Modern Art Thieves: Literally and Figuratively Children

If someone comes up to you and asks you to picture an art thief in your mind, your first reaction is probably something along the lines of “that’s a really strange conversation opener”. Your second reaction though, is probably to imagine some sort of high-brow criminal you might see in a movie. Pierce Brosnan in a bowler hat, perhaps. The Thomas Crown Affair, anyone? Alternatively, you might imagine an individual or group of individuals setting up a heist of some sort in order to steal a precious cultural artifact. Regardless, this stereotypical idea of an art thief is arguably outdated and rarely reflective of reality. The far more common form of art thief in this modern day and age looks and acts quite differently.

If you have spent practically any amount of time on a social media platform such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc., you will undoubtedly have come across accounts and/or ‘pages’ that regularly repost art. This ‘reposting’ practice involves downloading a piece of digitised art, typically an image rather than a video or piece of text, and lazily reuploading it to one’s own social media account. The problem is this: the vast majority of people who do this fail to credit the artist appropriately, often claiming that they don’t know who the artist is in the first place. This is of course a bad argument betraying the laziness with which the reposting occurs, since images can easily be traced back to their digital source through the use of ‘reverse image searching’. The easiest way to do this is to simply drag and drop the image into Google’s search bar, which will result in Google finding links to places that have that image, as well as finding similar images. This entire process can take as little as a handful of seconds, and yet people still upload art without credit all the time. This means that if such a post containing uncredited art becomes popular, people will have difficulty finding the artist responsible for it, thus limiting the amount of traction and exposure that the artist’s original posts would have gotten, which then in turn limits the amount of commission work these artists are hired for. These reposting accounts are often run by young people who are either unaware that what they are doing is unacceptable, or are simply not interested in respecting the artists they are stealing from, hence the ‘literal children’ part of this blog post’s title.

As for the ‘figurative children’ part of the title, there is an especially egregious group of people to be found on the internet who go out of their way to edit art in various malicious ways. The most common form of this is the removal of signatures and watermarks from digitised art pieces, which were explicitly placed there by the artist to combat the previously mentioned uncredited redistribution of their work. The reasoning behind this act often appears to be that the reposter considers the signature or watermark to be ‘ugly’ or ‘in the way of the art’ (keep in mind that the visibility of these things is explicitly their purpose). Rather than lazily reuploading someone else’s work without credit, they go out of their way to remove credit from the work before reuploading it. 

Another common form of modern art theft, although a more appropriate term would probably be ‘plagiarism’, is a practice known as ‘tracing’. This practice involves taking someone else’s artwork and drawing over it, often using the original linework as a guide, to create an altered piece which is then uploaded and presented as being entirely this person’s own work. This does not mean that the act of tracing itself is bad, as it is a useful form of practice and is occasionally used to create humorous parody works (read: memes), but there is of course a problem with those instances where a ‘traced’ piece is presented as something that is an entirely original piece of work.

And lastly, a third common form of modern art theft is the illegal redistribution of artwork for profit. The merchandise website ‘Redbubble’ for example, is somewhat notorious for its userbase selling stolen art in the form of clothing, stickers, accessories, etc., with the stolen art being printed on said objects. This form of theft is of course far more direct and harmful than the other aforementioned methods, but the insidious thing about the former two is their abundance and the largely blasé attitude that the public has towards those methods, thus leaving the artists largely powerless to call these people out on their behaviour.

In short, art theft has become such an easy act to perform thanks to social media that it is now more frequent than ever before, and as a result it has become somewhat normalized.

If you’re going to repost art, please do the decent thing and credit the artist properly in the same post. Not a reply, not a comment, but the exact same post as the artpiece, to ensure that the credit is just as visible as the piece.