A Grim Case of Copyright Infringement


What do you do when you see your artwork being used without your consent?

I recently had the chance to find out.

What Happened

My hometown of Keene, NH holds a huge Pumpkin Festival every year around Halloween. It’s become pretty famous, with over 25,000 jack-o-lanterns lighting up Main Street. So, if you’re ever in the area at this time of year, be sure to take a visit (and bring a pumpkin or two).

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Anyway…this year as I was stuffing myself with maple cotton candy and pumpkin ice cream, a poster caught my eye. It was for a booth that was selling pumpkin carving patterns and equipment, and pictured jack-o-lanterns with different patterns on them. One of them looked awfully familiar.

The image had a striking resemblance to a small illustration I made last year of the Grim Reaper. I shocked to see it on a pumpkin. It was an overall very bizarre experience.

The company had the pattern available for download on their website. I compared it to the original image, and there was no mistaking that this character was mine.

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How I Dealt With the Problem

My agent ended up calling the company, and they kindly acknowledged their mistake. By the end of the day, the pattern was taken off the website and we were informed that the posters would be destroyed. It was a shame, because besides the copyright mess, it was fun seeing my image on a pumpkin.

But I couldn’t just brush it aside and let it go. I own the copyright to this image, and under copyright law, this company would have to pay for the right to use the pattern to sell and promote their products. As an illustrator, this is how I make a living, after all.

Copyright Law: What You Need to Know

With this incident, I thought it would be a good time to review some copyright basics, for both you fellow artists out there and for the people who want to use our images.

(Please note that I’m not an expert on the subject, this is just my understanding of what I know. You can read more about copyright law on the official website: http://www.copyright.gov/)

First, copyright is automatic. Artists – whether they are illustrators, designers, writers, musicians, etc. – own the copyright for their creation as soon as it is created. You do not need to register a work with the copyright office to make it so.

What does owning a copyright mean? It means no one can use your image (or story or song or design) without your permission. For example, you can’t use an artist’s image on your website, business card, t-shirt, icon, logo, or any other such thing (like a pumpkin carving pattern) without asking the artist first.

But what if you are not using the image to make a profit? What if you use an image, but credit the artist and thus promote their work? What if you are using the image for something so small, that your mom is the only one who will ever see it? Many people use these excuses to justify their infringement, but it is still infringement nonetheless. This isn’t being picky, this is LAW.

So, what do you do if you want to use an artist’s image?


That’s it. For certain uses of my work, I’m entitled to a fee, but for the majority of cases where the use is small, personal, or not-for-profit, I will most likely say “Yeah, sure,” and let you go on your way. It doesn’t bother me to let people use my artwork, and it actually makes me glad to know that people enjoy it. But it WILL bother me if I’m not aware of it, because that means that people are assuming rights to my intellectual property that they don’t have.

How can artists protect their work?

I hate seeing distracting watermarks on website images, but they work. A simple “Copyright © 2007 – All Rights Reserved” notice on your website will detract a lot of casual visitors. I think the most important thing an artist can do is stay informed and stand up for their rights. I’m often amazed at the amount of freedom some people think they have when it comes to any image they come across on the internet or elsewhere. Many guilty parties are not evil thieves, but are simply uninformed. (See cartoonist Tom Richmond’s thoughts about Innocent Internet Infringement and Realtors on his blog.) If you do see your work being infringed upon, even if it’s small, don’t be afraid to send a polite note and educate your viewers.

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