Artists fight back against bots stealing their work to sell

A Twitter fightback against dodgy T-shirts reveals an on-growing problem.

We woke up today to see Art Twitter took on pesky bots nabbing artists’ work to go on the front of T-shirts, the kind you get on open-source platforms as sold by less-than-reputable vendors.

Artists have long been used to work being copied and passed off as somebody else’s, but this situation is a much more programmatic nuisance to bear. Select a bunch of popular artists, feed their streams as a source of data for bots designed to extract imagery, and then feed this data to open-source platforms where the image is used as a template for made on-demand merch like those shown above.

Artists fed up with finding their illustrations slapped onto a T-shirt without consent or due compensation played this dark system at its own game though this week, getting copyright-baiting images to trend as much as possible so they made it onto such sites – with hilarious results.

Disney wouldn’t be happy with that little doodle, and nor would the actual platforms be happy with being called out on their sites in front of millions of customers.

This above Darkwing tee on platform Moteefe got pulled by the House of Mouse, so victories were won last night. But the war isn’t over, and nor is this just a recent trend or discovery. Just a few days ago Amazon was called out for third-party vendors selling Christmas ornaments and merch bearing images of the Auschwitz concentration camp of all things.

The thing to remember is, most of these products don’t exist until somebody orders them. Popular images are pulled in the hope at least one person will come across the T-shirt, bottle opener or cat flap bearing the image of their dreams and buy it; platforms like Redbubble and Teespring have been accused of hosting similarly acting vendors for a while now.

It’s even got to the extent that bots on Youtube are generating CGI animation based around trademarked characters in increasingly creepy vids for kids, given names ‘Frozen Elsa & Anna TEAR SPIDERMAN APART!’ etc. These may involve famous characters which cost Disney and Sony very little money in the grand scheme of things, but what will happen when, say, a Julian Glander character gets pulled into the bot matrix, or Hilda? Nobody is safe from this threat.

Battling the bots

In such cases, artists are kind of limited when it comes to options in battling the bots. The most obvious solution is to contact places like Amazon and Teespring each time you see your design being used until they impose a takedown. But that can often take a while to action, and usually such vendors will instantly pop back up again with the same item under a new URL. The dreaded ‘Whac-A-Mole’ event, in other words.

How would you even know though if your images are being used? To get around this, it’s very much worth posting your images separately on a portfolio site outside of social media, as this way you can right-click an image to enact a ‘reverse image search’ to see where else it has popped up online.

Teechip screenshot

If posting on social, be wary of Twitter as this site allows right-click saves unlike Instagram – as shown by today’s Tee-shirt fightback. You can post low-res images – and indeed, Twitter compresses images a hell of a lot these days – but bots aren’t exactly fussy when it comes to image size. They can still poach from Instagram, too, by scouring HTML.

Some artists have taken things like right click-capabilities off portfolios in order to prevent image theft; this isn’t 100% foolproof as images can still be sourced from HTML coding, but worth a try. 

Another way to keep portfolio images safe is by ‘shrink-wrapping’ your images, which downloads any images with a shrink-wrapped image atop of it. The Skinny Artist has a nice tutorial on doing that.

Still, it’s hard to keep your art safe online. Adobe may have a ray of hope for us in the form of a ‘watermarking’ feature it’s implementing in the fight against fake news that can show how much an image has been manipulated. This may take a while to appear, though, and as learnt in an Adobe MAX Q&A, the capabilities to ‘stamp’ Adobe-made work as your own so it remains forever ‘branded’ despite limitless diffusion is more of a second phase to this ambitious venture.

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