Online art theft goes unregulated on Instagram


Many artists that post their art online deal with art theft at one point or another.

Imagine you just got home from a long day of school. You drop your backpack, lazily take off your shoes, and throw yourself onto your bed. You reach for your phone to see how your latest post is doing. It’s a drawing that took you countless hours and an unreal amount of effort to complete. But as you opened Instagram, your heart sank. Someone had re-posted your photo. The caption read, “A drawing I did earlier! What do you think?”

You’ve been robbed.

Art theft is rampant online, especially on Instagram. This type of theft refers to someone re-posting and claiming a piece of art as their own or re-posting it without proper credit. This is very easy to get away with on Instagram because there’s no system to report stolen art effectively.

Many artists on Instagram have had experiences with their art being stolen. One artist, Instagram user flowellx, who goes by Kelly, told their art theft story.

“About a year and a half ago, I drew this picture of a YouTuber, Miles McKenna, and it was re-posted by a fan account which I was fine with, but it was credited to someone else,” Kelly said. “I messaged the account about it and they apologized and fixed it pretty quickly because they didn’t know.”

Happy ending, right? Not exactly.

“The person that was credited was being super defensive. She kept saying she drew it,” Kelly said. “She [sent] pictures of her laptop and [said] ‘I drew on this,’ but I had videos of me opening the original file on my computer. She then sent me three other pictures that she claimed to draw, but I googled ‘Miles McKenna fan art’ and they were the first three pictures, all in completely different art styles.”

In the end, she eventually confessed that the art wasn’t hers. However, many art thieves just deny or block whoever called them out.

Hannah Rose, also known as Instagram user korozashisakae, has had their art stolen many times.

It started with just the occasional re-posting without credits, but eventually [people] would re-post my art claiming it as theirs, basically stealing my identity!”

— Hannah Rose, @korozashisakae

Rose said, “It started with just the occasional re-posting without credits, but eventually [people] would re-post my art claiming it as theirs, basically stealing my identity.”

Rose has been in the online art community for a long time, so this is just something to expect. Quite a few people in the online art community experience art theft at least once.

Even when the re-poster makes it clear that they didn’t draw the piece, but doesn’t link the original artist, it can be quite frustrating.

However, re-posting isn’t the only form of art theft. Many also consider tracing without permission or credit to be art theft as well.

“Tracing is definitely art theft,” said Hanna, Instagram user pixlkolibri.

Several artists also say that tracing is okay for practice in the beginning, but at some point, an artist shouldn’t continue if they are truly trying to improve their skills.

“Another time my art was stolen was when a young artist kept repeatedly tracing my art. When I confronted them, they complained to their friends and I was attacked for putting down a younger artist who was ‘inspired’ by me and just using my art as a ‘reference,’” Rose said.

People also steal original characters. This could either be for their own personal use or to resell for profit.

“I’ve had people steal character designs I’ve made. I didn’t have too big of an issue with the personal ones compared to when they tried to sell the designs,” Rose said.

One controversy is about referencing. This is when someone uses another artist’s work as a reference as they draw their own piece. They’re not directly tracing it, but it’s still technically replicating someone else’s work.

Many argue over whether referencing counts as art theft or not.

“That really depends on what degree you reference. If it’s hardcore referencing with a similar pose, clothes, expression, background, etc., then it’s obviously not okay. However, if you reference only the pose or only the shirt, for example, then I don’t think it is defined as art theft,” Hanna said. “Just stay away from referencing more than one thing as it might look like you’re trying to copy the person or their characters.”

But of course, there will always be varying opinions.

“No, I don’t think [referencing counts as theft]. Now, there is a difference from taking inspiration from reference versus blatantly copying a specific detail about the certain piece, tracing, or actually just copying the drawing. [That] is not okay, but referencing others’ art is how we develop our own ideas and art styles to begin with. We all have to start somewhere,” said Luca, also known on Instagram as user awibeary.

As Luca said, everyone’s art style has to come from somewhere. Most people develop their style based off of artists they look up to for inspiration, whether they know it or not.

Arguably the most serious form of theft is appropriation. According to an article from Thalo, appropriation is when someone steals art for profit. This could mean taking someone else’s art and selling prints, t-shirts, etc., or stealing their art as examples for their commissions. This way, when people commission the thief, they’ll expect the art in the style of the original artist, but once they get the piece (if they ever do), they’ll be disappointed and the thief will profit.

But people don’t just steal art for profit.

Leila Farhi, a freshman at Carlmont High School, said, “It could be because they don’t know the original artist or because they aren’t comfortable with their own style.”

In some cases, other artists who feel that they aren’t talented enough to gain a following with their own art will steal art from others and claim it as their own. This way, they may get the recognition they wouldn’t normally get from posting their own art.

“Maybe they think they might get away with it because Instagram is such a huge platform and the chances of the original artist finding out is small, and that this stunt might get them publicity and credit,” Hanna said.

There are various reasons why someone may steal art, but a popular one is to get attention.

“I think it’s solely for the purpose of getting popular or trying to impress others. It doesn’t play out well for them though since they often get caught by the original artist or one of their supporters,” said Instagram user uhhlexiii, also known as Alexi.

Many people agree that the lack of a way to report art theft effectively is a reason why there’s so much art theft on Instagram.

“I definitely think this is a problem! Instagram has a large number of artists on their platform and I think they should have some better ways to report and handle art theft to help their artist user base. Because of this non-existent moderation over art theft, people can steal as they please with no consequences, especially if the artist is really small,” Rose said.

The actual reporting system on Instagram is flawed too.

The reporting process is so confusing. You can’t do it on your phone easily and it takes a while for the report to go through.”

— Macy, @peachykeenowo

Even if the report does go through, there’s a very little chance the post will actually get deleted or the person’s account will be suspended.

But some don’t think it’s that much of an issue.

“I think [art theft] has become a slight issue and I wish there was a report option for it, but most artists handle it very well. Most artists would just tell their supporters to report the person stealing, hopefully not sending hate messages, and it has worked multiple times in the past so I wouldn’t be too worried about it,” Alexi said.

Most times, bigger artists on Instagram tend to get their art stolen. They can make a post and thousands will see what’s going on and report the thief. In this case, the massive amount of reports will either overwhelm the thief into deleting the posts or disabling their account, or the reports will actually work and Instagram will take the posts down.

However, smaller artists don’t have a massive number of fans to make an impact on the thief. This can make it a lot harder to get the post taken down, which can be frustrating.

Many artists have a few ideas about what Instagram should do.

“I think Instagram should post a report option specifically for stolen images whether it be a photo of a person, art, or anything so people don’t have to send armies of their supporters to take a person down,” Alexi said.

Although there is an option to report for copyright infringement, most people on the site don’t know what that means or that that’s what they should be reporting for.

Copyright infringement refers to streaming, downloading, or uploading media under copyright protection without paying. This includes music, movies, ebooks, etc. and it’s illegal.

What most people don’t know is that as soon as someone uploads an original piece, whether it be art, music, or otherwise, they get copyright protection on it immediately. This means that if someone uploads a piece of art to Instagram and someone else steals it, that’s copyright infringement.

However, these days, people are either uneducated about copyright or just don’t care. According to Brandongaille, the bandwidth used to illegally download media has increased by 160 percent since 2000.

In addition, 70 percent of online users find nothing wrong with downloading copyrighted media.

That being said, Instagram should educate their users about copyright and how uploading someone else’s work without permission is illegal, and take all reports seriously and deal with them as quickly as possible.

To recap, if someone decides to re-post someone’s art, they should know who the artist is and credit them properly. If they don’t know who the artist is, reverse image searching will give them their answer most of the time, and if it doesn’t, they shouldn’t post it. It’s that simple.

In Rose’s words, “‘Credit to the artist’ does not count as credit, sorry.”

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