Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Art Theft

I guess I'll just whine.

I made a fan comic about two Steven Universe characters a while back and every time I share it in a new place I'm pleasantly surprised by how many people love it. I'm not an experienced fan artist or really an experienced artist at all, and it's a pretty new experience for me to have people sending me over-the-top compliments about something I've done, but I'm sure the biggest draw of the comics I did was the writing. I at least have confidence in my ability to do that, but I think the drawings came out unusually good for me, too, so I'm pretty proud of it.

I even learned swanky talk bubbles just for this project!
It was incredibly well-received on Tumblr, with thousands of notes and really flattering tags, people suggesting that it made them cry and whatnot. (I'm making a cute little collage of all my favorite tag compliments. I know it's silly, but it's also hard to look at the comments on Tumblr if they're left in tags, so I saved the images and put them together.) I made new friends from people private-messaging me to tell me how much they liked it, got hundreds of new followers, all that. 

Then I joined Steven Universe Amino, and while the people there were equally enthusiastic and similarly complimentary, several of them also commented that they'd seen this comic elsewhere. A couple, tellingly, said "I've seen this around and couldn't find who made it! IT'S SO COOL THAT I FINALLY KNOW WHO DID IT!"


So apparently the comic has been swiped and shared in at least four or five places without credit. On the one hand, I guess I've never made something that got popular enough and appreciated enough that people wanted to rip it off, so it's kinda exciting that that many people found it worthy. But? Yeah what the hell people not even a basic credit? I know it can be a pain to ask for permission from every artist whose work you want to share (and that's one of the reasons I love Tumblr's system: reblogs that put someone's work on your blog are easily traceable to the original poster, and no one thinks you're stealing it if you reblog it). But it's not like my cartoon blog is hard to find. And it obviously had to start with at least one someone deliberately saving the images off my blog and putting them somewhere else, knowingly, without saying who made them.

So it's been on Pinterest, it's been shared around groups on Facebook, and it has been made into a slideshow on YouTube at least twice by people who didn't make any attempt to find the original artist. (One of said YouTube accounts explicitly has a statement up about how they don't credit art because "it's too hard to find the original artist," okay dude, and their subscriber base of over 32,000 people is there for content that is simply recycled and shared without permission or credit. Someone's monetized YouTube is making money off art they're using without credit.) I messaged one of them and specifically asked my blog link to be included in the info, which isn't too much to ask considering I wasn't asked permission at all and it's nice of me to even let them keep it. But I didn't get an answer, so I submitted a copyright claim. Haven't heard anything back from that yet, but maybe I will. YouTube actually usually is pretty good with copyright claims.

Sadly, I hesitated to submit said claim partly because I feared backlash from the person's followers. It's a very popular account and if you get too many strikes you can get your account deleted. I can certainly imagine the account owner or any number of their followers turning on me furiously claiming that I should not make a big deal of this or that I should in fact be grateful for the exposure. Ah, exposure. That old chestnut, frequently thrown in the face of artists who expect basic respect for their work. I'm not even asking to be paid for its use, y'all. I'm asking to have my name and credit attached to it instead of specifically, deliberately removed from my intended place of display, to the point that people in the comments were asking who the creator is and no one can say. (Dude, a reverse image search isn't hard, and very few people out there have actually made a comic about this subject, so even a text search works.) This is not, like, an extremely old Internet post, or a post from a deleted blog that's hard to dig up the source on, or an image originally shared online for the first time by someone who doesn't know where it came from. It's easy to find me. They simply choose not to.

It makes me angry.

I've seen a few places where sites are offering PDF downloads of my book for free. Most of them are places that are questionable and potentially infested with viruses, and I don't know how accurate the downloads are. I don't bother with them. People are going to try to get stuff for free, and many of them do it partly because they cannot or would not have purchased the book anyway--I feel that very few book download pirates would suddenly become customers if they were forced to choose between getting it illegally for free and not having it at all. I'm not saying it's okay to not pay an author and their publisher for a product you want--yes, it's still stealing. But I think at least in that case, my name is still attached to it and the publisher's name is still on it. It isn't some orphaned piece of content that no one can trace. If someone steals a copy, they can still quote me, or recommend me to another person who might pay for the content, or list it on resources properly.

But when someone separates content from its creator, whether through carelessness or deliberately (as they do when people like this go as far as to actually erase artists' signatures), it's basically treating content people worked very hard on as if it belongs to everyone freely, to put anywhere, to do anything with. I heard my comic was put on YouTube with voice actors doing dubbed voices for the characters, reading my dialogue! I haven't found that anywhere, so maybe the person who told me they saw it was mistaken or maybe it's taken down or maybe its title is so obscure that I can't find the content (deliberately?), but people are making transformative works or including my work in their aggregate posts and not including any connection to the person who made it. Don't people want to know the artist? So they can follow them and see more of their work, or send them a nice message like so many of these people on Tumblr and Amino and DeviantArt have been doing? 

People like this content because it makes them feel something. I'm baffled at the idea that people want to enjoy content I made but think it's either unimportant or wrong for me to expect credit for it. And why do you care if you're not being paid for it either way? you might ask. Oh, come on now. I'm seeing comments like that levied at artists who are also being told "You should work for exposure." How is it "exposure" if the vast majority of the shares are "exposing" my work but not the fact that it is mine?

And perhaps it's also a little strange to be making such claims about fan works. They are clearly derivative content and I don't own the characters or their stories, so what is the point of being possessive of works derived from them if I don't have permission from the creators to make these works?

Actually, first of all this cartoon is specifically made by people who grew up with the Internet and fan communities; they're basically half a generation younger than I am, and their celebration of fan works when they were learning to be the artists they are has informed their perspective and has led them to be highly fan-work-supportive. They say as much in interviews, all the time, and encourage people to write their stories in the universe and create their own characters too. There's no belief amongst the creators that fan works infringe on the main work, I guess unless they are making unauthorized products that they're then selling on a large scale. (Even that is a gray area sometimes.)

But even if that wasn't the opinion of the creators, it's still an original work by an artist who deserves to be credited for doing it. Making the comic doesn't make me an owner of the characters or their stories. But the hours I spent and the care I put into coming up with the story are not lessened through acknowledging that they are not original characters. My name on it just says "I made this," not "I own everything associated with this."

And it just makes me really furious that they can love my content so much that they want to put it in their own spaces, but they don't think I deserve the basic respect of being credited.



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