The Rise of Digital Art Theft and the Evolving Concept of Art Ownership

In the vibrant world of digital art, a dark shadow is cast by the prospect of art theft. Unlike traditional art, which can be physically owned and displayed, digital creations are extremely vulnerable to right-click replication and unauthorized use. The digital age has turned ideas like ownership and fair use on their head. Making matters worse, digital artists often feel like they have no real ways to protect their work online. It’s a serious issue that needs a serious solution.

To learn more about the direct impact of digital art theft, we spoke to Megan Majewski, a Vancouver based artist whose paintings are as unique as her approach to finding inspiration. Lavishly dressed in bright pastels, her work introduces the viewer to a range of beautifully haunting figures, and scenes. The source of Megan’s inspiration is deeply personal; she shares that her focus is on capturing the shadows in her unconscious and bringing them to life through symbolism and figures in her paintings. Each piece is thoughtfully composed, and skillfully created.

Online, Megan is better known as deadkittie. Her art can be purchased on select platforms including her personal shop. You can probably guess what the benefits of an online storefront are, but let’s talk about the added layer of risk that comes with listing work online.

Megan Majewski pictured with her artwork

On the popular digital art-marketplace Etsy, Megan has made close to a thousand sales. Great news, right? Well – this is where things get tough. Platforms like Etsy are skilled at sending consumer traffic to artists’ pages, but sometimes this is the wrong kind of attention. Unfortunately, it was here that Megan experienced having her art stolen and re-sold for profit. While browsing other sellers’ profiles, fans recognized the distinct style of her art, and knew it was being sold by a fraudulent account. Etsy’s internal moderation didn’t catch the problem, and if it hadn’t been flagged by other users, the account would have continued to make sales. This is a big gap in the system.

So, how did this happen?

According to the e-commerce platform, image protection on Etsy is handled through the reporting portal, where sellers register their brands and report art theft, or copyright infringement. Etsy’s reporting team then investigates the alleged infringement. If they deem the listing to have violated the website’s terms of service, they will notify the seller and remove the listing. Very little happens proactively, meaning that problematic transactions can occur before ever being noticed or corrected. What’s worse is that Etsy’s current terms state that there is no way of recovering lost revenue from fraudulent listings.

On the support side, seeking the removal of stolen art is a daunting and stressful task. Artists like Megan find it increasingly challenging to engage with a real person to address the issue. Raising a flag means being stuck talking to a chat-bot, jumping through hoops to hear a human voice, and begin sent into e-mail chain oblivion. With full-time careers and personal responsibilities, digital artists often can’t afford the time investment required to get unauthorized listings of their work removed, or to monitor where and how their art is popping up online.

This approach to content moderation discounts the effort that an artist has put into their work, and the value that it holds professionally and creatively. It also ignores that the issue goes beyond loss of revenue. In hindsight, Megan shares that the most infuriating aspect of the experience wasn’t even the theft itself; it was seeing her work soppily displayed in poor quality. First impressions matter, especially online, where images circulate like wildfire. Widespread availability of stolen, low-quality versions of artists’ work and merchandise can seriously impact perceived value, and threaten the artist’s reputation, and opportunities to grow their brand. The situation is worse when independent sites are created to re-sell work that was stolen. If someone sets up their own website, Megan tells us, it’s hard to know how long it’s been up, or even how profitable their sales have been.

In this digital age, artists like Megan should be reveling in the global reach and immediate accessibility that the internet provides, instead of fighting the specter of piracy. Digital art, like its physical counterparts, deserves recognition, respect, and robust protection, to uphold the integrity of artists and their creations in the digital realm.  If properly addressed, this issue can shift from a cause for concern into an opportunity for strengthening the bonds within the digital art community, while enhancing its reach and impact.

As we look forward to a more secure and creative future, the dialogue surrounding digital art theft needs to be kept alive, rigorous, and responsive to the evolving challenges. This is not just about preserving the sanctity of digital art, but also about recognizing and respecting the value of creativity in our increasingly digital world.

Cover Image Credits: GETTY IMAGES / WIRED

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