Online Art theft and how to protect your images

Has Art theft ever happened to you?

You are surfing the interwebs as all cool people do when you come across your own work. Naturally, you are curious so you click the link; When you check the image you see someone else has claimed it as their own. Now what?

It has happened to me and it can happen to you!

Situations like this can be super painful if you care about your art.  (While others people can also see it as strangely flattering.)

But especially to young or beginning artist art theft can be particularly frustrating. Without a big following or a consistent body of work, it gets harder to prove that you are the original owner of the work. Plus when it is your first time dealing with something like this it can be super hard to figure out what you should do.

Of the 66 artists that replied on the forum on my questions; Have you had your art stolen before?

26 Of them answered yes. 

Ranching from people whos work got copied, traced or re-post to people who had had their designs being sold without consent.

While some said “their art wasn’t good enough to be stolen” in general, there seems to be no real standard for when your art gets stolen. It can happen to anyone!

My favourite response on this matter was; 

“My art has never been stolen or retraced but the views on the matter about not being popular enough are a bit invalid. I think people tend to copy artists who aren’t quite as well known because it is easier to get away with it. Not because the artist is not as “good” as another, but because some great artists may not have the same opportunity.” – iErisiArt

However, I do think some genres are more likely to be stolen namely;

Anime, Fanart, Realistic portraits and Digital Art. 

What is defined as art theft here?

Art theft is when someone takes your images from where you have posted them and reposts/spreads them in spite the copyright licence you have provided. 

Other examples could be someone copying your work, someone claiming it as their own work or people who are actually making money of your work without you making a profit from it.

The copyright licence you choose, highly influences what people are allowed to do with your image. Apart from the “all rights reserved” there are the creative commons which can help you find a better way of sharing your images on your own terms. 

However, in general, goes if someone is using your image without the proper credit and before asking permission we could classify this as art theft. But before going after a person for doing this it is always a good idea to determine the circumstances and person themselves.

Everyone has their own standards for what they see as right or wrong when it comes to art.

Who has taken the images? Private, or company.


If a person or company is making money from your artwork and you are not being compensated you can go ahead and go all out. (I mean start with a polite inquiry but obviously, this is wrong)

On the forum, this lovely artist, Simanion directed my attention to this story about Zara taking independent illustrators their designs and copying it.

This is quite an extreme example of art theft online. But also one of the best examples of what it can mean for illustrators when this happens.

If, however, the person is not making money but claiming it as their own, this is still a case of art theft. However, it is “less damaging” because there is no monetary gain. 

If the person is young or seems inexperienced this was most likely a mistake.

Knowing who has taken the image helps you determine what measures you can take and how to go about the situation.

What do you do to prevent it?

Before we go into how to solve a situation why not look at some things you can do to prevent people from taking your art. Obviously, if you can prevent it, it will be much easier. 

Sidenote though; some art thieves are very very determined and won’t be stopped by anything. This doesn’t mean that you should have protected your work better. In most countries, you own the copyright to any work you create, automatically. However, if you need extra protection, getting an official copyright is the way to go!


Dates, platforms, signing, URLs and watermarks

There are loads of different ways you can protect your work; here are the most common ones.

The first thing is signing your work. That way people can find the original owner of the work they are looking at. Also if you make it hard to crop out it will be a lot harder to steal the images. (Tbh, I forget this all the time, which might also be why my images keep getting taken. Save yourself some trouble and sign your work) 

Urls are something like this as well. They are even easier to trace which makes them very handy. You can add them to your images digitally in the corners or use them as a watermark.

Watermarks are big translucent pictures that go over your work. They are much harder for someone to edit out but also distract from your artwork.

(If you use Deviantart you can use their watermark to protect your work) You can also personalize your watermarks to fit your needs. You can make them your logo or as mentioned before or use your URL.

Adding a date can help show people when you created the work which also adds some protection. This is also something that is done traditionally so it doesn’t stand out as much.

The platform you are uploading to highly influences the risk of your artwork being stolen. Art portfolio sites are not as much targeted as social media. Particular high-risk places seem to be Facebook, Instagram and Deviantart.

The more people get to know your work, the easier it will get for people to recognise when an image has been stolen.

Keep WIP save to, to make sure nobody can claim work as theirs

Works in Progress are sketches of work that is not yet finished. Sharing these can actually help an art thief claim the work for themselves. (Many contests, for example, ask for a WIP shot to prove you have made the work!)

This does not mean you should not share those.

But make sure you are properly protecting your sketches and works in progress too if you are having trouble with art thieves.


Upload in low quality/dimensions

If you have had trouble with people actually selling your design make sure you are uploading in a lower quality. Many companies (like Society6) need an image to be at least 2000px by 2000px. Uploading in a lower resolution then that makes it harder for others to profit from your artwork.

This is especially handy for social media since pictures don’t have to be that big there anyway.

How to solve it?

What if an image does get taken?

While there are some solutions it is always best to be critical first. For example, if it was a kid who copied one of your drawings and didn’t credit you properly this might not be cause for concern or your end.

One of the amazing insight I read on this is as followed; 

Honestly, people can steal it and claim it’s theirs if they want to go through the effort of scrubbing my watermark just to boast their imaginary talent. It’s not something worth wasting time on. What would be unacceptable is when they try to scam people with it because that’s actually causing harm to someone with something I made. – SentientLine

Before you spend a lot of time on this, just make sure it is actually worth it to you.

This however totally depends on you and your work and your feelings. While for some bigger artist art theft is not such a big deal some other artist might be very passionate about where they want their work to be posted and where not.

All of these are valid.

– ask personally

If the person seems quite young or it might be a mistake, start out with a personal message.  This is always the first thing I try. Sometimes this works instantly and it saves you loads of trouble.

It is always good to stay as friendly as possible. Especially if you are working on making a career online. Having a fit online will not help your case.

Many people just don’t realise what copyright means or what licence you are using. 

– ‎ask the platform

Often platforms have an option to report copyright issues. However, this is always harder to do. You need to answer a lot of questions and not every platform is as nice and quick in their responses.

However, when the person does not react this is definitely the way to go.

– ‎File a DMCA takedown in case of emergencies

I only ever filed one of these. There was a site that sold my (and other peoples) work on t-shirts. But I was not the only one filing a DMCA which is probably why it worked in the end.

If you have a problem with someone taking your work and there are more people whose work is taken; getting in touch is a great idea. The more people there are that are reporting the bigger the change that something will happen.

I can not tell you exactly how to do this, but this site will definitely be able to help you one this.

If it is a situation where none of the above work getting some legal counsel is probably your next best step. 

So to quickly recap the whole thing; 

Everyone’s art can be stolen but we can try our best to protect our images as well as we can. When it happens anyway, there are some solutions to how you can address the matter! Art theft can be painful but you are not alone!

You can read the entire discussion on art theft on the forum here. 

Special thanks to everyone who shared their experiences with me! 

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences as well; let me know in the comments!


p.s. You might also like;

I want to be a professional artist; do I need professional art supplies?

What is Art theft and how do you prevent your art from being stolen online? Everything on Art theft and what you can do to protect yourself and your images!

One Response to “Online Art theft and how to protect your images

  • Great article! As a photographer photo theft is the main concern for me. Having a watermark on all images and disabling right click will prevent photo theft to some level.

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