Writers Beware: Are You Using Stolen Art Without Knowing It? By Tiana Bodine

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When pulling art or photography from the Internet, most authors know to be careful about copyright protection. Most of the work found online cannot be copied without the expectation of a DMAC take-down notice from an artist’s attorney, so most writers focus their searches on stock photo sites instead. These sites, usually owned by massive multimedia conglomerates, sell licenses to photographs and vector artwork at reasonable prices. Professional and DIY cover designers alike rely on stock sites as a source of affordable, safe art. Unfortunately, not all stock art is trustworthy.

I almost found this out the hard way while putting together the cover of an upcoming indie novel. After browsing Google Images for several hours for inspiration, I headed over to a well-known stock photography site to see if I could find a picture to replicate the look I wanted. After some searching, I found exactly what I was looking for, and was fully prepared to pay the $15 license fee when something made me hesitate. Something about the vector image seemed very familiar. So I went back to Google and, sure enough, found an almost identical image – in the portfolio of a famous British artist.

Not wanting to believe that a piece of traced artwork could find its way onto a stock site, I started doing some research, but was not encouraged by what I found. As you can see for yourself with a bit of digging, there are plenty of artists who have found their work for sale without their knowledge – and many have sent take-down notices with no response. Stock sites, thanks to their size, simply cannot screen every submission they receive. Instead, they rely on legislature that protects large companies from copyright suits and pay off the artists who are persistent enough to follow through. In the meantime, you could be paying for and using stolen art without ever realizing it – and you can be caught in the middle of the legal battle as well.

Of course, most stock art is acquired legally, but it’s a good idea to be diligent about any art you use, regardless of its source. Google makes it quite simple to find stolen artwork through its “search by image” function. This will bring up all incidents of that image being posted on the web, and it will also show you similar photos. Taking a few minutes to Google search any stock you buy before purchasing it will save you a lot of heartache if you happen to choose a stolen image.

If the presence of stolen art on a stock site makes you uneasy, there are several other ways you can get cover art or blog images without the risk:

  • Use images in the public domain that can be proven to be copyright free
  • Buy stock directly from the photographer who took it rather than an intermediary site
  • Use a resource like WANA commons to get free stock from its source
  • Stage and shoot your own photography, using friends and family as models
  • Think outside the box with cover design and create something without any images, utilizing creative applications of shape, color and typesetting

The other option available to you is to hire a professional artist to draw a unique cover for you. This has several benefits besides safety, including the ability to get exactly the image you want and the assurance that you’ll stand out from your more homogenous competitors. If you’re frightened by cost, don’t be: It’s quite possible to find artists willing to work for very reasonable rates. Be sure to have them sign a Work for Hire Agreement before the work begins so you will own all rights to the artwork, and can use it without any limitations or future remuneration, including on your website, marketing materials, etc.

Check university art programs and sites like DeviantArt to find aspiring artists who are eager to flesh out their portfolios. This allows you to get fully-personalized art for your cover and marketing plans without an overwhelming cost, and it can help launch the career of both you and the artist. The result may cost only slightly more than buying individual stock images, and it’s guaranteed to be a lot safer and more original.

Tiana Bodine is a full-time freelancer and author of The Beast in the Bedchamber. Her upcoming novel, Nezumi’s Children, will be available on September 1st. When not writing, she runs a small-scale rat rescue from her apartment. Her other hobbies include reading, cooking and playing entirely too many video games. She blogs about food and writing at http://tlbodine.blogspot.com.