What to Do if Your Work is Copied
For the most part, creative industries consist of hardworking artists. They slave away everyday, making their living by creating unique and original work. Unfortunately, not everyone is wiling to invest the time and work required and these individuals or companies prefer to copy other artists. From big brand names, to one-person Etsy stores, no one is impervious to this. As you can see here and here, it happens quite often. There’s this belief that once a piece of work (art, content, literature etc) is public, it’s fair game. This is a fallacy. The copyright for any piece of work belongs to the creator (unless they choose to sell the copyright) and any unauthorised use or copying of these works is theft.
So what do you do if you discover your work has been stolen? If you aren’t a giant, like Disney for example, going after copycats can seem quite daunting. But I’m here to tell you that as a small business owner, you definitely have a few avenues to follow.
(Note: the following does not in anyway constitute legal advice. Be sure to get the advice of your lawyer if you’re ever in this type of situation)
The law is on your side. In the UK, the copyright of any design or artwork you create is automatically yours. You can register ownership but this isn’t necessary to stake your claim. You’re even protected if your work is copied abroad.
Reach out to the person or organisation that has copied your work and see if you can come to an amicable resolution. This should always be the first step.
If step 1 doesn’t work, go directly to the platform that your stolen work is being hosted on. In most cases, they will pull the offending item and inform the copycat of their action. This works with website providers, social media sites, online storefronts etc. It’s a bit trickier if the items are are only being sold in brick and mortar stores, but you can reach out to the management or the parent company if applicable.
Be prepared to prove that it’s your work. This shouldn’t be difficult as you’ll have sketches, computer files with digital time stamps, email communication, instagram posts, etc. All of these are useful and can help prove ownership and/or show a creation timeline.
If all of the above fail, you might have to go the legal route. A cease and desist letter drafted by a lawyer is often enough, but you might have to take it to court if you don’t get the result you’re after. There are heavy costs associated with this, but if you can find other parties with a case against your copier, you can pool resources and pursue a class action suit. Chances are if someone has copied you, they’ve copied others too.
But what happens if you’re on the other side and someone accuses you of copying?
First things first, be cool. The accuser might be understandably angry, and less than polite. Hear them out anyway.
If it’s just a misunderstanding, show them. Show your creation timeline, inspiration source etc. Creative industries are very trend led so it is possible for several individuals to have similar ideas. That being said, it’s important to let trends inspire you and not to just copy what’s out there.
If you have in fact copied, or perhaps been heavily inspired by someone else’s work and you’re called out on it, pull the offending items from your platforms immediately and apologise to the original designer (none of those nonsense “I’m sorry if” apologies either). Perhaps you didn’t realise it was unethical and illegal to copy (but if you’re reading this, I hope you know better).
Now this isn’t an exhaustive list and it’s always best to get legal advice in these situations, but hopefully this post has helped you see that as a small business, you don’t have to take copying lying down.