What To Do When You Discover Your Art Has Been Stolen and Posted on the Internet


One of my artists recently discovered when searching for prior use of her images on cards, that an entire collection of her work was being offered as free internet postcards by a site that she had never heard of, and certainly had never authorized to use her copyrighted work.

That may have happened to you.  Suddenly you or a friend discovers that your art or photographs are on someone else’s site and worse, the images are either being supplied for free or sold without your permission and definitely without any payment of any kind to you.

When You Discover Your Art Has Been Stolen…

You feel shock and dismay about this theft of artwork that you put your heart into creating.  You may feel violated; some artists have told me that they feel like they’ve been raped when this has happened to them.

It’s certainly upsetting, and your first thought might be “I need a lawyer.”  Well, a lawyer who knows his or her way around handling copyright violations can certainly help you.

The downside is that such lawyers can be very expensive and the thought that you might have to pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars because some jerk has ripped off your artwork makes you even more upset.

Isn’t there anything you can do, short of hiring an attorney, to stop the person from continuing to steal your art?

The simple answer is that there is, and I’ll tell you the steps you can and should take.

How Much Damage Is There?

The first step is to discover the extent of the copyright violation.  How many images has this person stolen from you and what is he doing with them?  Find all your images that have been used without your permission.

Be sure to bookmark the pages which show the images and provide information about the site itself.  If you can print out the offending pages from the site, that’s even better. Document the theft.

Who Did It?

Then you want find out exactly who has violated your copyrights, and how to contact him.  There’s a simple way to get all this information.  Go on a good search engine and search on the term “WHOIS”.

A number of sites that provide WHOIS services will come up, and one is basically as good as another although Network Solutions, once the sole provider of internet domain addresses, is always a good choice.

What is WHOIS and Why Is It Important?

But what is WHOIS?  According to Network Solutions (http://www.networksolutions.com), “When you register a domain name, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) requires your domain name registrar to submit your personal contact information to the WHOIS database.

Once your listing appears in this online directory, it is publicly available to anyone who chooses to check domain names using the WHOIS search tool.”

What that means is that by using the free WHOIS directory, you can find out exactly who owns each and every site on the internet, including their name, mailing address, and email address.

It is my understanding that WHOIS gives access to all internet address information here and abroad, but that may not be true in all cases for all countries in the world.

Still, it’s the largest and best source of such information, and is supported by ICANN, which by international convention is supposed to be in charge of all internet domain registrations worldwide.

When you’re on the WHOIS directory main page, put the offender’s site address in the search bar.  What will come up is the following:

1) The Registrant’s name and mailing address;
2) The name and site address of the company he registered his domain with, and the date it was registered;
3) The Administrative Contact for the site (the person who is in charge of the site and its contents), along with mailing address and email address (now you’ll know how to contact him!);
4) The Technical Contact (the person who maintains the site, also called the Webmaster) along with his contact information (often the same person as the Administrative Contact and the Registrant); and
3) The site’s server, that is, the company that is hosting the offending site.

How To Make Contact

Now that you’re armed with the name and contact information for the person who stole your artwork, it’s time to contact him.  Send him an email.  Put “art usage” in the subject line and send it as a highest-priority email.

You’ll use the body of the email to politely but very firmly advise the person that it’s come to your attention that his site is, in your opinion, violating your copyrights by publishing such-and-such artwork, and to demand that your artwork be removed from the site immediately.

As a native New Yorker, I usually feel the overpowering urge at that point to write something like “I’ll sue you, you bum!”, but my attorney, who is expert in such matters, has advised me never to threaten something that I’m not ready to do, and he does make a good point.

It’s always best to explore all your options before actually going to court, which will be very expensive and time-consuming.

Reread the email, make sure it’s clear and cites specifics, and then send it.  See what happens.  If no response in a day or two, put the text of the email into a letter to the person and put it in the mail with confirmation of receipt attached so you have a record that the letter has been received and signed for.

The Next Step

If you get nowhere after your email and letter, the next step is another email notifying the person that you will shut down the site unless he complies with your demand.  This isn’t an idle threat.

No internet service provider (ISP) wants to be party to a lawsuit brought about by one of their clients doing something illegal.  They would much rather dump the offending site immediately, once they verify the accuracy of your claim.

Jump On The Server

Remember the last line in the WHOIS results?  That’s where you find out who the site server is, and their internet address.  They’re the folks to contact if you don’t get anywhere with the owner of the site itself.

Simply put, you can take down the offending site.  In my experience, when the owner of a site who has violated your copyrights is faced with the loss of the site, they’ll cave and the problem will be solved.

Of course, they may rant and rave and call you names, but in the end you’ll probably win.  If you aren’t able to resolve the situation in this manner, then you’ll have to decide whether or not to hire a good copyright attorney.  A cease-and-desist letter on legal letterhead can have a salutary wake-up effect on an offender.

Remember, find out the extent of the theft, find out who did it, contact them, demand removal, and if that doesn’t work, go legal.  I’m sure you’ll win.

Claim Damages

Please note that if your artwork has been reproduced without your permission on actual products that are on sale at retail, you may have a claim for damages.  If money is involved – that is, if someone is making money from the use of your art without your permission – then it’s time to consult with a copyright attorney who will hopefully take your case on a contingency basis.

What that means is that they will take a percentage of the monetary settlement with the offending party.

When in doubt, don’t threaten the violator, just take to a copyright attorney and gain professional advice about how to move forward.

If you need to be referred to a really good one who won’t charge anything for a consultation, ask me!

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(c) Lance J. Klass.  All Rights Reserved.  This article may not be reproduced with the expressed written permission of the author. 

For information about copying all or part of this article, contact the author atart@porterfieldsfineart.com.

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5 Responses to “What To Do When You Discover Your Art Has Been Stolen and Posted on the Internet on “What To Do When You Discover Your Art Has Been Stolen and Posted on the Internet”

  • I am an artist living in the UK. I today discovered that a seller on Ebay is selling one of my illustrations as their own design on T-shirts and hoodies. I currently have no idea how long this has been going on, and am going to follow your advice for claiming damages through loss of earnings. May I ask the name and email of the attorney you mention who offers free consultations?

  • Try John Mason at artlaws2@aol.com.

  • Thank you for publishing the article-it is indeed very instructive.
    I am an illustrator and I recently l found on Google app store game (Marley’s math farm) that made up 99% of my illustration, ”the publisher” is probably took them from internet.l’m not in a position to pay a lawyer and l do not know what to do. Do you have some advice about this?
    Thank you in advance

  • Contact them directly, let them know that you’re the creator of the art they’re using, and ask for a formal licensing relationship. If that doesn’t work, contact the Google app store and let them know about the copyright abuse. If none of that works and you have a good case, then you might be able to find a copyright attorney who will take your case for a percentage of funds recovered.

  • Hi. Thank you very much for helpful guidance regarding stolen intellectual property.
    With kind regards Krister Lindberg.

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