The Assumptions of Theft

One of the biggest issues facing creative minds in the age of the internet is that of theft—of art, of ideas, of design work, even of code.

When we creative types come upon an instance where our work or the work of friends has been repurposed/stolen/ripped, we naturally are upset. We rally our fellow artists to build an army of good against those who would steal that which we painstakingly created from scratch. We send emails, tweets, facebook posts, blog posts, journal posts, and even send snail mail in an attempt to discourage the thieves. We will insult them, threaten them with lawsuits, and make their lives so difficult that they will naturally have no choice but to take down the stolen work.

I have also had my work stolen in many ways. Logos I have created have appeared on websites where the thieves are attempting to actually re-sell the work, artwork I’ve made has appeared on other websites as both decoration and downloadable/purchasable products, and in one instance some of my work was included as a wallpaper option on cell phones sold in Israel (true story). In my work for deviantART, I have also witnessed my team’s work stolen and repurposed in many unauthorized ways: official logos have been placed on inexplicable things, Fella has been repurposed in inexplicable ways (I once saw him on a truck advertisement), and even promotional designs/articles we’ve built have been repurposed on other websites. In short, I am no stranger to theft.

That said, the creative community at large makes assumptions when it encounters theft. It assumes that the thieves are stealing the work knowingly, and that the thieves are making loads of cash as a result. In my experience, these assumptions are rarely true.

Allow me to elaborate.

Many so-called thieves who take our work and put it on their websites are often under the assumption that they are doing us a favor. They believe they are sharing our work and showing it off to the world. Who wouldn’t want to see their work displayed by countless others? These individuals typically have no understanding of copyright or fair use, and when they are accused of theft they are typically surprised and insulted. Again, they thought they were doing something nice! In the modern age of social sharing, one can understand how relocating artwork might be viewed as acceptable.

There are also the so-called thieves who incorporate other people’s work into their own. Much like the individuals who thought they were helping us out by sharing our work, these people have no grasp on copyright, and in fact they assume that pictures on the internet are free to use. They are not knowingly stealing the work, but rather they thought the work was so wonderful that they wanted to incorporate it into something they were making. When I was a teacher, I would catch some of my students digging through Google Images, looking for pictures to use in their designs. Naturally I put a stop to this and educated them on the err of their ways, but I’ve only personally affected a handful of people. On the whole, many students and adults have the assumption that internet = free and nobody is really teaching them how wrong they are.

Lastly, there are those folks who knowingly steal our work and try to re-sell it. Logos, artwork, etc. When we see this work up for sale, we assume they are raking in boatloads of mullah. In actuality, this is almost never the case. Granted, they are positioning the stolen work so that it could generate revenue, but typically the thieves are not very good at promotion, distribution, or business. So, the work almost never sells.

This is not to say we should forgive those who knowingly or unknowingly steal our work. Not at all. But I do think we should be more aware of the reality surrounding perceived theft so that we are not so quick to jump to conclusions about our would-be thieves. When you encounter something you perceive as theft, take a moment and think through the possibilities. Did they knowingly steal it, or did they just make a mistake of ignorance?

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