What can we do with Bootleg Fan Art?

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What can fan artists do when their art is bootlegged? What can merchants do if they get called out for selling what is actually bootleg stuff?

The fan art area (Artist Alley) at ARCHcon Cebu 2019

A few days ago, I was directed to an experiment on Twitter by Roku where she posts a photo of a design she wants to be printed on a shirt:

In just a few days, Twitter users replied the same interest until someone from an online store tweet a link to the actual product, ready to be bought and shipped. This is a mild one – others tweet odd designs, some with vindicative statements.

Prior to this, incidents of art theft are everywhere, even in our local conventions. You can easily read stories from fan artists and visitors first on Twitter, then on Facebook.

What can fan artists do if their art is bootlegged? On the other side of the coin, what can vendors do if they found out what they are selling is actually bootleg stuff?

Let’s talk about this in a local context, as I met the Young Lawyers Association of Cebu (YLAC) at the Hobby Lobby of ARCHcon 2019 on its second day.

YLAC hosted a discussion on Intellectual Property which I believe is helpful especially at these times. This will be a lot, but please bear with me.

For Fan Art Merchants

This section will contain most parts of the Intellectual Property discussion that was held at ARCHcon.

Ok, so you get called out for actually selling keychains, trinkets and the like which are using bootlegged fan art. At this point, your only choice is to stop selling it, as a courtesy to the complainant (either the artist/s or their fans).

Those trinkets do cost you money to import or even produce yourself – after all, you are doing business, which is normal. Businesses are not evil, to begin with; it only becomes evil when mixed with ill, malicious intent.

In the case of one merchant who attended the discussion, they ordered the imported goods online.

Now, the artist wants to confiscate the items. It might be an act of goodwill to surrender the items to its original creator, but is this legal?

YLAC member Atty. Zeus Mabanag, a copyright lawyer, explained his opinion in detail: If the artist is just creating out of an original work of somebody else’s, then the artist is basically infringing.

The artist does not have the copyright, so he/she does not have the right to mass-produce or reproduce it and sell it. Therefore, the artist cannot stop anyone from doing the same thing as he/she did.

tl;dr: The artists can’t take justice into their own hands and confiscate the items. Official artists or any party thereof should be represented by a lawyer in filing legal cases against infringers.

You can insist on returning the items from the one who produced these for a refund as one merchant will be doing.

For Fan Art Creators

This section will then focus on my personal opinion and observation on this matter, with the help of my understanding of the aforementioned discussion with the lawyers.

Apply a watermark that cannot be erased easily

As a fan artist, you worked yourself off creating cute, beautiful; and that should be appreciated nevertheless. You post it online, and then the bots scrape content and claim it as if it was theirs all along. What can you do about it?

It’s easy to post artworks online, and it’s much easy to steal it if it does not have a proper watermark. Here’s a good example of watermarking:

You also have a choice to watermark your art like this:

We all have a love-hate relationship with watermarks (I do as well), but my opinion over them has changed over and over again as needed. You can read my past pointers on when to watermark your photos.

So far, what I am learning is that illustrations need some sort of watermark that can’t be easily removed by any means before posting it online. Another option is to post a small snippet of it online. The third option is to post it as a small-resolution photo.

Prohibit anyone from taking photos of your individual art

If you see the banner photo above, I prefer to take photos of art booths from a wider perspective. This way, I can tell people how artist alleys went well. At the same time, those who take photos show art that is available for selling without giving an opportunity for thieves to steal it.

As long as the art is not captured as a whole, it should be fine. May I also suggest that you ready your “No Photography” signs too.

Do actual partnerships with local manufacturers

Prior to posting this guide, I showed the case to a local artist who then advised me to conduct business only with local manufacturers to lessen the risk of unauthorized reproduction.

There’s this joke that goes like this: “God made Heaven and Earth, and the rest is made in China.” I can’t even find the proper source to attribute this anonymous quote, as there’s a LOT of these messages online.

I would like to address an example: Some time ago, Ozine partnered with fan artists to put their artwork into the tarpaulins they hang inside the halls.

These signs then get auctioned. (I am confident that proceeds of the auction go back to the fan artists themselves.) Prior to this, Ozine gets flak for auctioning tarpaulins with art taken from other sources without permission.

So yeah, please work with local partners to lessen the risk of getting pirated. At least here, you can sort things out with your local partners, unlike when it’s overseas where suddenly you need to be represented by a lawyer.

For Event Organizers

Any kind of exhibition has its event manager/s, and Atty. Mabanag suggested that a committee can be formed to mediate concerns regarding intellectual property.

If I understood correctly, this committee can be composed of a legal expert and a member of the organizing team. This committee will answer to the needs of complainants regarding stolen art.

Mitigating art theft, especially in the local context, has a long way to go, and I hope the information I learned can be of good use to all of us. For more information about the discussion we had with the YLAC laywers, kindly refer to this 40+ minute-long video:

Special thanks to our Cebu Partner Gary Montejo, ARCHcon 2019 and the Young Lawyers Association of Cebu for the assistance. keepsakes. is a media partner for ARCHcon Cebu 2019.

Also, a disclaimer: This is a guide and should not be considered as a piece of complete legal advice. For more information, please refer to your Intellectual Property lawyer.

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