Grand-Theft Insta

Why you need to protect your art on social media.

You wouldn’t steal a car…you wouldn’t steal a handbag…but you’d probably take a sneaky screenshot and repost a meme without attributing the creator.

The infamous “You Wouldn’t Steal a Car” campaign has copped its fair share of mockery and has been deeply ‘meme-ified’. But, it was created in response to a new and serious challenge to the law, triggered by technological advancement. In true IRONY, that campaign against copyright infringement, infringed copyright.

Society evolves, but the same problems keep poping-up, just in different forms: copyright laws were created after the invention of the printing press, because “pirate booksellers” were copying already published “lawful books”.

Now the law must respond to a new type of crime: the copying of art shared to social media. Digital content can now be copied and distributed worldwide virtually instantaneously. While in most cases meme stealing is a victimless crime, creators of artistic content who share their work on Instagram are becoming legitimate victims.

Recently, I’ve seen several high-profile incidents where artists’ work has been ripped off. Melbourne artist, Esther Olsson, was contacted last year by the Hillsong Church. Esther did not consent to her artwork being used. Months later, her artwork popped up on the album cover “There is More”, as well as affiliated merchandise. She received zero royalties or attribution for her work. A Hillsong representative said: “The cover artwork for our new album ‘There is more’ was inspired by many artistic works however we did not use any material produced by one particular artist and no artwork was copied”. I’ll just leave Esther’s post here and you can decide what you believe…

Fashion-giant Zara  copied LA-based artist Tuesday Bassen’s work. They claimed her design’s “lack of distinctiveness” meant that people wouldn’t associate the work to her anyway. And, they dismissed “the handful” of complaints from Bassen fans because they could not be compared to the millions of people who visit the Zara website. Translation? We are more famous and powerful then you, so we’ll do what we want!

Bassen commenced legal proceedings in mid 2016 and racked up thousands of dollars of fees within months.  She commented:

“I hope that one outcome is that I can raise awareness for how often this happens and how few artists can actually afford to pursue it.”


And as much as it pains me to say, because I love my shiny-polka dot raincoat as much as the next gal, Melbourne-born brand Gorman has also been at the centre of a similar controversy.

Social media is clearly a double-edged sword for artists. It provides a tremendous platform for artists to get their name and work out there.

But, social media also makes it easy-peasy to steal artists’ work with one simultaneous click of the lock-screen and home button. We are seeing a shift in trends from user-generated content, to user-found content. On one hand, this means our everyday lives will be confetti-ed with more creative content (woo hoo!). On the other hand, life is now a shit-load harder for the creators of said content (boo!). Twitter and Facebook have made it easier to integrate second-generation content into our profiles, and Pinterest’s entire business-model revolves around found content, as opposed to original content.

Ironically, the publicity that has come alongside those artists fighting for their intellectual property rights has dramatically increased public awareness of their work. So, I guess you could go one of two ways in your artistic career:

  1. Sit-tight and hope some entitled rich company disrespects your rights as an artist, thus catapulting you to notoriety!
  2. Have a geez at Copyright 101 below. That way you can protect your hard work and eliminate any doubt that it is yours when the brilliance of your art alone brings you MOMA level success!

Goodness know that artists work extremely hard for often little return, so damn right you deserve attribution every single time your artwork is used! Clara Edwards of the Australian Council for the Arts writes that “Unremedied infringement and reduced artist income can have the effect of devaluing original works”.


Copyright 101

As one would expect in a system that attempts to regulate creations of the mind, intellectual property law is complex. It has the tough task of reconciling the competing interests of content creators, owners and users.

It is easy to write and enforce laws around black and white issues: you take a framed piece of art from a gallery: you are thief. But what are you if you create a piece of art inspired by another’s work? How much “inspiration” is acceptable? Is ‘inspiration’ being used as a loophole for ripping artists off?  *cough Hillsong cough*.

 It must try and strike a balance between inspiration and individuality, because inspiration does play an important role in art. Even old mate Van Gough was open about how 21 of his works were copies of, or inspired by the work of Jean Francois Millet.


By Jean-François Millet
By Vincent van Gogh

Tell me what copyright is.

A bundle of rights that come into existence immediately upon creation of the work (no registration required). It gives the owner exclusive economic rights to deal with the work it protects. ‘©’ is often used to notify others that the work is protected by copyright, but the symbol is not required for the protection to exist.

Tell me what it protects.

Copyright protects only certain ‘subject matters’. The Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) protects different types of ‘works’, namely: literary, dramatic musical and artistic.

The material must be original. To be original, it need not be innovative (i.e. Zara’s argument that Bassen’s work wasn’t new doesn’t fly), it just must be attributable to the artist’s skill and labour, not copied.

It is important to know that the law only protects subject-matter must be expressed in material form. This means that works can only be protected if they are written down, filmed, expressed visually, or recorded. So, if you have a big, juicy, dazzling idea, pipe down or write it down!

Tell me what I can do to protect my art.

 When you upload an image, resize it to 600 x 600 pixels, maximum. You can resize them in an image editor or Photoshop. And keep the resolution to 72 pixels per inch. Sure, a school kid may be able to take this small image and whack it in their school report, but you have bigger fish to fry.  What is important is that potential buyers can clearly view your work, but no one will be able to profit commercially off an image this small. The best quality they’ll be able to print the image is at a resolution of 72 dpi at 8 x 8 inches. Newspapers typically use a 150 dpi, glossy mags print at 225 and fine art prints require at least 300 dpi.

Here are some other quick and easy ways to provide some protection:

– Add a visible watermark

– Accompany your work with the ‘©’

– Tell users that a high-quality version is available to buy

– Give your contact details

– Disable right-click saving

Fun fact: if you look very closely, Leo included a very tiny ‘©’ in the corner of the Mona Lisa.


Bonus fun fact! I defs made the first fun fact up.

Tell me what I can do if someone uses my art without permission.

A recent case in the United States, Agence France Presse v Morel, set precedent for how copyright infringements via social media will be dealt with. Spoiler alert (in case you’re not in the mood for reading the 50-page judgement), the courts brought the hammer down hard.  Large damages, 1.4 million to be exact (emoji with dollar signs for eyes!) were awarded for copyright infringement. Getty Images shared pictures (without permission) taken by Daniel Morel which he posted to Twitter via TwitPic. Although a desirable result, the court case was drawn out over a number of years and was super expensive. Tuesday Bassen’s case is still ongoing.

Tell me what I can do if someone uses my art without permission but I barely afford to pay extra for guacamole, let alone legal fees.

Emerging small to medium artists often do not have resources to pursue legal action and rely in some way on income streams from licensing, duh.

If you believe your copyrights have been infringed by someone posting your work online, you can issue a takedown notice to the Internet Service Provider (ISP).The ISP will then immediately remove the content and issue an infringement notice to the offender.

You can also hit up the social-network that the copyrighted content has been posted too. As a reminder (because you already learned this when you thoroughly read the terms and conditions of every social-networking site you have joined) users agree not to infringe intellectual property rights upon signing up to social media sites. As a consequence, if your work has been used without your permission, you can also pursue the offender for a breach of the social media site’s terms. Each site has their equivalent, but this is Facebook’s:

Protecting Other People’s Rights                                                                                              

We respect other people’s rights, and expect you to do the same.

  1. You will not post content or take any action on Facebook that infringes or violates someone else’s rights or otherwise violates the law.
  2. We can remove any content or information you post on Facebook if we believe that it violates this Statement or our policies.
  3. We provide you with tools to help you protect your intellectual property rights. To learn more, visit our How to Report Claims of Intellectual Property Infringement page.

Now, I know you arty-folk aren’t typically making your legal knowledge a top-priority. But, have you heard of Jean Francois Millet? Of course you haven’t! If that isn’t enough incentive to be proactive about your intellectual property rights, so that some shady Van-Gogh type can’t swoop in and make it big on the back of your work, then I don’t know what will be.

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