Folks, I cannot stress how important it is to make sure you have proper licensing agreements in place when you create any artistic work. I write as someone who knows what it’s like to have my artwork misappropriated and then reproduced and sold — all without my knowledge, authorization, or any licensing / royalty fees paid.
The first time it happened was two decades ago in high school, when a large piece I had been working on (of a fictional super heroine) using pencil and conté had been getting several compliments during it’s development. A day after it was finished, it vanished from the art classroom where our works were stored. One of my classmates took it during the short time I had to exchange belongings at my locker, in between class periods.
I remember feeling puzzled. Why would someone steal my work? What the heck were they going to do with it? Frame it? Sell it? I didn’t even think much of it anyways, but apparently it was valued so much by someone that they would steal it.
The second time it happened was in the mid-2000s, when I had a website up online that featured some of my landscape artwork created using a mixture of hand-drawn design and digital post-processing. The works were signed with my full name or initials in the bottom corner. But I didn’t create the artwork with the intention to sell it; rather I put up the artwork for anyone to freely download and use as their Windows background wallpaper. (I was well into a busy and fulfilling corporate sales career at that time; I had no intention of running an art studio on the side.)
So imagine my surprise when a friend, who was traveling abroad, texted me from the UK asking if I was selling my artwork anywhere.
“Nope.” I answered firmly, while sitting at my desk at home.
He pressed me: “Are you sure? Because I’m standing here in a bookstore in London, and your framed artwork is up on the wall. For sale.”
I replied: “I’m pretty sure. I haven’t put up my work for sale anywhere, or consigned it. So that can’t be my artwork.”
“Sal. It’s your signature I’m looking at, on the bottom of these works.” he texted back.
That single line of text broadsided me, straight out of left field. I remember feeling stunned, as if someone had just slammed a brick wall into my face.
I wondered if perhaps this is how someone feels when framed of a crime; being told that their fingerprints, hair follicles, or other biological markers were found at the scene of a crime that they definitely had never been to. I was speechless. My tongue went dry as I stared at the screen on my phone. Of course I went through a brief stage of shock, denial, and then anger as I realized that people had been taking the digital files from my site, then printing and selling the prints.
I didn’t ask my friend what substrate my artwork was printed on. I didn’t ask about the size and dimensions, and I didn’t ask at what price they were being sold at, or even the name of the bookstore. All I could think of doing was immediately shutting down my website. I spent the next few hours in a quiet daze, unsure what to do.
Over the following years, I had several occasions where friends or acquaintances that were involved in local art shows asked me if I would consider submitting some of my artwork, and I would always decline — due to such experiences.
Fast-forward to 2016–2017.
Here I am with my new studio Maverick & Blueberry, planning to put my artistic passion and engineering talent into lifelong practice, doing what I genuinely love and enjoy.
One of the planned lines of art will include licensed intellectual property from globally-recognized names, and of course this entails discussions with the legal counsel representing these names. These talks also require significant consideration of steep licensing fees and royalties involved — usually beginning in the low five-figure range, with associated restrictions on product, market, and geography.
Now imagine my surprise when, referring these counsel to examples of independent art studios out there that have artwork vaguely similar to what I’m designing, to be informed by them that these studios had no licensing agreements allowing them to use such IP in artwork.
And imagine my consternation and internal turmoil when, barely a day after such conversations, I find that these art studios have taken down their shingles and closed up shop.
Inside, I felt deeply divided.
On one hand, in my heart I wondered had my actions inadvertently deprived a fellow artist of income that was supporting their family and paying their mortgage? And on the other hand, my mind insisted that I had done nothing illegal or even unethical; but rather quite the opposite. It was an open-and-shut case of preventing intellectual theft, of preventing the misuse of one artist’s designs by another artist.
Which brings me to the crux of my post:
I strongly implore my fellow creatives to conduct themselves with integrity and ethics.
Some of you are just starting your creative journey, while others are several years down that road. Many of you have spouses and young children to support through your work. Others simply have a genuine passion for creating art, just like I do. It goes without saying that you want to be successful in your pursuit of whatever commercialized creative initiatives you’re undertaking.
So why sabotage your efforts through such shortsighted actions?
At best you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you violate the IP rights of other fellow creatives, as potential clientele may shy away from your work if they realize it isn’t authentic. You may not even realize you’re losing potential customers.
And at worst you’re digging your own grave; many of the ultimate owners of well-known brands and trademarks will have zero hesitation in drowning you in legal challenges if they come across your unlicensed work, and will likely sue for financial damages depending on the scope of the violation.
Yes, there’s nothing wrong with being inspired by something you saw or heard in your travels. Creativity doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Those ideas are genuinely your own.
But unlicensed use (a.k.a theft) of copyrighted symbols, trademarks, and visuals?
Yes, I understand the lure of a quick buck while flying under the radar. But I implore you to work hard and develop unique solutions — whether your own or in concert with others — to the challenges you encounter on this journey. Go back to the drawing board as often as you have to — whether ten times or ten thousand.
I cannot overstate the deep respect I have for any person who sets out to build value with their own brain and hands, especially one who has the tenacity to keep trying in the face of repeated setbacks and failures. And I’m not the only one who takes my hat off for such souls; for here’s none other than one of America’s greatest and most beloved leaders, Theodore Roosevelt:
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
I find immense value in your proverbial wrinkles, creases, lines, and gray hairs. They speak to me of experience, of failures and success, of long nights powered by caffeine (or your choice of stimulant), and of the fickle, irregular flow of creativity that we are all too familiar with; the bone dry spells where it feels like you’re stranded in the Sahara Desert, as well as the times when it’s surging like the Niagara Falls and we don’t have a bucket large enough to contain it all.
There are billions of challenges of all kinds in modern life and you, my fellow creatives, possess some of the best minds that humanity has to offer. Don’t sell yourself short by committing intellectual property theft. You’re worth far more than that.
A clean conscience is the softest pillow you can lay your head on.