Artists fight back against automated copyright infringement.

Artists fight back against automated copyright infringement.

Copyright law is intended to reward creative people for their hard work.  Copyright law in the United States protects original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.  The term author includes creative people like painters, musicians and photographers.  Original works of expression are artistic creations like paintings, music and photographs.  United States copyright law grants a copyright owner the exclusive right reproduce, distribute, perform, display, transmit and make derivative works based on the original.  If someone other than the copyright owner exercises one of the exclusive rights, without authorization, that can be considered copyright infringement.  A copyright owner can combat copyright infringement by filing a lawsuit.  In that lawsuit a copyright owner can request an injunction to stop the infringing activity and request monetary damages for infringement which has occurred.

“The internet changed everything” is a popular phrase repeated with enthusiasm or lament depending on who is speaking.  For people fortunate enough to possess the skills to navigate the internet with skill, the internet is a vibrant marketplace full of opportunities.   For people that do not possess the ability to adeptly navigate the internet, the internet can be a threat to the health of their business.  The law, in general, is in a constant game of catch up with technology.

Take for instance the graphic arts industry.  In the past it would take a business with a handful of staff and expensive specialized equipment to reproduce an image.  Transferring art work to a product would take several weeks. Today a desktop printer can reproduce artwork onto a t-shirt or mug in a matter of hours with little human input.  This means that a consumer can quickly and easily get their favorite artwork printed on a t-shirt, but it also means an artist who uploads their art to the internet can quickly find that their art is being reproduced without their consent.

Several artists who regularly upload their art to social media grew frustrated by speed at which their art work was appearing on t-shirts and other merchandise on retail websites with no connection to the artist.  When one of the artist’s followers would comment “I want this on a t-shirt”, magically the artist’s image would appear on a t-shirt for sale on certain online retailers.  The artists hypothesized that automated programs, or bots, were scraping social media posts looking for popular images.  The bots would automatically upload popular social media images and make the images available for sale on t-shirts or other products.  Filing a copyright infringement lawsuit is a costly endeavor, many independent artists do not have the financial ability to defend their copyright in court.  So, instead of suing for copyright infringement the artists decided to teach the online retailers a lesson.

The artists started posting images that no human would want on a t-shirt, like the “This site sells stolen art work” and asked their followers to comment “I want this on a t-shirt”. When the bots took the bait, the artists changed their strategy.  They created artwork that contained copyrighted characters owned by companies known for aggressively pursuing copyright infringement.   Soon the online retailers website was filled with products that featured images daring Disney, Nintendo and others to sue the retailer.

Whether or not the artist’s strategy with dealing with copyright infringement will work in the long term has yet to be seen.  But, it is an interesting anecdote about copyright owners who tried a creative solution to combat copyright infringement on the internet.

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