Tuesday 26 October 2010

The Art Thief vs the Dinosaur Bloggers

This story concerns online art theft, copyright infringement, a plucky band of bloggers, and dinosaurs.

How Not to Steal Artwork Online 
The Art Thief vs the Dinosaur Bloggers

Dramatis Personae:

  • ART Evolved, the online paleo-art blog and network of approximately 20 paleontology-inspired artists and illustrators who blog.
  • deviantArt (known as dA), the massive online art sharing site.  When I say massive, as of August 2010, dA has over 14.5 million members and over 100 million pieces of art uploaded into it (Wikipedia). For those in the science community unfamiliar with it, it acts like Facebook and Flickr, but heavier on the painting and drawing than photography with lots of manga and comics and inspired amateurs. 
  • Dr. Manabu Sakamoto, aka Mambo-Bob, an artist contributor to Art Evolved and paleontologist at the University of Bristol. He blogs at The Raptor's Nest
  • *theSpinosaurusGuy, aka Brenden, a dA user. 

The events:
Early yesterday morning, Manabu emailed the rest of the list of Art Evolved members about something all artists fear:  someone else was posting his artwork online and taking credit for it. This person, known by the dA pseudonym of theSpinosaurusGuy (real name listed as "Brenden") had posted about 12 of Manabu's dinosaur drawings on deviantArt and was taking credit for them, watermarking them with his pseudonym and posting dA-enabled widgets in his gallery saying they were not to be copied.

Another artist on dA who is also familiar with Manabu's work had alerted him.

You can see Manabu's artwork here in his online gallery.  Click on Allosaurus-top view for example.
You can see in the screen-captured images below, theSpinosaurusGuy clearly claiming this as his own.  Note the same Allosaurus top view drawing on the left. 

Click to enlarge.  Note the watermark on the right-hand image, claiming that as his own as well.
Note the watermark and the "artist's" comment.

It's theft.  Pure and simple.  It's not a re-use, or a fan homage to Manabu's art.  It's not a gallery where theSpinosaurusGuy collected his favourite pieces of art (dA does have that feature, and everything is clearly labeled as the original artists' work.) He is not claiming to be Dr. Manabu Sakamoto, he is instead claiming the artwork as his own labour.

Manabu doesn't have a deviantArt account.  A number of other dA members do however, and with a minimum of discussion, we acted as individuals, but part of a group helping our respected peer.

I started by making a brief comment on the Albertaceratops, the feathered raptor, the top-view Allosaurus and a few others.  DeviantArt is very aware that this type of behaviour can and does occur, and has a mechanism to deal with it.  Next to every posted artwork, there is a "Report a Violation" link, which allows you to write a brief description of the complaint, and provide a link to evidence it's a violation.

I filled about 6 of these out.  I also left comments beneath each one with links back to Manabu's gallery so others could see for themselves:  deviantArt is a very social site, you can add friends, comment and click "favourite" on art have nested conversations.  I left the comments so new visitors would see that theSpinosaurusGuy wasn't the artist he claimed to be.

The Art Evolved Network reacts:
Letting Manabu and our Art Evolved peeps know what I'd done, I came back a couple of hours later to find that theSpinosaurusGuy had blocked me from making further comments and labeled me a spammer. Of course, the comments I'd made were all deleted.

But it didn't matter.  You see, Peter Bond, of Bond's Blog and one of the driving forces behind the current Pink Dinosaur charity drive is also a dA user, and started to comment on the rest of the ones I had missed. And what Bond did was brilliant: he replied in the nested comments to previous commenters who had unwittingly praised the thief. Now, all of the people praising the work knew Spino-Brenden was a fraud.

While that was done, I had received automated messages from the dA moderators that they had removed the 6 pieces of art I had complained about: within about 4 hours! Not bad for a site with approximately 1.5 million comments daily!

Discussion in the Art Evolved emails was heating up.  More members of Art Evolved, like Ville SinkonnenRaven AmosTrish Arnold and Nima Sassani jumped in and continued to post messages. Ville and Trish posted journal entries on dA about it, Peter re-posted Ville's, and I posted a critique of one of the works. Journals and critiques can't be deleted by the offender.

And we were civil:  let's be clear here, I think all of us recognized that theSpinosaurusGuy is likely somewhat young and naive about art, copyright and social media. This was not a pile-on with the intent rip him a new one.  Most of us called for the artist to stop deleting comments, feel ashamed, and give Manabu an apology.

More artwork was removed by the dA moderators (go moderators!) Some of theSpinosaurusGuy's former dA friends started to chastise him on his message wall. As I write this, only one of Manabu's drawings, a ceratosaurus, is still on the site.  Another dA user, not affiliated with Art Evolved has found that a computer-generated Barney the Dinosaur parody actually belongs to another artist Spino-Brenden has stolen from.

Message to theSpinosaurusGuy:

Once the jig was up, dude, if you're reading this, you should have apologized and taken them down immediately. Comments like the ones in the screen-capture below just enraged everyone.

    Click to read the jackass-ishness.
As I said before, I suspect you are younger than many of us in Art Evolved, and probably in your teens.  DeviantArt is a great place where you can find a niche for almost anything and have positive contact with people, and maybe that's what you were looking for.  

And I get that.  One of the ways to appear as a respectable, sensible adult is to take responsibility for your mistakes. It's still not too late.  You'll continue to take some heat from some people on dA no doubt, but suffer through it, and become what you admire.   
What this means:  
There's a reason I asked Manabu and our Art Evolved peeps if I could write about this experience.

You see, the online world has changed things. Now, there's a niche for artwork of every kind, and lots of people with similar interests can find each other quickly.  And while dinosaurs are granted a certain fondness and awesomeness in popular culture, there's a relatively small niche of artists passionate enough about them to be really into it.

Theft is going to get found out.

All of us on Art Evolved experienced a point in time where we made a decision to go online with our artwork.  It's a tough decision, and everyone frets to varying degrees about what will happen if our work is stolen.
  • We slap copyright symbols on it, and some of us put obscuring watermarks on the images.
  • We employ Creative Commons Licences, or rail against Google ImageSearch for making it so easy.  
  • We vary on how much we protect our artwork, and how much we like to share it.  
  • None of us is likely to know if an indie punk band in Vienna has downloaded our Diabloceratops for their gig posters.  

So if you're an aspiring artist looking to get into paleo-art or any kind of image, and you're nervous about making a big enough name for yourself online, here's some stuff you can do.

  • Don't steal. 
  • If it's a fan homage, say it is.  
  • Don't re-post someone's stuff without asking.  
  • If they have a blanket statement saying it's okay, make sure you link back to them and give them credit.   
  • Always give artists, illustrators and image-makers credit. Always.
  • Just ask.  Always ask if it's cool.  Most illustrators love feedback.
  • Use the © symbol a lot. State what you want. 
  • Blog.  Post comments elsewhere.  Reciprocate.
  • Become friends and peers to others with similar interests. 
  • If you can, be part of a network or group online. 
  • "I got yer back" is one of the most heart-warming statements you can utter to a friend. 

If someone steals your work, 
  • make a fuss. 
  • Go through proper channels. 
  • Be civil and intelligent when you dialogue. 
  • Ask for help from your support network.  

I encourage anyone to put their artwork online.  And becoming part of a network makes everyone stronger than without it.

Thanks to:
All of the Art Evolved crew for giving one of our own your support and for carrying yourselves maturely. 
To the deviantArt moderators for reacting quickly.
To other dA artists for shaming the behaviour and not shrugging their shoulders. 
And to Manabu for agreeing I should write about this.

-Glendon Mellow
[All above opinions are my own.  Cross-posted on both Art Evolved and The Flying Trilobite]
- - - - - - - -
All opinions above are my own.
Artwork in those screen captures is by the talented Manabu Sakamoto © 2010 of The Raptor's Nest.

Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.


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smartz said...

Thanks as always for your thoughtful, intelligent comments on this important issue. I'm not into dinosaurs but was once a publisher and know firsthand the importance of copyright protection. Nice job!

Glendon Mellow said...

Thank you smartz! I really appreciate your comment. It was a long story, but for the record one I felt needed the length.

("As always intelligent"? I'll have to lower the bar tomorrow.)

Julius Csotonyi said...

This was a great piece Glendon! I really do appreciate that people are looking out for each other in this too-easy-to-attempt-to-forge environment. It's satisfying to see justice done by the online community, but it's also comforting to see that someone's not just out to stamp out an offender, but to try to offer positive advice. I applaud your gesture.

Glendon Mellow said...

Thank you Julius!

I don't know if the offender is in the state of mind to take the advice at the moment. But I always figure that online, how one responds to a negative is still instructive to the many dozens or thousands of people who may come across the situation. So the advice is hopefully for up-and-comers.

(Good gravy your gallery is stunning! I confess I had not seen it before. Nice to meet another artist who paints on stone! )

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Posts over 14 days old have their comments held in moderation - I've been getting an unusual amount of spam for a guy who paints trilobites. I'll release it lickety-split though.

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