Library of Congress’ archive of protest art.
It was only a few weeks later that Gilmore realized her image was being uploaded by users on TeeSpring, TeeChip, Society6, RedBubble, eBay, and even third party sellers on Amazon. She pulled the Dropbox link from Twitter.
Because of the print-on-demand model, an incredible amount of the “political” merch you see around is actually a knock-off. Via print-on-demand services like RedBubble, users upload an image onto T-shirts and other products to sell en masse. An item is not printed until the company receives an order. It’s a model that removes the overhead costs typically plaguing small businesses, but it has also made plagiarism pervasive.
Most of these online marketplaces have user agreements that carefully explain copyright and intellectual property laws. But it’s up to designers themselves to police the sites and send cease and desist letters if they find their material plagiarized.
After Gilmore’s high-res link became a free-for-all for print-on-demand users, she wanted to send DMCA notices (a letter that demands immediate take down) to each and every uploader. But Gilmore isn’t legally allowed to send those notices, because although she was able to copyright her particular design, LucasFilm owns the rights to the Princess Leia image. Only they can police the Gilmore rip-offs—and of course, they don’t.
If your work goes viral, remember that you still have rights as a creator,” says Gilmore.
Gilmore still sells her Leia poster herself and donates a fraction of the proceeds to charity, but she’s now in competition with her copyists. The experience has taught her a lot about IP, Copyright, and Creative Commons, though, and she now spends time teaching others about. During the past year, she’s been in contact with Harvard’s Cyberlaw Clinic, which represents clients pro bono. After the clinic started an idea for a protest art guide based on Gilmore’s experience and others online, it asked if she’d be interested in being on the editorial board for the project. Gilmore agreed and this week, The Cyberlaw Guide to Protest Art was finally released: a comprehensive guide to licensing your working with Creative Commons, using disclaimers, and making money, complete with informative illustrations by Jessica Yurkofsky. All articles are available to read via Medium, and we suggest you do. For designers and illustrators involved in activism or political satire, the guide is a must. “I think it will be an excellent resource for anyone who creates and posts artwork online,” say Gilmore.
When thinking about what she wishes she’d known a year ago, Gilmore says: “If things start to get really crazy online, I would recommend registering for a copyright as soon as you possibly can because it creates a public record of your ownership claim. If your work goes viral, remember that you still have rights as a creator. The internet is constantly evolving, and with it, the laws change as well. Don’t be afraid to reach out to universities and organizations, like Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center [which houses the Cyberlaw Clinic], for advice. You never know where those resources may lead.
“Above all else, don’t stop creating and sharing your work.”
‘Nasty Woman’, Amanda Brinkman: “You are protected even though they’ll try to make you think you’re not.”
While watching the 2016 presidential debate, Amanda Brinkman—who was working as a manager for a non-profit at the time—pulled out her computer to start sketching immediately after Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman.” In 10 minutes, she had designed a T-shirt with the words “Nasty Woman” encircled by a heart. Before the debate was over, she had it up on her Instagram with a promise to donate 50% of the proceeds to Planned Parenthood. She expected that she’d sell maybe four or five tees to some close friends, and decided to work out the logistics of actually producing shirts down the line. But by the end of the night, she had 50 orders. By morning, that number increased to 10,000. Vice has called the design “a symbol of anti-Trump resistance”.
The shirt was soon picked up by New York magazine’s The Cut, Elle, and Teen Vogue. Katy Perry’s manager called, requesting shirts for a campaigning event. Brinkman sold the tee online, learning about e-commerce by trial-and-error. Months later, Brinkman donated over $131,000 in proceeds to causes including Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the Houston Food Bank, Unidos Por Puerto Rico, and She Should Run. In a piece Brinkman wrote for Vice, she explains how after this experience: “I wanted to do more […] I wanted to continue creating products that helped others deepen their knowledge of the world around them and become more politically active.”
To that end, Brinkman set-up Shrill Society, a retail platform for not only her tees but a whole range of similar products by like-minded individuals. And she keeps her initial promise, continuing to donate 50% of all the proceeds to charities.
While Brinkman was focused on learning the ropes of online retail, hundreds of products baring her exact heart design began popping up on print-on-demand sites, including TeeSpring and RedBubble. A friend brought it to Brinkman’s attention initially. “It really took me surprise because I hadn’t considered it,” she recalls.
“The fact that these sites keep selling them really steals from the non-profits that people are donating money to and also the customers, because most assume that they’re buying the original shirt.”
Brinkman hired someone part-time to comb through online marketplaces and send DMCA takedown notices to every seller using her image (see a sample of the notice here). Now, a year on, she still hires someone for one hour a week. She emphasizes that TeeSpring remains one of the biggest culprits: when one product is removed, another two seem to spring up in its place.
“Even though the platforms say that they have systems in place to get these images taken down, what I’ve found is that a lot of sites will overlook that if the sales are really high,” she says. “The fact that these sites keep selling them really steals from the non-profits that people are donating money to and also the customers, because most assume that they’re buying the original shirt.”
For those who experience a similar problem, Brinkman has this advice to offer: “Ebay and Etsy are the first places to check, then the print-on-demand sites. You can find DMCA notices online, you don’t need to have a lawyer. Once you send a notice, 95% of the time the company will remove the image. It’s just time-consuming because you have to send one notice for every item on sale.”
When a customer purchases via a print-on-demand site, it’s often difficult to tell if the seller is the original designer, as Brinkman points out. Shrill Society on the other hand puts customers in touch with the actual makers behind a product. Many of the designers featured on Shrill Society have had similar problems with plagiarism to Brinkman, Gilmore, and Pardue. For example, it stocks the LA store Otherwild, which is behind the ubiquitous ‘The Future of Female’ tee, and notoriously called out Cara Delevigne for copying it. Natalie Gaimari, the designer behind the ‘Make a Woman Cum for Once’ tees also sells via Shrill Society: she was put in touch with Brinkman after a journalist interviewed both of them regarding plagiarism. Moreover, all products on Shrill Society come from ethical working conditions, reinforcing the politics of those who are featured on the site.
What Brinkman has achieved with Shrill Society is strategic. Now, when you Google “Nasty Girl T-shirt” or “Make a Woman Cum for Once T-shirt”, Shrill Society is one of the first hits to come up. She’s centralized feminist tees, diverting traffic to her business that might otherwise find its way to plagerized products. While it’s vital to fight the battle of copyright infringement, and be vigilant about those profiting from work intended for social change, the problem of rip-offs is perhaps best fought through collective action.