Andi Best Freelance Designer

Justin And The Fire Breathing Rat


  • Published 12-01-2018
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Justin And The Fire Breathing Rat
To this day a prevailing misconception runs rife across the Internet; that digital imagery published "publicly" online is free of any inherent copyright or intellectual property protection and can be repurposed by anyone for any reason, no questions asked. For an idea of just how prevailing this misconception is I recommend you have a skim over the forexposure_txt Twitter account, and have a reread of this post on image copyright infringement I wrote for my blog previously.
For most, awareness of copyright infringement only arises once one's re-appropriated work is already in the wild benefitting a wrongful party, necessitating the arduous embarkation of legal mudslinging until a cease and desist order is met or remunerations are made, usually long after the damage is done. I observed two such examples of this occurring just days apart over the Christmas break. A photographer found numerous media outlets had helped themselves to a highly coveted and wonderfully composed shot of the Royal Family she had taken and posted on Twitter, which prompted a tirade of public outcry. Also, an amateur digital artist who was stunned to find a piece of his personal X-Box themed fan-art had been utilised/interpreted (delete as appropriate) by the console brand for a promotional advertisement without first seeking his consent.
Though the details of that second case are a little murkier, both add to the ever expanding catalogue of digital rights abuse that is making creatives increasingly cautious about how they present their work online, as well as skeptical of those showing interest in it.
This made things tough for Justin...
One day in late Autumn 2017 an email dropped into my inbox that was unlike the others that had appeared that day. It wasn't a design or illustration commission enquiry, nor was it feedback from a client pertaining to a live brief. It was a message from someone claiming to be a student who wished to use one of my illustrations in an upcoming coursework presentation. The email explained: "The presentation is about using Ghost Pepper powder to prevent rodents from eating seeds planted by farmers. There is a graphic for one of your t-shirts that would be very fitting for my poster, and I was wondering if you would be willing to give permission to use it. It's the Fire Breathing Rat T-shirt. I intend to include a citation with a link to your website and give you full credit."
The immediate reactions wrenched from me upon reading this were skepticism of the highest order and a huge sense of misgiving in complying with the request. Don't get me wrong, helping a student progress his studies for no charge whatsoever is definitely in my remit as a decent human being (time and resource allowing), but there was just too much stacked against Justin for me to honour this request without scrutiny. For starters, years of conditioned paranoia derived from incidents as per those in the introduction of this post is now deeply engrained in me, and a harrowing story of treachery* from my past always comes rocketing to the front of my mind under such circumstances. Additionally his choice to contact me with a Gmail account over his student institute issued one only served to cloud the definitives further. In light of all this, differentiating between a genuine use request (rare) and an individual masking their intent to tease a free illustration out of me for monetary gain (alarmingly common) is a complex task.
In order to corroborate Justin's story I responded asking, respectfully, if he could provide some greater detail about his course, school and class master. What I planned to do with that information I wasn't quite sure, but if the motive of this person was disingenuous as I suspected, I'd likely not hear from him again. So I was pleasantly surprised when Justin replied offering all the credentials I'd asked for, and delighted more so when the immeasurable power of Google confirmed that those credentials checked out - the institute and course were indeed genuine. Not only that, but the webpage for the course on the institute website carried the course leader's email address. Going further down the rabbit hole I decided to email the professor and ask him to verify all that had occurred. Though slightly perplexed the professor wrote back ensuring me that Justin's request was legitimate and that he did indeed have a presentation on the effects of Ghost Pepper to give.
That clinched it for me - what further proof could I need? Already running the risk of preventing this kid from completing his homework on time I gave him permission to use the artwork, and for good measure I included a link to the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license under which I was prepared to grant usage.
For a few days after giving my blessing I did not hear back from Justin. That didn't feel good. What if the whole thing had been and elaborate ruse to steal my work, complete with a hastily built university website and a fake professor that was actually an AI chatbot and Justin was actually a criminal mastermind now touting my rat illustration as his own and raking in millions after having converted it into a Snapchat filter?
My trepidation abated when Justin finally did reply with some pretty fantastic news:
"Hey Andi, I just wanted to say thanks for use of the graphic. The presentation went great, and it opened up a door for me to meet some representatives from the [University I had my eye on]. They had a good chuckle over the fire-breathing rat when I was presenting to them. They emailed me yesterday to offer me a scholarship, so I owe you one. I've attached the final copy of the poster in case you were interested in seeing the final product. Thanks a million".
For a moment or two I stared at this message not really knowing what to say. I just sat there smiling and basking in the karma cash raining down on me.
The moral of this story is manyfold. "Do nice things" and other superficial platitudes are one facet. "Give people the benefit of the doubt", or maybe, don't, is another. The jury is still out on that one. But ultimately it's the adage "look out for number one" that prevails. It's an unpleasant reality but when commercial endeavours are open to exploitation it's always best to err on the side of caution. I have no doubt that my not being immediately forthcoming handing over the goods was the correct move here given the ambiguity - it's important that I protect my business and livelihood. Creatives are having their digital artwork ripped off by the day enabled by the openess of the web and the lack of widespread education on property law, something that thankfully Justin was clued up on. In an alternate universe he may have lifted this image from my site for his studies and I would never have known. Context is important of course - I'm not suggesting that it's open season on my artwork for students but equally I won't lose sleep discovering my illustration has been sampled in someone's homework (but that's where I draw the line). The very fact that Justin is already employing the necessary protocols and good practice even at this early level of his career development is markedly rare and commendable. I hope others learn from his attitude. I certainly have.
* After wrestling with the decision I thought it best not to include the particulars of that story in this post owing to the potential legal scrutiny it may place me under, but I'm happy to divulge the redacted version if you'd like to hear it. Drop me a line via my contact page or my Twitter account.
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