This article is not about the larger issue of piracy, which I know many people have very strong opinions about…but what to do about the unavoidable practical reality of the free-flow of images and information on the web. If your stuff is out there, there’s a good possibility that someone is going to use it in a way that you didn’t intend. In some cases, others can use your art without permission. So before you get upset, ask yourself:
Are they making any money from it?
Did they put it on merchandize, like a t-shirt? Are they selling it as a print? If they’ve posted it on their blog, does their blog sell advertising? If it’s music, are they using it to score their ad, or short film that is being monetized with advertising, or are they otherwise charging people to see or hear something you made?
What do you do if someone’s using your art without permission?
Well, if they’re actively making a buck from it and you’ve not permitted them explicitly (or implicitly) to do so, you can tell them to stop, and threaten legal action if they do not. I’ve even heard of a case in which the copyright holder told the appropriator that they would not pursue the matter legally if the appropriator stopped immediately and gave them a portion of the merchandise or profit. In this case the appropriator complied, and the copyright holder ended up with a bunch of nice t-shirts with their image on them.
If they won’t stop and you decide to pursue it in court, you have to ask: is it worth it? A court battle could be very expensive, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll win. Another option is to get a lawyer to write an official Cease and Desist order, but this too costs money. So: Could your potential legal costs outweigh the appropriator’s potential profits?
What if they have altered it beyond all recognition?
No matter what you do, someday, in your lifetime or after, someone is going to do something with your art that you (would) find appalling. They’re going to put it in an ugly gold-leafed frame. They’re going to throw it the garbage. They’re going to use it as the basis for some abominable Hollywood movie, or sample it in some horrible dance mix. That’s life. You’re going to have to get used to the idea.
What if they are not making any money from the use of your work?
If they’re not profiting from it and your work is widely known, you won’t catch every instance of appropriation, anyway. It’s not worth the grief. It happens all the time. But if the work is reasonably unaltered and generally recognizable as yours, you can simply ask for your name to be prominently displayed with the work.
It’s not an endorsement, it doesn’t mean you approve. It’s just a credit. You can even ask them to mention your website. And if you feel it’s necessary, let them know that if they do ever intend to profit from it they will need to talk to you. Otherwise, I’d let it go. It’s free exposure.
But I thought “exposure” was bullshit?
“Exposure” is bullshit, when it’s used as an excuse not to pay for your labor. If someone wants to use your work in a for-profit project, they must pay you for it, even if it is a preexisting work. You should never work for free. If someone wants you to create original work for a project they don’t intend to profit from, and they’re not your best friend or a close family member, I wouldn’t recommend it. If it’s for a charitable cause, make sure it’s one that you really care about. Otherwise not getting paid devalues your work and your discipline. “Exposure” isn’t an excuse.
But when someone uses existing work for a project they do not intend to profit from, whether it’s posting it on their Facebook page, blog, or for any other personal creative endeavor, that’s the kind of exposure you can afford. It costs you nothing: Not the loss of potential revenue you would receive from a commercially sold product, nor your time. It’s free advertising, and it makes your work that much more familiar to your potential audience.
In the age of the Internet, someone will use your art without permission.
And if you don’t find a way to make peace with it, or deal with it practically, you’re only going to drive yourself nuts. You’re going to spend a lot of valuable work time chasing windmills. Personally, I prefer to spend my time making stuff than appointing myself the copyright police.