Art Theft in 2012
I want to address an issue that is by no means new but could use more discussion. It's something that all of my professional artist friends deal with and in these tough times, it stings more than ever.
Thanks mostly to the instant availability of countless images and ideas found on the Internet, large companies are stealing images and concepts from independent artists and designers and passing them off as their own. Are there any repercussions for these thefts?
Yesterday a friend pointed me to a YouTube link for SB Nation. They were discussing the redesign of an NFL team logo and presenting more redesigned team logos as gags. Wow, I was surprised to see their spoof logo for the Chicago Bears. It was my painting, Bad Bear, poorly recolored orange and placed in the Bears iconic C. This image is the most popular and recognizable of my artwork. I've sold hundreds of prints and T-shirts bearing the image since 2008.
Here's my original painting
Here is what appears in the SB Nation video
Of course it isn't just large-ish companies ripping off artists and passing things off as their own. By coincidence, this theft was called to my attention the same day I had discovered desktop wallpapers that were clearly derived from the same "Bad Bear" image. Thanks to Google's reverse image search feature, I've discovered this piece used as club/band flyers, avatars for strange political groups on Facebook, or just being passed off as an amateur artists' own work on Deviantart.com.
But it's the large companies who really have no excuse. They have the budget and resources to commission and/or license illustrations. The least they could do is make sure their in-house designers use only their own skills and stock imagery to create content. Instead people can't seem to resist the temptation to pluck good ideas from the vastness of the Internet and assume no one will notice or care.
For me, the saddest thing is that people often don't care. Once a creation has been presented and accepted by the masses, it's "author" is set in stone and taken as gospel. Take for example the fact that Stairway to Heaven was clearly derived from a song by a long-since-forgotten band called Spirit. This was only called to my attention last week. The members of Led Zeppelin took the sound and feeling of that song and made it their own. Now it will safely go down in rock history as their legendary creation. Closer to home is the story of Chris Ware and Family Guy. Chris Ware is a contemporary comic book artist and well, a visual genius. His body of work is so robust. It's clever, heart-warming and beautiful. Chris Ware may be a God among artists but he is not a Household Name. And unless someday it comes out that he makes his drawing paper from the skins of his countless victims, he probably never will be. So what happens when a character designer borrows HEAVILY from Chris Ware's artwork in creating a character named Stewie for TV's Family Guy? Well, that character goes on to become beloved by fans of the show and when accusations go out the general population says "Who the fuck is Chris Ware?! We love Family Guy! Weeee! I'm hungry, pass that paste."
Compare and contrast
I wish I was better at putting into words what a travesty this sort of piracy really is. But my strength is in visual communication. Actually, it's my entire livelihood. I know that a lot of people have trouble seeing value in art, graphic design, illustration. There is a certain intangibility, even frivolity perceived in it. You can't eat, drive it, or build a bridge with it. And once its been created and made digital, I'm sure it feels completely harmless to just pluck it from the Internet and use it for one's own purposes. But good art and design takes a lot of thought, frustration and sacrifice to create. Artists have as much a right as anyone to be compensated for the service we provide. And it is a service. Good artwork and design drives public interest in just about any industry. That means other people make money from it. If someone chooses to use our imagery without going through the "trouble" of actually commissioning an illustration or licencing existing artwork, it's no less of a theft than walking out of Best Buy with a flat screen TV.
You wanted it. You took it. You benefit from having it. But you didn't pay for it.
This isn't meant to be a sob story. I only wanted to voice my thoughts and point of view on the subject and raise some awareness for folks who are surrounded by art and design, in other words, just about everyone. I ask that the next time you hear that "someone you've never heard of" claims to have created something that is credited to "someone famous", don't shrug it off. Hear them out.
*UPDATE* The parent company for SB Nation has since responded to my email. They have added a credit and link under the video and sent out promotional tweets pointing people to my work. I do appreciate these efforts. For now, I'd like to keep this post up as the issue in general is worth talking about.
For the record, here are some more thoughts on bears with guns and pictures of my "Bad Bear" through it's existence:
Here is the original sketchbook drawing.
The original painting sold to a private collector in 2008.
The T-shirt debuted at Wonder-con 2009
San Diego Comic-Con 2009
Seattle Weekly photo of me at Emerald City Comic-con 2010
A bit more about the originality of this "bears with guns" theme. I'm certainly not the first person to think of this gag. When you consider the pun of "The Right to Bear Arms" (though I hadn't) it's an easy leap to a joke about a bear with a gun, but it did come to me organically. It happened in 2006 when I started painting work with an over-the-top Western theme. I wanted to answer the question of what would be the scariest thing ever to a cowboy. The childish answer of "a bear with a gun" popped to mind. I've created a lot of armed bears since then. Its funny and people respond well to it. So again, I don't claim ownership of the gag. It's like a zombie Elvis, people can't help but think of it, but it's fairly common as ideas for characters go. At this point I just try to do it my own way and let others do it their way.
Thanks for reading!!