Copyright, law and standing your ground

This is one of the more interesting things that’s happened to me this year. It was annoying and I wasn’t going to bother posting about it – and couldn’t for a brief time when it looked like it was heading to court – but it’s an issue that affects more and more designers. Let me regale you.

I recently found myself in a situation where my work found it’s way onto a catwalk show at New York Fashion Week. For a lot of designers this would be a dream come true – myself included – but, sadly, the work appeared unbeknownst to me.

It was a re-appropriation of a type treatment I created several years ago and, to make matters worse, it actually looked really good on the clothes. However, no attempt to contact me had been made, no permission given on my part and, worst of all, no credit offered. The type treatment had never been released publicly so the offending fashion house, I assume, had simply found a decent resolution image online – there are several – scaled it up and smudged it a bit to hide the pixelation.

So, I get it. This is the age of information – misinformation in some cases – and work gets tweeted, ffffound and blogged that many times that the paper trail, if any, often goes cold and it can be hard, if not impossible, to track down the originator of the work. Not so with this piece; a simple Google search of [law prohibits me from giving you the details but two very obvious adjectives describing the type] would’ve yielded all the information you could want; it was one of my more known pieces. However, it’s a two way street, and the work was brought to my attention by a fashion conscious friend who saw the collection being well received on a few blogs. She emailed initially to congratulate me.

I’m told this is a pretty common occurrence in the fashion world. It’s happened to me a couple of times but usually somewhere low key and untraceable like a street vendor in Turkey. But it really sucks when you see it in high profile scenarios like this. Three people I know recounted personal experiences where their work had ‘inspired’ collections and in two cases they were able to obtain reimbursement, in the other, sadly, it wasn’t a ‘pixel for pixel’ overlay and they were unable to claim anything and also found themselves out of pocket with lawyers fees etc. My story has a happy ending, luckily, but how we got there was just weird and frustrating.

I have wanted to do more work in the fashion arena for a while so, initially I had my agents reach out, deliver a light slap on the wrists and suggest that, as it was old work and as they clearly liked my stuff, that we should work together on something original for their winter collection. Seemed fair enough.

Silence.

I gave it over a week before I reached out myself, wondering if my agents had come across as heavy handed. Softly softly kind of thing. No reply. Eventually I decided a more head on approach. The company has a Facebook page and was happily showing their new collection, complete with my work on there. I filled out the form and  had to supply links to the original work, the work that I felt was in violation and a short statement and, lo and behold, Facebook agreed with me and took the images down.

Within 3 hours. Insane. I’m a complete dirtbag in the grand scheme of things so fair play to them for keeping a tight grip on this kind of thing.

24 hours later I was hit with a heavy – and equally condescending – legal letter from the offending party’s lawyers. They had reviewed my work alongside the ‘original work’ of their client and decided I had no reason to claim any kind of infringement had taken place. It was an entirely original piece as far as they were concerned and the fact that I was seeking any kind of reimbursement meant that I was clearly out to scam their client. This from a fucking lawyer… They seemed pretty convinced of it’s authenticity to the point where even I was examining the work, looking for differences… But no, there were none, and furthermore they wanted me to contact Facebook to retract my claim and repost the images or I would suffer the consequences in court.

So now I was pissed. I spoke to my agent and, whilst I was annoyed, I knew it wasn’t going to be for a huge amount of money and I didn’t want to have to drag it through court as that very quickly becomes an expensive hobby. On principle, however, I wanted to fight it, and was willing to pony up a few quid to do so. Why should someone else claim my work as theirs? Luckily, my agents told me they deal with this kind of thing 5 times a year and that they would cover all costs. Very well then, I said, sick ’em.

I spoke with a lawyer my agents use, provided them with my original work and they promptly got in touch with the fashion house’s representatives.

One email and they caved. Literally within the hour.

The offending line was pulled and, as no sales had yet been made on it, no money changed hands. I was a little disappointed. After such a build up and seemingly confident letter I was expecting a fight. But apparently not.

Theres a message here, and it has to be don’t be scared when someone fires a legal shot across your bows. It’s more often than not bullshit and they’re just trying their luck.

Everyone who’s ever copied someone else’s work knows what they’ve done and they rely on designers and illustrators not having the financial means or the stomach for a court fight. But if you genuinely believe someone has stolen your work then you have to pursue it. If someone sends you a legal letter then you pony up the money to seek legal counsel and get a genuine, legal reply sent back on your behalf. The more often designers and illustrators fight back in instances like these, the less likely it will be to happen in future.

Now, if anyone in the fashion world wants to work with me legitimately, then you know where I am.

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