Protecting Your Creative Work In a Digital Age
Artist Syd Weiler’s Trash Doves sticker pack turned into an internet phenomenon earlier this year. That's when the nightmare began. Weiler hadn't copyrighted her work, and people used it without permission. Here is what she learned about protecting your art on the internet.
Syd Weiler’s Trash Doves sticker pack turned into an internet phenomenon earlier this year. And they almost didn’t make it out of her notebook.
“I wasn’t even going to post them. They were just four-minute little sketches [of pigeons] I’d done sitting in a park in Minneapolis,” Weiler says.
One day, she tweeted the pigeon drawing and the next morning it had a couple thousand likes and retweets. “I thought ‘oh cool, people like those pigeon drawings, but whatever.’ It’s always the little stuff people take and run, not what you’ve worked hours on,” she says.
Then Apple went and released a new iOS, and allowed independent artists to make “stickers” – basically drawings similar to emojis – as part of the update. If you’re wondering what a sticker pack is, think of the narrow, shrink-wrapped packages you might have found at a gift or craft store and stuck on your notebook or Trapper Keeper back in the pre-internet days.
So Weiler and a friend decided to make a weekend out of each creating a sticker pack and uploading it to the App Store. This happened in September. For $1.99, you could buy a pack of 25 (37 thanks to an October update) pigeon stickers for your, as Weiler described it, “coo conversations.”
The stickers, showing a purple pigeon in various situations, like eating a baguette, a doughnut or sliced bread, can be inserted into iMessage conversations on the iPhone. One pigeon lies atop a loaf of bread with the caption “loafin’ around.”
It was “a little, fun, weekend project,” that “made people happy,” until she figured out how to put the stickers on Facebook. That happened in late January, and within a couple of weeks, people all over the world had heard of and seen the Trash Doves.
Sure, they were being inserted into Facebook messenger conversations and people were getting a kick out of them, but they also started showing up on coffee mugs and T-shirts without Weiler’s permission. The purple pigeons were appropriated as the mascots of some unsavory neo-Nazi groups.
Someone also mashed-up the image of a head-banging trash dove and a dancing cat. The lewd 22-second animation received over three million YouTube views in just a few days. The trash dove officially became a thing.
Why did it happen like that? Weiler thinks people just want something cute and fun when the world seems like a confusing and scary place.
“So much of what you see online is negative, when something happy, cute and funny comes along on your feed, that’s what you latch onto,” she said. “It feels like a life raft, at least for me. I think that’s what happened to these. They were simple, they didn’t have a larger meaning. It was funny birds with funny bread puns that they could use to send to friends to make their friends smile and laugh.”
But when the doves started showing up all over the place, Weiler decided it was time to protect her property. She spoke with 99U after spending a couple of months and thousands of dollars with a lawyer trying to protect her images.
“It was pretty much my entire February,” she says.
While the income from the stickers has paid her rent a few times over, it has also paid some of her legal fees. She knows she couldn’t have sold the stickers on her own, but if she had never done them in the first place, she also would have been saved some serious hassle.
“We’re talking about a positive but it kind of made February the worst month of my life. People don’t understand copyright law or IP law,” Weiler says. “They assume that because a sticker is free on Facebook, they can take it and put it on a T-shirt, but that’s not the case.”
It’s something most art and design students are just not equipped to deal with, especially if some trifle catches fire in the online economy.
Sarah Burstein is a law professor at the University of Oklahoma. She is an expert on copyright and intellectual property and also has a bachelor’s degree in art and design from Iowa State.
She can appreciate the situation Weiler found herself in without much preparation, but she says artists can protect their drawings and animations, and that is to register them with the U.S. Copyright Office.
“It’s a pretty quick and easy process,” Burstein says. “But you do have to take that small and important step.”
Until you’ve registered, you can’t sue someone. And that’s important.
A good designer with a lot of work out there for the public to see may need a good lawyer. But it’s not something many creatives think about while in school.
“No one ever talked to me about IP in my design classes,” Burstein says. “The only things I learned about IP or copyright came from a media law class. So certainly there’s education that could be done. Teaching people how to register their copyright certainly wouldn’t hurt. That would be a nice, basic start.”
“I learned how much I did not learn in art school from this experience,” she says. “I knew basics but I didn’t know the nuance.”
Burstein suggests that artists think about what they want to get out of chasing down individual copyright violations.
“I’m not sure you could go and sue every person that used your sticker on Facebook or make them get a license. Even if you had taken the proper steps, the question is: What does that get you? Or what do you want? Most designers and artists actually want attribution. ‘You like my sticker, that’s great, come to my website and buy my other work, or hire me.’”
After all, no one wants to spend $100,000 on legal fees just to net $50,000 in damages.
But Burstein says there are still ways for artists to gain financially from work that goes viral in the way the trash doves did: Look for “ancillary commercial exploitation opportunities.”
“My sense is that the money might be in other merchandise. What I would want to do is register the copyright and then say: ‘Come get the T-shirt, or the print.’ And copyright would certainly protect that right.”
Weiler calls the experience “soul-sucking,” but thinks the hard days are behind her. If she had one thing to do over, she says she would not have licensed the images and animations to Facebook. “I didn’t have the inkling that any of this would have been possible in this short amount of time.”
And she is working with some online retailers to make the trash doves more widely, and legally, available.
In the end, Weiler walked away with some extra cash, some headaches, more legal knowledge and about 120,000 new followers on social channels like Twitter and Twitch. While she would not wish what she had to go through over the winter on anyone else, she does feel in some way it has been worth it.
Much of Weiler’s work is social and she streams her creative process on her Twitch channel. The more people who know about her, the better, and it can only help down the line. She has both a property a lot of people know about – the Trash Doves – and a larger audience she can educate about what it takes to protect that property.
There are worse ways to double your audience. And if all of it came from trying to protect her work (“You can’t steal from an independent artist and you can’t just make a mug out of it,” she says), all the better.
By Dan Friedell