There will be a time in your freelance career where you really start to make a name for yourself. You’re getting awesome clients, doing awesome work, and it’s only going up hill. However, with success comes scammers, trolls, and the most commonly, people that copy, “borrow”, or blatantly steal your design work. Has that happened to you yet?
Last week I stumbled upon a blatant copy of my logo on a design firm’s portfolio. It was a full page with large images of my logo mocked up on different products, but with a different business name under it. To see this company benefiting on my hard work and personal brand was a serious issue for me.
How did I find out?
First, let me take a step back and explain how I stumbled upon this rip-off of my logo.
There are two ways of finding out if your work is being stolen:
- You’re informed by one of your peers.
- You can manually search where your designs are showing up online. Go to Google Image search, upload an image of one of your designs, and let the results pour in.
I do a Google image search with some of my favorite designs every other month or so – just out of curiosity.
So back to the story… I found a copy of my logo on this design firm’s portfolio by Image searching with my logo. I searched the business name in the mockups, and it was for a genuine business. To them, I felt bad, that they were given a stolen logo. But towards the design firm, I was borderline enraged.
However, I had to keep my cool and reach out asap to get the situation resolved. I’ve reached out to individuals before in the past. Some were utterly embarrassed that I found out and removed the stolen content. Then there were some that became defensive. They tried to convince me they didn’t steal the work, but then proceeded to lash out and troll me (hard) online for the next few months. I had to beef up my online security, moderate my comments, block several accounts, etc. It was really rough for a while, but luckily it passed.
How to resolve the infringing work
You must consider if the situation is a big deal. Most often, it’s a small-time, inexperienced designer wanting to have cool work in their portfolio. In this case, it can be a good learning opportunity for them. They may think you’ll never find out, but you did. So reach out and explain the seriousness of the situation, and try to educate them of what they did wrong.
However, if it’s someone reselling your designs, passing it off as their own, or marketing their own services with it, then you should feel threatened. Keep your cool. Your first step will be to reach out via phone or email. The key is to have your first contact with this person be as polite and least threatening as possible. If you can do that, chances are they’ll do the same. And if they’re quick to respond and take action on removing the stolen work, thank them for their cooperation. If they refuse or don’t respond, then you can start to consider threatening them with legal action.
How to respond
When I reached out to the design firm that stole my logo, I wrote:
I’m reaching out because I noticed the strong similarity of your portfolio piece […] to my own logo. Your use of my logo from my personal brand constitutes an infringement of my copyright and therefore subjects you to substantial liability under federal copyright law. Please immediately remove the logo from your website, Facebook page, Instagram, and any other place you may be showcasing it online or off, and please refrain from any further use of any designs derived from my website.
I would prefer to resolve this matter without legal action and trust that your prompt cooperation will allow us to do just that. Would you please send me a confirmation that the infringing logo and branding materials will be immediately removed from your online presence so that this matter can be resolved? Thank you for your cooperation.
I then recieved a very quick response from the company’s CEO, apologizing for the “massive resemblance” in the logo, and that he’ll talk to his designer about the situation. Turned out, it was a pro bono project and their designer assumed that since she was in another country, that “nobody would know.” He again gave me his deepest apologies, removed the infringing work, and said he was going to offer a pro bono redesign for the client using my logo. At the end of the day, it was resolved very quickly in a polite manner, so I had no hard feelings.
What if they aren’t responding?
If you’re unable to get a response from someone, then you still have options. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a legislation that covers your right in circumstances like stolen work. Whether you’ve officially filed any paperwork or not, you still own the rights to your own designs.
With a simple search of the infringing site’s host provider, you can have the site shut down under a “DMCA Takedown.” But only if you truly own the rights.
Another option is to use Google Support to report the infringing content and to have it removed from their search engine.
How to keep your designs safe
The obvious route would be to trademark your logo and any of your important designs. I’ve found LegalZoom to be a great resource if you’re new to this and don’t have the time or money to invest in a legal professional.
The easiest thing you can do is add “Copyright 2014 Your Legal Name. All Rights Reserved.” to the footer of your website.
From what I’ve read on my own (I’m not a lawyer), you get an automatic trademark and copyright under state law. If you can prove that the design is yours, then you may have a case, and if it’s a big deal you may want to consider lawyering up.
While every situation is different and the outcome is never 100% guaranteed success, I hope what I’ve had to share can be of use.
Have you ever had your design work stolen? Share your stories in the comments below. If you have any advice to add to this post, then please share as well. Someone else could be going through the same thing you are right now and it could help them out a lot to get a bit of direction.
Disclaimer: You should always consult a professional relating to legal, insurance, tax, or financial issues. This article is from my personal experience and is only intended as a guide.