"Cool Image!" PSA

By | Wednesday, December 04, 2019 Leave a Comment
As you may know, trying to make a living in comics is difficult and it often requires creators to really get their hustle on just to make ends meet. What this frequently means -- particularly for webcomic creators, whose business model generally hinges on providing their comics for free as a loss leader for merchandise -- is that creators will often put as much effort into designing t-shirts, stickers, buttons, magnets, and all sorts of other items featuring their intellectual property so they can sell those to fans. Various print-on-demand technologies also mean they're able to test the waters frequently with minimal risk to themselves, so they can throw out lots of design ideas to see what catches their readers' interest.

I think a lot of readers have picked up on this notion (at least at an intuitive level) and realize that they can help steer the product designs by telling creators what images they think are worth putting on a shirt. So whenever a creator posts a new image -- whether that's an actual strip, or a stand-alone piece of art -- a number of readers are almost always bound to respond with something along the lines of, "Cool image! I'd love to have this on a shirt!"

Do NOT -- I repeat, DO NOT do this!

There are some unscrupulous people online who have also realized this creator/audience dynamic and are trying to capitalize on it by stealing the creators' work and selling it as their own! Originally, this was done manually and the reason it wasn't more widespread was because it still took some effort to determine which images were t-shirt worthy. What @Hannahdouken realized (and successfully tested!) was that people aren't doing this manually any more. People have written bots to troll through social media accounts looking for variations of "I want this on a shirt," back-tracking to the image that led to those comments, and downloading that artwork. They created some bogus artwork that said, "This site sells stolen artwork. Do not buy from them." and asked people to reply with "I want this on a shirt."
Screen shot of stolen artwork
Within hours, the design could be seen for sale on Moteefe and on Toucan Style a little later. Had an actual person been reviewing these, they clearly would not have elected to snag that design. The notion that these companies are hiring artists of their own who (allegedly unbeknownst to the company itself) are stealing the art is being shown to be bullshit. That these companies have developed computer programs to seek out and steal artwork like this proves their fundamental business model is based on theft of intellectual property. Some have gone even further, and have the artwork -- if it's mostly text -- OCR'd and they drop an automatically re-lettered version online...
Stolen Artwork t-shirt

So what should you do? Particularly as we're diving head-first into the holiday season at this point!

Well, first, if you see anyone that has a shirt like this available, don't shop there. At all. It would be almost impossible for a casual consumer to tell which images are actually stolen, but given that their business model at least partially relies on them, it's probably a safe bet that most of them are.

Second, if an artist posts an image you'd like to see on a shirt, don't tell them, "I want this on a shirt." Either hit them up in another channel (maybe FB Messenger or Twitter DMs) or ask something more generic along the lines of "Do you have any merchandise of this?"

Another option to help get them into more trouble would be to find images on the accounts of large corporations that are known for being litigious and/or very protective of their brands, and then responding with "I want this on a shirt." Let Disney or Coca-Cola find when one of these companies is caught stealing their designs! I'm pretty sure that's a headache they wouldn't want!

Finally, if you do happen across a great-looking t-shirt design from a place that might be questionable, do a reverse image search and see if you can track down the original artist. It's entirely possible they've already got a shirt with the same design on it, and you'd be supporting the person who actually created it instead of a company that's unashamedly ripping them off.

There is a LOT of what amounts to intellectual property theft in the comics industry. (Go through the Artists' Alley at any convention -- you're almost 100% guaranteed to see unlicensed Spider-Man and Batman prints!) I don't know if it's possible to police this enough to wipe it out entirely, but that doesn't mean we should sit back and knowingly condone it! Go back to the artists that are doing original work, and make sure they're the ones who get paid -- the more money they make doing comics you like, the more comics you like they'll be able to make!
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