If you’re involved in the online graphic design community, you couldn’t help stumble over the fracas that occurred over the weekend when a young designer – we’ll call him Jon – told us how he was being harassed, sued and billed $18K for “stealing his own work” by stock agency Stock Art (StockArt.com) and their ferocious legal beagles, The Intellectual Property Group (ArtLaws.com). According to Jon and his growing group of supporters, Stock Art had “stolen” his logo design artwork, placed it in their library, and then turned around and billed him $18,000 for the use of that work. It’s the stuff internet legends are made of.
Further, if you lived under a rock, or were out for the entire weekend, you may have missed the various incarnations of the tragic tale when it was everything that designery people on Twitter were Tweeting about. But Twittering and Tweeting they were. A hash-tag campaign called #savejon was started, and as I write this, howls of protest-laden Tweets are still ripping through at the rate of one every three minutes. And why not? The design community is outraged. One of our own was under attack by some Corporate giant and their sleazeball lawyers, and he needed our help. And man, did he get the design community’s help. Hitting the front page of DIGG took out Jon’s blog and company website, such was the traffic, but still the internet noise continued unabated. Boycotts, and worse, were called for. This legal outrage needed to be fought back, and fought back hard, so a legal defense fund was set up, and at this moment it boasts $1800 in contributions from concerned internet citizens (though it will probably be higher as you read this). Designers saw a great injustice being done, and admirably sought to help by blogging, Twittering, DIGGing, Slashdotting and forum posting their avenging angel vibe all over the web. Thousands of e-mails were ripped off to the corporate bullies – some terse but professional, others less so. Others were disturbingly threatening, no doubt spurred on by the anonymity of internet communication. All bore a similar variation of the message – “How dare you steal someone’s artwork and then try to charge/sue/harass them for it”.
It was, it seemed, the internet at its very best, a juggernaut that could be tasked to help the downtrodden and harassed within hours, the echo chamber bouncing the message from one avenue to another, recruiting one concerned designer after another. It’s always a compelling story when the internet helps the little guy fight back ‘The Man’ and to take down ‘The Villain’. Trouble is, none of the story may be true, ‘The Man’ may be right and the ‘Villains’ of this story may not be villains at all.
Let’s back it up a bit, to August of last year when Jon was hit up for a bill from StockArt.com, a stock artwork licensing agency, supposedly for the use of his own work. Let’s read a bit of the original post as it appeared on Logopond, a gallery site for logo designers.
“Someone has apparently ripped several of my icons and sold/posted them across a couple stock illustration sites. The stock site watchdogs ran across my portfolio and is now threatening to sue ME. They sent me an $18,000 bill and said if I don’t pay up they’ll sue.”
Well, that’s certainly going to get any designer’s attention. The idea that someone could copy your work and put it on a stock art site is one thing, but threatening a lawsuit if you didn’t pony up $18 grand for using your own designs? I get freaked out when my credit card company calls to tell me my payment is late. Quite oddly, the issue went on the forum back burner until this past weekend, when another post hit the thread, but this time, Jon seemed a little more frantic.
“Its becoming a bigger problem. I was banned from Design Outpost this morning which led me to start talking to clients. Apparently, they’re calling EVERYONE they can find to tell them I’m under investigation for copyright infringement.”
Woah. Now that’s a whole different ball game. The legal beagles contacting Jon’s clients and telling them that he was under investigation for copyright infringement? That’s certainly not fair. But wouldn’t it also be on shaky legal grounds as well? When I first read it, the words Slander and Libel entered my head. But it also posed a question – what kind of lawyers would expose themselves to such legal pain in order to get even with someone even if they did copy work from their clients? Surely such actions would invoke all sorts of sympathy for the young designer, who from what I’ve managed to find out, was only trying to get by. Seemed to me that it was a case-destroying move, and one that was certain to garner the wrath of half the internet.
I was certainly right about the backlash. The first Tweets started on Saturday. I happened to be desk bound, so I added my comment into the feed. Those comments were re-tweeted. And again. And again. So on and so on. Before long, comments and protestations about the events had taken on a life of their own, and the news about the hapless designer’s predicament began to spool out past Twitter and onto other social sites like DIGG and Slashdot. Something was happening. There was a movement afoot, and every iteration of the news added a new detail. A new wrinkle. Trouble is, no-one really knew anything, and other than the first fairly well-informed tweets and posts, everyone was making it up on the fly. Not surprisingly, the design community wanted more as it’s hard to keep up the moral indignation without some salacious details to write about. Jon told us that he was hurredly working on a blog post to be published later that afternoon. That news went out via Twitter where it was added to the cacophony of drama. And to DIGG. And Slashdot. And Hacker News. The items started to number in the thousands but all the posts, blogs and Tweets had one thing in common. This outrage would not go unanswered. And sumbitch has to pay. When the blog post finally came, it was a highly anticipated event. The post itself turned out to be mildly anti-climactic.
“Once the sticker shock wore off the obvious question came to mind. Where the hell did they get these from? It seems as if most or all of them were lifted from my LogoPond showcase. They especially seemed to favor the ones that made it to the gallery.”
The details of what had actually transpired were strangely vague. There wasn’t any real explanation of how the artwork was absconded with in the first place (other than some impractical theory that Stock Art had somehow reverse engineered John’s artwork from Logopond, removed the typography from the featured logos, and added them to their site). To make matters worse, there wasn’t even any examples of ripped design with the original for comparison. Rather than take everything at face value, I decided to poke around a little deeper. I didn’t know much about Stock Art, but their site looked legit. They had an impressive roster of established illustrators – all of whom with impressive portfolio sites of their own – and it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that made sense for a company with a client list of well-heeled companies, some of them belonging to the Fortune 500. Thinking that their lawyers might be the hardcases in all of this. I took a look at the ArtLaws.com website and the various pages and reference materials inside. It didn’t look shady at all, and if anything, they seemed to be champions of designer and illustrator IP rights, as opposed to the sleazy ambulance chasers they were very quickly, and loudly, being portrayed as across most of the internet.
They were certainly legit, and have even been involved in the Zapruder Kennedy assassination movie copyright battle from a few years ago. Something didn’t appear right. Not right at all. Jon had admitted to us that he was a buyer on Stock Art after all, having opened an account a few years ago. Trouble is, there are no artist accounts per se, nothing is uploaded to Stock Art‘s server, and Stock Art are extremely picky who they represent, claiming a roster of only 150 illustrators. One of my original theories on the ‘misunderstanding’ was that Jon had uploaded artwork to Stock Art for licensing and then sold the artwork to someone else. As neat and tidy as that theory would have been, it’s not how Stock Art operates, their licenses don’t work that way, and even Jon never claimed that he was represented by Stock Art. No, what we had here was a pretty cut-and-dry case of someone using someone else’s work without payment and/or permission. But who did what to whom? The tens of thousands of people now involved in this growing controversy knew who they thought was the ripper and the rippee. But I was starting to have doubts over my original assumptions. Besides, I always like to get both sides of a story, so I decided to reach out and touch ArtLaws.com lawyers and ask them if they’d like to comment on the deluge of bad internet mojo that they were receiving.
To their credit, they did, calling The Logo Factory studio shortly after reading my email (apparently, out of thousands of e-mails, I was the first one that asked for their side of the story). I talked at length with Jamie Silverberg and John D. Mason, two of the lead lawyers at the The Intellectual Property Group, and found them to be civil, pleasant and quite willing to discuss matters, to the extent that they were legally allowed. Not the “ambulance chasing scumbags” they were beifng called in the latest round of Twitter postings. Firstly, IPG have extensive experience fighting on the behalf of designers and illustrators (as they believe they’re doing in the Stock Art matter). The partners have experience in the graphic design industry itself, helping to organize several chapters of the AIGA. They told me that “nobody” is being sued nor has a suit been filed over the Stock Art artwork, and that rather than ignoring Jon’s pleas of innocence, have been trying to communicate with him ever since the licensing issues became apparent.
Seems Stock Art are ferocious in protecting their illustrators property and copyright (certainly something that I’d demand if Stock Art were representing me). Silverberg denied harassing Jon’s clients, but told me that they had contacted two in order to see if the client’s had legitimate licensing rights to their client’s work. I wondered how likely it would be that Stock Art’s established illustrators would risk their reputation, and Stock Art‘s business, by copying some designer they found on the internet. To make matters worse, the issue revolved around the licensing for no less than 65 images to which it appears typography was added and the images uploaded to various portfolio and stock logos sites like Elance and Logopond (while they didn’t expressly tell me so, the $18,000 bill is likely the result of licensing fees for the 65 images in dispute. Works out to about $275 a pop). I was also told that before contacting anyone, IPG perform extensive research into the background of any disputed images, including creation date, history and when it was added to the Stock Art site, pointing out that some of the images “in question” have been on the Stock Art website for almost a decade. Logopond, the supposed source for the designs (at least according to Jon’s blog), had only been online since June of 2006 at the very earliest. The worst point, from a designer’s point of view anyway, was the dispute involved the work of over twenty illustrators. With illustrations and icons that just happened to mirror their exact personal style. And if that wasn’t enough, Jon had previously been billed for other Stock Art licensed work, after it was discovered that it may have been used without permission. He paid that bill.
Jeezus. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the cut-and-dried case that half the internet believed it to be. To make matters worse, I managed to track down some of the images via Google and Stock Art‘s search engine using simple keywords. I wasn’t terribly thrilled with what I found, especially considering I had been around ground zero for some of the anti-StockArt.com and anti-Artlaws.com sentiments now swirling angrily around the internet. I’m not particularly proud of that.
And that by the way, is the reason I’m writing this. At the risk of enraging a good chunk of the design community, I think there’s more here than meets the eye. A lot more. I also believe there’s enough evidence to indicate that neither StockArt.com, Artlaws.com or the various people that work for them, hire them, or use their services are the bastards that they’re being made out to be. And while the entire world has heard Jon’s side, only a few have taken the time to research the other side (or even taken a look at some of the work in dispute). Do I know who copied who in this case? Not for absolute certainty, but I have some pretty strong opinions as to what’s what. I’ll have to keep them them to myself, as they are just opinions until someone comes clean, or this case hits the courts. Only then will you, or I, know for certain (and even then, we may never know, should things get settled beforehand). In the meantime, I know I’ve stepped down off my high-horse, and I think others need to as well. I love internet mob justice as much as the next cat, but I think a lot of people took an undeserved battering over this, and I for one, won’t be joining another internet mob anytime soon. My pitchfork and torch will have to wait for the next time that I’m absolutely sure of the cause. And who the bad guys really are.
I hope some of you will do the same.
UPDATE 3:. Posted to Twitter on May 20.
UPDATE 2: Turns out a lot of the images in question can also be tracked back to logo design contests on Design Outpost, a website that hosts spec design competitions and bills itself as “A Different Kind of Design Firm”. Many of the images that can be found on StockArt.com were also entered into design competitions, and in several instances were selected by contest holders as the winning entries. I guess if there’s an additional lesson to be learned here, it is this – logo design contests (aka crowdsourcing) are an extraordinarily bad idea when it comes to developing a logo for your company. Read more about this development here.
UPDATE 1: This post is receiving a lot of traffic from DIgg, Reddit, Twitter and a host of others. There are a few mirrors hosting this site (to reduce server load) and the comment field may not work on all of them. If you’re reading this on a Coral Cache version (it will have some variation of http://thelogofactory.com.nyud.net as an URL in your browser address bar) and If you feel inclined to comment on this article you can do so by clicking here – that will take you to the correct form. Apologies for the temporary duct-tape solution, but the response to this post has been overwhelming.