The Creative Women Who Fought Back When Their Work Was Stolen

Photo via @lecoledesfemmes.
We have all been copied at some point – from our homework to our outfits – and to be honest, most of the time it's flattering. But for artists and designers, copying is an increasingly pervasive issue. Since social media took off and publishing one's work online became a highly effective way of being noticed, many have had to deal with the devastation of realising, while scrolling through a site like Instagram, that someone else is taking credit for their work.
Many choose to use social media to call out the person or brand in question, which can be effective, especially for bigger creatives who've got a legion of followers rallying behind them.
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Refinery29 spoke to Laura Sfez, creator of the French clothing brand L'Ecole des Femmes, about her experience with this. Since establishing her brand back in 2005, she claims she has seen "at least 200 brands that have copied" her work. Sfez says she responds by messaging them first, which doesn’t always work out. This has led her to take more drastic steps, including posting her work alongside the copycat for her followers to see.
"I go after them. I message them via Instagram, their website, and then when I don't get an answer I take it to the new court of justice – social media. I let the people decide based on their knowledge of the brand and how long I've been around. One can easily scroll through my feed dating back to 2012 and see the birth of the styles," she states.
Julie Houts, a designer at J.Crew and an Instagram illustrator says: "Occasionally, one of my followers will give me a heads up via DM that someone has posted an image of mine without crediting me. In a few rare instances, I’ve discovered people passing my work off as their own, or redrawing it and passing it off as their own."
Houts finds it annoying, adding that it fills her with "a mixture of wonderment and irritation. Wonderment in the sense of just, 'Wow, who would do this and why? Where do they see this going?' And irritation for all the obvious reasons."
Like Sfez, Houts will also message the person directly and ask them to credit her – but the responses are usually divided. "About half the people are happy to credit me and apologise. They find the image on someone else’s page uncredited, and just repost it, like a meme. I can easily understand how that happens. They’re not intentionally not crediting my work. Those exchanges are friendly and easy."
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"Another group [of copiers]," usually a meme account, she says, "never opens my DM, never credits, despite people calling it out."
When Houts is unsuccessful in getting these copycats to stop taking her work, she chooses to block those accounts, which she says gives her more control.
Both Houts and Sfez have found their followers supportive in these cases, but for those with less of a following, would calling someone out on social media still be your best bet? If you don't have your own brand to fall back on, could it affect your future chances of getting work?
Dan Schawbel is a world-renowned career and workplace expert and author of Back to Human, a book which aims to help leaders build stronger team relationships amid our dependency on technology. He said he's often asked what to do if a manager or co-worker takes credit for your work: "People take credit from others regularly but it's rarely talked about publicly because it's embarrassing and frustrating. It happens regularly in hostile work environments that are run by poor managers. When a manager or co-worker is just out for themselves, it makes it really hard to form the strong team bonds, and trust, that contribute to success."
In an office setting this pattern of behaviour will eventually have a negative effect on the perpetrator. "While your manager receives a short-term gain from copying your work, word gets around and eventually no one will want to work for them."
But what about those not in an office setting? What about creatives who deal with the majority of this sort of thing online? Schawbel warns against resolving your private work issues in a public forum and advises: "First, you should share credit when it's due so that you lead by example. Second, if someone steals credit, or your ideas, you should isolate the situation, by talking to them privately."
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He adds that calling out a person or brand could cost you current or potential jobs. Sfez says she’s found the support from her fans overwhelming: "My followers are full of heart and fight. They do not stand for injustice and are so supportive... They will go after the copycat accounts until the images are taken down, these moments are very touching for me." Dan Schawbel suggests that one should "refrain from calling out people publicly for legal reasons, bad karma and retaliation. Instead, I would handle it privately and then move to a lawsuit if necessary."
As an independent creative, there are other methods you could try before an expensive lawsuit. Houts recommends "either watermark or incorporate your handle into the drawing." Paper-based watermarking means including a tactile mark on your work that becomes visible when turning the paper at a certain angle or holding it up to the light. Digital watermarking is much more advanced and lives within metadata. It's associated with hiding digital information in a carrier signal that can verify the authenticity and show the identity of its owner.
Houts has come to accept watermarking as part of the process. "I’ll have someone who outright refuses [to take my image down] and says something to the effect of, 'Its your fault for not watermarking the image'. Or hilariously, one time, 'It's the internet dude. Deal'. Which is maddening but actually, I guess, somewhat valid?"
If you're seeking the next step, Sfez has in some cases sent out cease and desist letters, which she's found to be effective: "Some of these businesses have actually taken down the images of the copied items." A cease and desist letter is a document sent to an individual or business to stop (cease) and not to continue (desist) with a particular behaviour. In order to send this kind of letter, your work must be registered and copyrighted. The letter will then cover the following elements: the recipient (who needs to stop the copyright/trademark infringement), the sender (the individual requesting the recipient to stop the unlawful behaviour), details of the behaviour, which should be followed by the legal action that will be initiated if the behaviour doesn't stop, and finally the date. Needless to say, these should not be sent lightly.
Thanks to the internet, ideas are constantly circulating. Similar work turns up all the time. That being said, if there is one design or idea that you're proud of, should you really let it pass? It begs the question: If you don't nip it in the bud now, will you ever?
In the end, it comes down to weighing up how important this work is to you and whether it's worth the effort of gaining the credit. If it is, then stand your ground. As both Laura Sfez and Julie Houts have demonstrated, there is more than one way to call out copycats.
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