Fear of Getting Your Art Stolen? Look at the Numbers

You are more likely to be killed in a car wreck or by a firearm*, than to have your art stolen. Not to be morbid, but I want to get the attention of artists who live in fear of having their art stolen.

I know everyone has a horror story, and I've heard many of them. And yes I have even had my art used (by the average clueless person) and I'm still alive. Don't just listen to stories that blow things out of proportion and create monsters in your mind.

Most of the artists that I know who have been burned, experienced much more emotional trauma over the event than any financial loss.

We should avoid putting terrible stories up on pedestals to be our guiding lights. They don't happen as often as we fear, and focusing on them does not help us. Just like overly sensationalized crime stories: they are rare, they are terrible, the news talks about it for days and then we think it is happening everywhere all the time.

If you have been burned, or are hurt or angry at someone who used your art, just remember you are not the only one this has happened to.

How many of us have 'borrowed' someone's software to load on our computer, or burned a copy of a DVD?
You think those things aren't that big of a deal? Perhaps the person who stole your art thought the same thing. We all make mistakes, so try not to put too much emotional energy into it. You can either do something about it legally or not, but eventually you need to move on so you don't hold your creativity hostage over a bad experience.

I found the best way to look at art theft seriously, was to look at filed infringement claims.

Finding statistics on "stolen" art can be tricky, because some things we call stolen are merely misuse: Someone posts a picture of your art on facebook, puts it on their website or prints it out to hang on their wall. The financial impact on the artist is minimal. There is a big difference between that, and having a company illegally use your art, reproduce it and sell thousands of copies.

The statistics below are based on information from government websites and legal firms.
• About 600,000 copyrights are registered a year in the United States.

• There were about 1,700 copyright infringement claims filed in 2010.

FACT: When comparing ratios of copyright infringement claims against filed registrations, they are about 1/3 of 1%, which means you are more likely to die as an occupant in a car accident* (1 in 303) or get killed by a firearm *(1 in 306) than to have an infringement claim (1 in 352).

National Safety Council Injury Facts

In fact, if we had stats on the break out of "visual artists" versus other artists (architects, writers, musicians), and also infringement "claims" versus "settled suits", this ratio could result in it being a lot less likely you will get your art stolen.

An Answer for Every Argument
  • Think it’s too expensive to file a copyright? If you file online, it’s only $35, and in some cases, you can file several images in one group for $35, such as card lines or collections. That is less than any one of the following: a night out at dinner, a dozen Starbuck’s Latte’s, your monthly phone bill or one month of some Netflix plans.
  • Think copyright infringement claims are a bad statistic to represent theft because you would never file a claim? Then why did you register a copyright? Aren't you willing to enforce it?

  • Think you would never go to court because you don't want to have a courtroom battle? Then note this statistic shows only 1% of the copyright cases ever go to trial. Most were settled out of court and the creative artist won a majority of the time. http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/ascii/ipt02.txt
  • Think lawsuits are always expensive? The don't always have to cost money. If you have a good case, you might be able work with an attorney on a contingency basis.

(M.J. Bogatin, Arts and Entertainment Attorney) "I always consider the prospect of taking on claims on a contingency fee basis. Even if we can't collect from the infringer, if there is a third party user that does have financial resources, we can look to recover from them. Only on rare occasions is a registered copyright holder left high and dry."

  • What about people who steal your art on the internet and sell it on sites like Cafe Press? I had this happen a few times and it was a clueless sloppy person and I sent a cease and desist letter which they immediately responded to. It wasn't the end of the world for them, or for me.
  • Do you fear a big corporation will steal your art and get rich off of it? Then just hope they make a lot of money. Your attorney would love to sue them, and hand you a big fat check.
  • Concerned about Chinese Knock offs? Sue the company that imports them.
I specifically asked this question to two attorneys who deal with Intellectual property and international law, and here is what they said:

(Paul Reidl, Attorney) "The importation of fakes and knock-offs into the United States from China can be dealt with under the Copyright Act and other statutes. So if a U.S. company buys or sells fakes in the USA, the copyright owner can go after them in the USA."
(V.C. Matthews, Attorney) "You can prevent a U.S. company from importing and selling infringing art work. You can use the concept of parallel imports and the Trade act and stop the importing art work. Infringing material can be stopped at the ports or points of entry itself. "
  • Also remember, when you see something that looks like your design, it may not be stolen. With all the people in the world, it's really possible for two people to draw the same thing. Ask them before you assume the worst.

What an artist should really worry about is registering copyrights, and not "giving away" all rights on a contract. One piece of art can actually generate hundreds of thousands of dollars for a company when applied to multiple products over time. That is a much bigger loss than having something stolen by a random person.

-Kate Harper


Free Booklets from the Copyright Office

PDF Copyright BasicsPDF Registering a Copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office
PDF Make Sure Your Application Will Be Acceptable
PDF Cartoons and Comic Strips
PDF Have a Question About Copyright Registration?
PDF Make Sure Your Application Will Be Acceptable
PDF Publications on Copyright
PDF Copyright Notice

Legal Books for Artists:

Legal Guide for the Visual Artist, Fifth Edition

Copyright Law for Artists, Photographers and Designers (Essential Guides)

The Copyright Handbook: What Every Writer Needs to Know


(Agree or disagree? leave comments below!)

Ebooks by Kate Harper

You can support this blog by ordering Kate's e-Booklets starting at only .99 cents! They can be read on your kindle, ipad, ipod, cellphone, or your computer. Free samples and lending options available. You can also view the list of all recommended greeting card books by a variety of authors.


Get Your Greeting Cards into Stores explains how to sell cards nationwide. Included are detailed guidelines on: How to price cards for a profit, get professional feedback, find sales representatives and follow industry standards. Information is also applicable to gift items, magnets, journals, calendars, collectibles, etc.

20 Steps to Art Licensing is a book about how to license your art to companies that publish greeting cards, or manufacture coffee mugs, magnets, wall hangings, kitchen items, and dozens of other gift items. Learn how to prepare your art, what companies to contact, how to find agents, and what trade shows to attend. Includes extensive resources on social media, copyrights, licensing community groups, and lists of interviews with professional designers.

7 Mistakes Greeting Card Writers is a booklet that explains what to avoid when submitting greeting card verse to publishers. Learn how to create a trendy card that reflects the contemporary world we live in, and how to use your own personal experience to create card verse. Topics include: how to avoid limiting your market, when to use adjectives, not creating card for enemies, write like people talk and a list of why card sentiment submissions are often rejected. You can increase your odds of success by 60% just by doing a few simple things. Includes a list of card publishers and their guidelines, links to writer interviews, and writing exercises for how to create good verse.

Unusual Ways To Market Greeting Cards, and 22 places to get your designs featured is a booklet on how to get your cards noticed in non-traditional ways. Everything from why you should send cards to your dentist, to how to get a special feature in national publication. Great tips for designers who are starting out and want to get their cards into the hands of people beyond friends and family. Special Section: 22 Gift Industry Trade Publications who seek out new greeting card designs and feature artists for free.

How to Make an EBook Cover for Non-Designers is an illustrated book will show you how to make your own e-book cover, even if you are not a designer. It is intended to help the indie writer who is on a budget and wants to publish and sell their own book in online stores such Amazon.com and the Apple ibookstore. Selling your book in these stores will allow readers to purchase your book and read it on multiple devices such as the Kindle, iPad, iPhone and many other electronic devices.