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The purloined picture: Visual artists confront piracy on the web

February 3, 2014 


For a few months last fall, Hannah Price was famous. More precisely, she was Internet famous.

In October, the website the Morning News posted a feature on "City of Brotherly Love," a series of photographs Price, 27, had taken of men who catcalled her after she moved to Philadelphia in 2009. Only the site displayed Price’s ambiguously titled works under a more pointed, but click-catching, headline: "My Harassers."

Online news outlets from Slate to Jezebel to Buzzfeed took the bait. More than 15,000 articles and blog posts followed.

And what came out of all that attention for Price? Gallery invitations? Photo sales? Commissions?

"Nothing, really," she said. "It kind of stayed on the Internet."

When music, for example, goes viral, the benefits can be very real — see the Philadelphia-based label Mad Decent, whose single "Harlem Shake" sold hundreds of thousands of downloads on iTunes last year and was due even more in YouTube royalties.

For visual artists, the perks of online celebrity are less clear. And the downsides — from images taken out of context to copyright infringement — are painfully evident.

"There’s a lot of benefits that can come out of your self-promoting online. It can also lead to people misusing your work," said Andrew DeGraff, 35, an artist based in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood whose work has been ricocheting around the blogosphere for the last year. "The tricky part is that it is out of your control. Unless you can capitalize on that 15 seconds of fame on the Internet, it can go right by you."

DeGraff first caught the attention of film bloggers in December 2012 with his series of intricate "movie maps," visualizations of the plots of films like "Star Wars."

The work appeared on Slashfilm.com, the blogs of Wired and Fast Company magazines, and numerous lesser-known sites.

Some got his permission, but not all. Worse, he found sites selling unauthorized prints of his works made from screen shots. DeGraff was upset about the piracy, but even more dismayed to see his name on shoddy, low-resolution prints.

He now has a cease-and-desist form letter on hand, which threatens a lawsuit if the sales aren’t stopped immediately.

"That’s been effective," he said. But he worries that one day it won’t be. "The problem is that really backing up that threat is tough and expensive."

Still, DeGraff doesn’t regret the attention. His own website’s traffic increased a hundredfold nearly overnight, and the limited-edition prints he was offering for $85 apiece sold out within three days.

His work also caught the attention of executives at Disney and other movie studios, who contacted him about commissioning works for their offices.

If DeGraff had kept his work offline, those opportunities might not have come up.

"You have to watch out and protect yourself. But you also have to allow yourself to be vulnerable with it, and that’s just part of the game," he said.

Not everyone shares that sentiment.

A photographer in Philadelphia’s West Mount Airy neighborhood, Bradley Maule, 37, for one, has filed half a dozen lawsuits — at least three of which have been settled — against companies and individuals who he claims over the last decade have nabbed images from his blog "PhillySkyline.com."

Defendants include a car dealership, Stephen Colbert, The Inquirer’s former parent company Philadelphia Media Holdings, and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.

Since Maule licenses his images for a fee, he said, he has to protect his livelihood.

To do so, he often puts subtle watermarks on his images of cityscapes — for example, Photoshopping in buildings that don’t yet exist, or adding his website information to a billboard within the photo.

His lawyer, Conor Corcoran, said such watermarks are crucial, not just because they can help prove ownership of an image. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, artists can get damages up to $25,000 if someone removes their watermark.

Artists serious about protecting an image should also consider registering it with the copyright office for $35, Corcoran said. If a work is registered within three months of release to the public or prior to infringement, artists may recoup up to $100,000, plus attorney’s fees. Without either a watermark-tampering claim or registration, artists can collect only the money they actually lost due to the infringement, which may not amount to much.

"The problem is, most artists don’t know that. They’re not copyright lawyers," Corcoran said. "But in a city like Philadelphia, designs are brazenly stolen from individual artists all the time."

He mentioned Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters, which has been named in more than two dozen copyright-infringement suits since 1995, some of which were settled out of court (although in most cases, the alleged infringement originated with an outside vendor, not within Urban Outfitters’ design department).

Urban Outfitters did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, a nonprofit under the umbrella of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce’s Arts and Business Council, sees about 100 inquiries a year from visual artists concerned with copyright issues, according to the council’s legal-services director, Miriam DeChant.

"As we grow up on the Internet, we have more of that earlier in an artist’s career," she said.

In some cases, she can connect artists with lawyers who work on a pro bono or reduced-contingency basis.

Corcoran said that copyright-infringement cases usually are litigated on contingency, meaning artists pay lawyers a percentage of any award rather than up-front fees.

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That’s good news, because viral success, and fallout, can be unpredictable.

Take Kensington painter Mike Geno, who quickly made an image of bacon strips lined up in a heart formation for a Fleisher Art Memorial fund-raiser.

He began making prints of the work, Bacon Love, in 2009. To his surprise, it became his best-selling image — and his most stolen.

"Everyone thinks they can take whatever they want off the Internet," he said, noting that the image appears most often as Facebook and Twitter avatars. "It’s all free, because it’s not worth anything. Our attitude toward images is a lot looser, because it’s easy to make or steal" using technology.

After noticing the infringement, Geno began periodically searching the Web for his images using the site Tineye.com, and sending out cease-and-desist letters as needed.

But when a licensee, in the midst of negotiating a price for use of the image, vaguely threatened to simply replicate it, Geno decided to register it.

"It’s like insurance," he said, though he has his doubts about the process.

"I actually consider it karma’s way that, once I do this, no one is going to be interested in this image anymore."

 

 


Associated Press