I'm An Independent Artist and I Constantly Have to Worry About My Work Being Stolen

And that's why it's a truly remarkable thing to see West Elm, a large company, publicly stand up for the little guy.
Publish date:
October 31, 2013
west elm, indie designers

There’s a certain feeling I get whenever I upload new artwork to the web: pangs of panic, fear and terror, and not because I think someone is going to tweet me mean comments saying I draw like a 2-year-old.

Nope, all the anxiety comes from wondering whether some unscrupulous person (or corporation) is going to knock-off my hard work.

It’s a familiar feeling for many independent artists. Illustrators, sculptors, jewelry designers and etc have all had the experience of someone using their intellectual property for profit, without permission. One of my favorite artists, Katie Rodgers, documented her run-in with an Italian brand that swiped one of her paintings and put it on a T-shirt. Urban Outfitters has a storied history of knocking off indie jewelry designers.

And even in fashion school, professors warn budding designers to be careful about sharing our portfolios with certain companies -- they won’t hire you, the professors tell us, but they will take your designs.

But at the same time, you can’t hide everything you create. Otherwise it’s difficult to make a living. It’s 2013, and if you’re a commercial, independent artist without a website to show your work, you pretty much don’t exist. So it’s a wild, wild world in the artist interwebs; you’ve got to sell and protect, all at the same time. Which is why it’s encouraging -- and hell, AWESOME -- to see the awesome move that West Elm made last week.

Long story short: the furniture company found out that one of its suppliers, Cody Foster & Co., was knocking off small, independent artists. So West Elm went all, “Nuh uh, not in my house!,” pulled EVERY item from the supplier from its shelves and website, and stopped doing business with Cody Foster & Co. altogether.

West. Elm. Is. The. COOLEST.

F*ck yeah, West Elm!

And all this was in response to a tweet. It came from artist Lisa Congdon, who shared that she’s been a victim of Cody Foster & Co.’s swipe-and-sell practices. As she writes on her website:

“In the world of art & illustration, you can use the artwork of artists on your products as long as you ask permission, sign a licensing agreement with the artist, and agree to compensate them. I sell my images to companies all the time, companies who ask my permission and compensate me for my intellectual property. In this case, I was never contacted, asked permission or paid. That is called copying. It’s also called stealing.”

Licensing is how a lot of artists make their living. I have a licensing agreement for my Christmas cards to be sold in T.J. Maxx, Home Goods and Marshall’s this holiday season. (Overt, shameless plug: Go get ‘em!)

When I see incidents like this, it makes me appreciative that the people at T.J. Maxx reached out to me to let me know they were interested in my work, instead of taking another route. Granted, that’s the way you’re supposed to do business, but with so many big companies using shady practices, it’s encouraging to see that others still engage with artists the right way.

And the truly remarkable thing, especially in West Elm’s case, is to see a large company publicly stand up for the little guy. You can see the effusive appreciation of indie artists in the comments section on West Elm’s blog. And since West Elm's post, Fast Company Design has published an exposé on Cody Foster & Co.'s pirating practices. Plus, and Anthropologie have both yanked the vendor's merchandise from shelves.

This is what we need more of: the public appreciation of independent artists, and the public shaming of anyone who tries to copy-paste someone else’s work for profit. That way, creators can create freely, knowing they're protected not only by copyright, but also common sense.