Saturday, July 27, 2013

Are You Using Stolen Artwork Without Realizing It?

Orville was sad to discover that he would not
be gracing the cover of this novel.  
So, I've been neck-deep in work lately -- freelancing, game writing, lead-finding, and, whenever I can spare a few precious seconds, revising Nezumi's Children.  I had every intention of getting that book out by the end of the summer, but the process keeps getting delayed by pesky things like unpaid bills and -- most recently -- cover design troubles.

I spent a lot of time trying to think up the perfect cover for Nezumi.  Beast and my upcoming Tagestraum both came to me pretty easily, but Nezumi's Children poses a bit more of a challenge.  I wanted a cover that would make it clear it was a book about talking rats (wouldn't want anybody to be disappointed), but also one that made it obvious that this was not a book for children.  I wanted something that would hint at some of the darker themes in the book and maybe touch on the depth of rat culture it explores.

So I tried a bunch of different approaches.  I even dipped my own rats' paws into fingerpaint and tried to convince them to paint my cover for me (they were not impressed).

So imagine my delight when I finally found the perfect stock image.  I did a mock-up with it, tinkered with it, and succeeded in making a cover I was really happy with.  It was perfect.  All I had to do was buy the official artwork from the stock site and I was golden, right?

Well...not so much.

When I went to buy the image, I realized that it looked kind of familiar, as if I'd seen something similar in an earlier Google search for inspiration.  Sort of like someone had taken a more detailed drawing and done a vectorization of it.

So I searched again, and, lo and behold....that's exactly what had happened.

It turns out, the original image was an absolutely stunning ink drawing made by a pretty high-profile British artist.  Now, I don't know for sure that he didn't sell the rights to vectorize it and put it up on a stock photo site...but it seems pretty unlikely to me.  This guy has exhibits in museums, I doubt he needs the pocket change.  So, with a heavy heart, I sent the artist an email to alert him about the situation and resigned myself to returning to the drawing board.

It Happens More Than You'd Think

Here's the thing I discovered, though, that makes this really unnerving for me:  This sort of thing happens all the time.  Look for yourself on Google; a search for "Stolen artwork on stock exchange sites" leads to many, many tales of woe from photographers and artists who have found their work up for sale without their permission.

Now, some people might not be bothered by this.  After all, if the original artist finds out, the lawsuit's probably going to land in the stock site's lap, not yours.  And maybe the worst that will happen is you'll have to pull your book and make a different cover for it, and maybe you're just out for however much money the stock cost you in the first place.  That's pretty bad, but it's not a big enough deterrent for some people, I guess.

But here's my thing.

These sites are selling stolen goods.  Would you buy a book from a piracy site?  Would you buy a car from a dealership that gets its cars from thieves?


How To Stay Safe

When in doubt, hire an artist for an
original piece.  It'll look better, too! 
So if stock photo sites can't be trusted implicitly, how do you make a book cover that you know is safe?  Here's some ideas:  

  • Use original art.  Find an artist who will provide you with a unique illustration.  That way you know the artist is being properly compensated, and you get exactly what you want.  That's what I did with The Beast in the Bedchamber, and it's phenomenal.  Sure, you'll pay more for it, but if you budget carefully and make a point of nurturing relationships with talented artists, you'll be safe.  
  • Image-Search every picture before using it.  Google has a really useful tool to help spot art thieves (and it is, in fact, how I found out that my stock image was stolen).  Whenever you find a picture on Google Images, there's an option to "Search by Image."  If you click that, it'll show you everywhere that image -- and similar images -- have been posted on the web.  That way, you can see for sure where your picture is coming from.  
  • Only buy stock from the person who created it. There's plenty of talented photographers and artists out there who sell stock directly.  Check DeviantArt or the Wana Commons to find stock posted by its original creator.  Just be sure you read the licensing details to be sure that you can use the image commercially; if in doubt, talk to the artist directly.  
  • Avoid using art altogether.  Depending on your genre, it might make more sense to create a cover entirely out of text.  There's plenty of examples of this working well, and it might be perfect for your project.  Don't discount the value of beautiful typography and creative use of color! 
  • Do it yourself.  If you have a pretty good idea of what you want, consider taking the photograph yourself.  It might take some practice to get the results you're looking for, but it's a useful skill to learn.  You can even open up some new job opportunities by selling stock art of your own down the line.  
So, there you have it: A warning to all authors to be extra vigilant about where they get their cover art.  How about you -- will this change the way you approach stock photo sites, or are you willing to take the risk? 

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