How many times can someone rip off your art work?
October 23, 2012 3:49 AM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend. How long can a piece of art work be used for, if initially only being commissioned as a one off?

A friend has created art work for a magazine as a one off piece about 2 years ago. Ever since the website of the magazine & the magazine & flyers for events hosted by the magazine have used his design on a number of occasions.
Is there any comeback for this kind of behaviour. He has called them out for it the first time it has happened, to which they apologised and said they wouldn't do it again, but they have. At the minute they have his illustration as their twitter background.
He isn't particularly seeking legal advice but if it helps he's in the UK. More just advice to get them to stop using his artwork.
posted by djstig to Media & Arts (12 answers total)
Send them an invoice for each use of the work, with a followup letter from an attorney. I suspect that those actions would put an end to it.
posted by HuronBob at 3:52 AM on October 23, 2012

Well presumably it depends on what it says in the contract they signed.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:52 AM on October 23, 2012 [11 favorites]

Typically once a piece of work has been created for a client, the client can do whatever they want with said work from there on out because said work is theirs. There would have to be a limited use clause in the contract that your friend established and signed with this company in order for him to have any jurisdiction over their actions, and something tells me there was no such clause. (I'm hoping there was at least a contract.)

Your friend needs to consider this a lost cause and use it to inform all his future design dealings. He could lawyer up and take a close look at his contract for loopholes, though I'd just suggest working on a new type of contract that gives him more control over the terms of use (though if he thinks he should be able to tell clients they can only use his work in limited specific circumstances he's probably not gonna get much work anyone as this is profoundly unreasonable).
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 4:09 AM on October 23, 2012

They obviously like this piece of work (and therefore presumably your friend's style), so instead of getting legal and insisting they stop using it, why doesn't he approach them nicely, ask for a credit where they use it, a link to his site, and ask if there's any other work they need doing?
posted by chrispy108 at 4:40 AM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


No... That is NOT what typically happens. An illustrator sells the specific use of the image, not the image itself. If they'd like to buy all rights to an image, it can be done, but the cost should and would be substantial.

Copyright belongs to the creator, not the licensee of an image.

IANAL, but I am an illustrator and graphic designer.
posted by jpburns at 5:01 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Did he sign a written agreement with them? What does it say?
posted by J. Wilson at 5:58 AM on October 23, 2012

This should have been specified in the contact he had with the magazine. If there's no contract, then it depends on what other agreement was made with the magazine.

But practically, they can rip it off as much as they like until he does something about it. If he doesn't do something legally to compel them to do what he wants (especially after warning them before), then why should they change their behavior?
posted by inturnaround at 6:05 AM on October 23, 2012

If they like it so much perhaps he can offer to sell them a much broader use license.
posted by edgeways at 6:11 AM on October 23, 2012

Assuming he is in the right legally - and as others have said the detail of the contract or agreement he has with them is important.

I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. If your friend wants qualified legal advice he really does need to see a lawyer and also be crystal clear on the original agreement.

His first step is to write to them and explain that they are using his image illegally and without his consent. He might want to use a lawyer for this to show intent but it is not necessary to do so. He needs to keep a copy of this letter. He should also mention within it details and dates of past requests to remove the image. He should send it in such a way that it is tracked and signed for.

If he wants to license the image to them, then he can stipulate the cost of past, unauthorised usages and the cost of future usages. He can, should he choose, also issue an invoice for past usages. I would advise against putting "one gazillion pounds" as the cost.

They might laugh this off, of course.

Legally, yes, there can be comeback, but it takes time and expense and most people don't bother. However, there is a new small claims court for IP disputes. I've not had this specific instance of IP infringement before but I've had companies giving away my copyrighted material in the full knowledge it wasn't theirs and the legal advice I got was just to get them to stop, rather than make them pay. The magazine probably knows this too, but unless they are really dumb, the threat of legal recourse or cost should make them take the easiest route - choosing another image to use. In order to go down this route your friend must get on top of his facts, preferably with cast iron documentation - what the original agreement was, when and how he asked them to stop, and a reasonable calculation of how he is out of pocket.

The third avenue is to find blogs, trade publications who deal in the field the magazine operates in and advocacy groups/associations who speak on behalf of artists. The aim here would be to create a narrative around the "magazine screws the little guy", the aim of which would be to make the magazine less desirable to work with as an artist and generally embarrass them.

Finally, and he can do this now, he can request that Twitter remove the image.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:28 AM on October 23, 2012

I'm not a lawyer, but I am a graphic designer. As jpburns said, unless the contract specifically transfers copyright to the publication, then the copyright remains with your friend.

It sounds to me like perhaps both your friend and the publication are a little blurry on who owns the copyright to the work currently, and if the publication does not own the copyright, then what kind of license they have on the work. (License for one purpose, or a broader license for multiple uses.)
posted by agentmitten at 6:53 AM on October 23, 2012

Your friend should check releases he signed when the work was originally commissioned. This will all be in there.

If it's the US and he's a freelance illustrator (and not subject to a negotiated union contract), they can probably do whatever they want. Sadly.
posted by Sara C. at 7:14 AM on October 23, 2012

My bad, I read this as a design more along the lines of like website logo or something, not an illustration! Totally different, thanks for the correction!
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:43 AM on October 23, 2012

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