Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Art Thief vs. The Dinosaur Bloggers

This story concerns online art theft, copyright infringement, a plucky band of bloggers, and dinosaurs.  

How Not to Steal Artwork Online 

The Art Thief vs the Dinosaur Bloggers

Dramatis Personae:

  • ART Evolved, the online paleo-art blog and network of approximately 20 paleontology-inspired artists and illustrators who blog.
  • deviantArt (known as dA), the massive online art sharing site.  When I say massive, as of August 2010, dA has over 14.5 million members and over 100 million pieces of art uploaded into it (Wikipedia). For those in the science community unfamiliar with it, it acts like Facebook and Flickr, but heavier on the painting and drawing than photography with lots of manga and comics and inspired amateurs. 
  • Dr. Manabu Sakamoto, aka Mambo-Bob, an artist contributor to Art Evolved and paleontologist at the University of Bristol. He blogs at The Raptor's Nest
  • *theSpinosaurusGuy, aka Brenden, a dA user. 

The events:
Early yesterday morning, Manabu emailed the rest of the list of Art Evolved members about something all artists fear:  someone else was posting his artwork online and taking credit for it. This person, known by the dA pseudonym of theSpinosaurusGuy (real name listed as "Brenden") had posted about 12 of Manabu's dinosaur drawings on deviantArt and was taking credit for them, watermarking them with his pseudonym and posting dA-enabled widgets in his gallery saying they were not to be copied.

Another artist on dA who is also familiar with Manabu's work had alerted him.

You can see Manabu's artwork here in his online gallery.  Click on Allosaurus-top view for example.
You can see in the screen-captured images below, theSpinosaurusGuy clearly claiming this as his own.  Note the same Allosaurus top view drawing on the left. 

Click to enlarge.  Note the watermark on the right-hand image, claiming that as his own as well.
Note the watermark and the "artist's" comment.

It's theft.  Pure and simple.  It's not a re-use, or a fan homage to Manabu's art.  It's not a gallery where theSpinosaurusGuy collected his favourite pieces of art (dA does have that feature, and everything is clearly labeled as the original artists' work.) He is not claiming to be Dr. Manabu Sakamoto, he is instead claiming the artwork as his own labour.

Manabu doesn't have a deviantArt account.  A number of other dA members do however, and with a minimum of discussion, we acted as individuals, but part of a group helping our respected peer.

I started by making a brief comment on the Albertaceratops, the feathered raptor, the top-view Allosaurus and a few others.  DeviantArt is very aware that this type of behaviour can and does occur, and has a mechanism to deal with it.  Next to every posted artwork, there is a "Report a Violation" link, which allows you to write a brief description of the complaint, and provide a link to evidence it's a violation.

I filled about 6 of these out.  I also left comments beneath each one with links back to Manabu's gallery so others could see for themselves:  deviantArt is a very social site, you can add friends, comment and click "favourite" on art have nested conversations.  I left the comments so new visitors would see that theSpinosaurusGuy wasn't the artist he claimed to be.

The Art Evolved Network reacts:
Letting Manabu and our Art Evolved peeps know what I'd done, I came back a couple of hours later to find that theSpinosaurusGuy had blocked me from making further comments and labeled me a spammer. Of course, the comments I'd made were all deleted.

But it didn't matter.  You see, Peter Bond, of Bond's Blog and one of the driving forces behind the current Pink Dinosaur charity drive is also a dA user, and started to comment on the rest of the ones I had missed. And what Bond did was brilliant: he replied in the nested comments to previous commenters who had unwittingly praised the thief. Now, all of the people praising the work knew Spino-Brenden was a fraud.

While that was done, I had received automated messages from the dA moderators that they had removed the 6 pieces of art I had complained about: within about 4 hours! Not bad for a site with approximately 1.5 million comments daily!

Discussion in the Art Evolved emails was heating up.  More members of Art Evolved, like Ville SinkonnenRaven AmosTrish Arnold and Nima Sassani jumped in and continued to post messages. Ville and Trish posted journal entries on dA about it, Peter re-posted Ville's, and I posted a critique of one of the works. Journals and critiques can't be deleted by the offender.

And we were civil:  let's be clear here, I think all of us recognized that theSpinosaurusGuy is likely somewhat young and naive about art, copyright and social media. This was not a pile-on with the intent rip him a new one.  Most of us called for the artist to stop deleting comments, feel ashamed, and give Manabu an apology.

More artwork was removed by the dA moderators (go moderators!) Some of theSpinosaurusGuy's former dA friends started to chastise him on his message wall. As I write this, only one of Manabu's drawings, a ceratosaurus, is still on the site.  Another dA user, not affiliated with Art Evolved has found that a computer-generated Barney the Dinosaur parody actually belongs to another artist Spino-Brenden has stolen from.

Message to theSpinosaurusGuy:

Once the jig was up, dude, if you're reading this, you should have apologized and taken them down immediately. Comments like the ones in the screen-capture below just enraged everyone.

    Click to read the jackass-ishness.
As I said before, I suspect you are younger than many of us in Art Evolved, and probably in your teens.  DeviantArt is a great place where you can find a niche for almost anything and have positive contact with people, and maybe that's what you were looking for.  

And I get that.  One of the ways to appear as a respectable, sensible adult is to take responsibility for your mistakes. It's still not too late.  You'll continue to take some heat from some people on dA no doubt, but suffer through it, and become what you admire.   
What this means:  
There's a reason I asked Manabu and our Art Evolved peeps if I could write about this experience.

You see, the online world has changed things. Now there's a niche for artwork of every kind, and lots of people with similar interests can find each other quickly.  And while dinosaurs are granted a certain fondness and awesomeness in popular culture, there's a relatively small niche of artists passionate enough about them to be really into it.

Theft is going to get found out.

All of us on Art Evolved experienced a point in time where we made a decision to go online with our artwork.  It's a tough decision, and everyone frets to varying degrees about what will happen if our work is stolen.
  • We slap copyright symbols on it, and some of us put obscuring watermarks on the images.
  • We employ Creative Commons Licences, or rail against Google ImageSearch for making it so easy.  
  • We vary on how much we protect our artwork, and how much we like to share it.  
  • None of us is likely to know if an indie punk band in Vienna has downloaded our Diabloceratops for their gig posters.  

So if you're an aspiring artist looking to get into paleo-art or any kind of image, and you're nervous about making a big enough name for yourself online, here's some stuff you can do.

  • Don't steal. 
  • If it's a fan homage, say it is.  
  • Don't re-post someone's stuff without asking.  
  • If they have a blanket statement saying it's okay, make sure you link back to them and give them credit.   
  • Always give artists, illustrators and image-makers credit. Always.
  • Just ask.  Always ask if it's cool.  Most illustrators love feedback.
  • Use the © symbol a lot. State what you want. 
  • Blog.  Post comments elsewhere.  Reciprocate.
  • Become friends and peers to others with similar interests. 
  • If you can, be part of a network or group online. 
  • "I got yer back" is one of the most heart-warming statements you can utter to a friend. 

If someone steals your work, 
  • make a fuss. 
  • Go through proper channels. 
  • Be civil and intelligent when you dialogue. 
  • Ask for help from your support network.  

I encourage anyone to put their artwork online.  And becoming part of a network makes everyone stronger than without it.

Thanks to:
All of the Art Evolved crew for giving one of our own your support and for carrying yourselves maturely. 
To the deviantArt moderators for reacting quickly.
To other dA artists for shaming the behaviour and not shrugging their shoulders. 
And to Manabu for agreeing I should write about this.

-Glendon Mellow
[All above opinions are my own.  Cross-posted on both Art Evolved and The Flying Trilobite]
- - - - - - - -

Artwork in those screen captures is by the talented Manabu Sakamoto © 2010 of The Raptor's Nest.


Trish said...

Excellent post, Glendon! I want to reiterate something important from it:

Readers, fans, everyone else, if you like our art and would like to use it, please don't be shy, just ask us!

Nine times out of ten, we'll say yes, because we love being able to add things to our resume. Furthermore, steal art and you'll usually get a crappy jpeg with a watermark and an artist who will eventually found out and get p***ed (as in this case). Ask permission and you may receive a high-resolution image fit to print or a brand-new original piece just for you.

We're people too. We won't bite. Just ask.

Peter Bond said...

Well said, Glendon, I am in total agreement!

I'd like to promote the fact that we shouldn't be scared of putting our art online, we just need to be wary. Being part of an online group, such as ART Evolved, means you have people - as you said, Glendon - watching your back.

I also absolutely agree 100% with what Trish just said.

David Tana said...

Glendon - great job on the post. This is an issue that I'm sure a lot of people have with putting their work online. And no one should have to deal with what Dr. Sakamoto did yesterday.

It is however, great to see that there is a community like ART Evolved that steps up to meet a challenge like this. You guys are really outstanding.

Tommy said...

Great post Glendon! It's reassuring that cheaters like that are found and stopped by the community. As Trish pointed out, most artists will be happy to share their work if you ask for permission. I'm a believer in giving credit where credit is due, whether you're talking about art or science.

If evolutionary ecology has taught me anything, it's that any system which relies upon good behaviour by a collective are open to exploitation by cheaters, so it's good to see that there are cheater detection and punishment mechanisms in place!

Glendon Mellow said...

Thanks everyone and thanks Peter and David for posting on your own sites about it as well.

I know I took the long route with the post but it seemed appropriate to go through each stage of what happened.

Again, it was great to see the community rally behind protecting Manabu's copyright, which is at heart not just a legal issue, but a moral one as well.

Albertonykus said...

A Crowning Moment of Awesome/Heartwarming to all involved! (Except, of course, the art thief in question.)

I regrettably arrived too late to get in on the action, but I'm also glad it was solved so quickly!

Rachael Revelle said...

Excellent Glendon- I'ts encourageing that there are still people in the world willing to stick their neck out for others.

I've tried to check out 'Spinoguy's' site this morning and there seems to be nothing on there. I'm not a member of Deviant Art but there is nothing in the gallery for public view at all and no other journals or anything either, maybe he's jumped ship?

Alexandernevsky said...

That guy has actually done this before, he posted some of my work on there claiming it to be his own a while back. DA took it down, but it seems he didn't get the point!

Nima said...

Great post Glendon!

We definitely need to watch each other's backs, and I'm glad this art thief got busted and exposed, and Manabu's art is no longer being ripped off. But Spinosaurusguy is being a total idiot about the whole thing, denying he did anything wrong and not apologizing, so I'd keep an eye on him in case he pulls something like this again. The worst part is not even that he didn't ask permission - it's that Spinosaurusguy posted Manabu's art in his own gallery, stealing the credit for it and claiming it was his own work!

The theft of intellectual property online is unfortunately a risk we take when we post our stuff on the internet, but the internet also gives us the tools to combat it. DA as well as blogger and most web platforms do have established procedures for reporting plagiarism.

Trish makes an excellent point, if you want to use our art, just ask. I had two requests this past month alone for using some of my art in school projects, I said yes to both because these people were courteous and gave me credit for the art. We're not monsters, we like seeing our art pop up in more places - as long as we know about it and you give us due credit for the work. Tell us what you want to use it for and we'll most likely say yes.

Nima said...

@ Alexandernevsky
That's just shocking...
I don't know how Spinosaurusguy managed to convince himself that he could fool people into thinking your work was his... there's no resemblance.

To be blunt, your art is masterpiece, professional quality, beautiful original work. :)

His is total crap clumsily copied from Jurassic Park books and various cartoons.

Thanks for mentioning this though - if we ever need to build a file on him, this info is very helpful. Now that we know he's done this before, it's pretty likely he may do it again.

Glendon Mellow said...

Thanks for the info, Alexander!

I agree with Nima: fantastic work!

However, Nima, one thing I feel compelled to point out: it doesn't matter if theSpinosaurusGuy's work was of good quality or not.

The more I think about it, the closest I can do to give him the benefit of the doubt is to assume he was looking for a shortcut to the generally positive community on dA.

Nima said...

I agree, Glendon... I'm not concerned about the quality of Spinoguy's stuff per se, as it doesn't change the fact of his offense in the least. I was just a bit puzzled at how on earth he expected to pass off Alexander's work as his own. Unless he didn't have his own work up at the time or actually was under the assumption that his plagiarism would let him rub shoulders with accomplished paleoartists on DA and not get busted (which defies all logic to me - I think Spinoguy was just looking for some quick attention from more casual dino-fans who aren't familiar with many names in the paleoart community, and not expecting that more serious enthusiasts and artists would find and expose him so quickly - his panic and frustration seems evident with the hiding of so many comments this time around).

Tuomas Koivurinne said...

Excellent and thorough report about this rather annoying incident.

I must say that amongst the dA paleo-artists, there seems to be some un-written rule concerning such cases, equivalent to "I got yer back" you used there.
People will inform the art thief that his/her actions are noted, they notify the original artist and report violations to the admins.

Let's keep it this way in the future!

Alexandernevsky said...

Thanks for the compliments! At least this incident has shown the great community spirit around!

Dinorider d'Andoandor said...

oh, and there was no hyperlink, no permission, no request, no reference, no anything! too bad! at least I suppose he should have learned the lesson!

Anonymous said...

Good on you all for standing up for artists rights!
Authorship is becoming so devalued and copyright has so little respect these days when you can download anything.
Art work of all kinds is beginning to have a default value of $0.
So well done for reminding at least one person that they are taking the labor of another for granted.