Local artists seeing red after finding stolen copies of work online

Painter Robert Hurst (KXAN Photo)
Painter Robert Hurst (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — For painter Robert Hurst, each brush stroke is like a sentence.

“I try to tell a story with it,” he said of his work. “You really have to feel the love of whatever it is that you’re trying to create and what you’re trying to do and what you’re trying to portray.”

The saying goes, “Art imitates life,” but local artists found websites selling imitations of their work. Paintings turned into prints for profit. T-shirts, posters and coffee mugs, to name a few. Artists such as Hurst are working to raise awareness about sites promoted on Facebook that can link to pirated work.

“Suddenly there’s our images and everybody has access to them. And we’re not seeing anything out of that, we’re not given credit, we’re not making any money, we’re getting great exposure but if no one knows who is getting the exposure – then what good is it? Other than the company that is profiting off of it,” Hurst said.

Hurst was first made aware of his work appearing on sites like TeeChip more than a year ago, from fellow artists. The site allows users to sell what’s supposed to be their own merchandise designs.

“Every time that I’ve ever contacted them I have gotten the same response. It’s just like okay we’re going to look into it and if it disappears, it just reappears a few days later someplace else [on the website],” Hurst said. The website’s reaction is generally, “Well, it’s not our responsibility that we used your image somebody else sent us. You know, we didn’t know it wasn’t yours.”

In an email Hurst shared with KXAN from The TeeChip Team, the response says in part, “TeeChip utilizes a combination of multiple measures to prevent intellectual property infringement, including requiring all users to certify that each item they upload to TeeChip is non-infringing; expeditiously removing infringing content we are notified about; and terminating the accounts of repeat infringers. Occasionally, infringing content may appear on TeeChip despite our efforts to prevent it. In these instances, we rely on consumers and rights holders like you to report suspicious activity.”

Fellow artist Grego Anderson, who finds copies of his stolen work weekly, if not daily, drew a comparison to a pawn shop.

“If somebody steals a power saw and goes down to the pawn shop, the pawn shop asks for all this information, right? Because it’s illegal to sell stolen merchandise,” Anderson said. “All these companies are facilitating the sale of stolen property.”

Anderson says his days have been filled with sending cease and desist letters.

“I’m a social media manager, I pack and ship things, I’m a web master, an SEO guy, a painter, and now I have to be an attorney. And a watchdog. But there’s no one to go to,” he said.

Adam Mandell, with Millen White Zelano & Branigan P.C. is an attorney with the non-profit group Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts (TALA) and says these incidents are filled with challenges under what’s known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. TALA can help artists navigate legal issues.

“In a lot of cases, these online service providers are going to be free from at least the monetary liability,” Mandell said, as long as they take down the content. “It’s difficult for the artists a lot of times because it can seem like a game of whack-a-mole.”

The content, as Hurst noted, just pops up somewhere else. He’s now in the process of watermarking his hard work online, something Mandell says places more liability on the person stealing the images.

“I just want it to be known that this is going on and that a lot of other people are being affected by it,” Hurst said.

KXAN first reached out to the TeeChip a month ago and followed up in an effort to learn more about how these cases are handled. To date, there has been no response.

Another recommendation TALA made is to register work through the U.S. Copyright Office.

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