Art piracy and intellectual property theft
"you must be mistaken; I painted this myself"
Splendor in Pink, Mary Sparrow, 2017
I'm just guessing here, but you probably wouldn’t knowingly purchase something that is regarded as stolen goods. It’s just wrong, and besides, once in your possession, it wouldn't feel right either. It will always have that tinge of filth that is only known to you, the buyer.
We live in an online world that is like an open bazaar with tens of thousands of online shops and marketplaces. Millions of products are just a few keystrokes away, and shopping carts can deliver digital goods in a matter of seconds and physical goods the very next day. It’s convenient, entertaining, and possibly even addicting. Similar to the actual world we live in, while most businesses are ethically run and honest, some are run by unscrupulous individuals who you would shun if you knew their true motivations.
Online shops and marketplaces are filled with products displaying images that are used for profit without the consent or license of the original artists. It is a simple process to steal an image from an artist's website or from a listing on a legitimate e-commerce website like Etsy. Low-resolution photographs that otherwise would be unusable as prints or if displayed on a large monitor can be easily enhanced using software that is widely available. Watermarking internet photographs is no longer effective since software exists that can remove watermarks from even the most intricate works of art. And then there are some art pirates who will remove the artist’s signature from the image using Photoshop.
Realistically, theft of intellectual property and art piracy is often difficult to detect unless you know the artist and you are familiar with their work. A screenshot of an online retailer selling something that features one of Mary's paintings is sent to her every other week or so. The week prior to the publication of this article, a follower from Australia reported multiple listings on Amazon selling products that featured several of Mary’s paintings that had been pirated from the internet, possibly from Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, or perhaps just from Google images. It's anybody's guess.
The listing below is an example of art piracy that can be found on AliExpress and features cushion covers adorned with Mary’s Splendor in Pink, shown above. The listing looks legit, and amazingly, it can be found when you search for Mary Sparrow on AliExpress. This is not Mary’s listing; rather, it features a pirated image displayed on a product that was hitherto unknown to Mary and certainly not authorized by her. It is theft. In short, the thieves are profiting from Mary’s work and her passionate commitment to producing beautiful art. It is criminal, and one can only speculate on who created the listing or where they obtained the image. For the record, Mary does not sell any products on Amazon or AliExpress.
AliExpress product listing showing a pirated image created by Mary Sparrow
AliExpress is not alone; there are thousands of retail websites that sell products that have images that are pirated from artists all over the world. It's estimated that 85% of the 3 billion images posted online every day are unlicensed. That translates into 2.5 billion stolen images, according to studies by IMGembed and Copytrack. The issue becomes even more complex with the introduction of AI-generated images that are the product of images, which are extracted from the internet by AI learning tools. (I’ll cover the subject of AI and its impact on art in the future.)
Artists concerned about intellectual property theft and copyright infringement have come together numerous times and filed class action lawsuits against the sponsors (major e-commerce platforms) of those profiting from the sale of stolen images. These lawsuits are usually defeated by the might of corporate lawyers backed by corporate budgets that are considered just another cost of conducting business. And for independent artists operating on thin margins, combating copyright infringement is time-consuming, expensive, and disheartening.
Mary works long hours in her studio creating her works of art and many more hours managing her listings on e-commerce platforms like Etsy, Fine Art America, and Redbubble, to name a few. Time permitting, Mary will contact dishonest sellers and request the removal of their listings. They react in a variety of ways, from utterly asinine remarks like "You must be mistaken; I painted this myself" to outright acerbic ones that imply complete offense on the part of the fraudster. No matter the response, the outcomes resulting from engaging fraudulent sellers are mostly disappointing and frustrating.
Major e-commerce platforms like Amazon and Etsy are acutely aware of copyright and intellectual property infringement and provide avenues for reporting instances of art piracy. However, the process involves the completion of forms that are designed in such a way that the artist has to prove that their artwork is copyrighted and that they are in fact the creator of their original work of art. This process presents a barrier to prosecuting copyright infringement, affording criminals just enough time to establish another online store under a different name for the purpose of concealing their fraud from the artist while making it available to unsuspecting buyers.
While this murky subject is the focus of this article, it is an ugly distraction for Mary that is akin to playing a game of Whac-a-Mole. As a fraudulent seller pops up, she’ll send them a nasty message, and surprisingly, many of them comply, only to have another pop up somewhere else and be spotted by you, the loyal follower of Mary Sparrow Fine Art. Mary greatly appreciates you and all of her followers, and it brings her joy knowing that she has brought smiles to people's faces and tears of happiness to others. So to you, she expresses her deepest gratitude.
As for me, well, it’s on to the next topic. I welcome your suggestions for interesting ideas that will give us a peek into Mary's art world. So please like, comment, and share so others can join us on the journey.