Art Theft Scandals Rock deviantArt

Recently, British phtographer Lara Jade recently discovered than a self-portrait she took of herself when she was fourteen was being used on the cover of a porn DVD without her permission.

Almost at the same time, American fractal artist Deb Walker discovered that some of her artwork was stolen, some of it being sold as prints in Las Vegas, other images being sold on Ebay

Finally, digital artists Kyndi and Jeni Niquette also discovered their works were being stolen, both on other sites and, like Walker, on cigarette boxes sold using Ebay.

It is three very different thefts with one common thread, all of the artists above are all using deviantArt (dA) to publish their works.

Though likely just a coincidence, dA seems to be making a lot of plagiarism news these past few days. It raises the question whether or not dA, and sites similar to it, are more vulnerable to this kind of content abuse and, if so, what can be done about it?

Why deviantART?

There are several reasons why dA would be a very appealing target for someone seeking artwork to steal. However, those reasons are often tied to the very features that make it so appealing.

First, as the name would indicate, dA is a site known for its art. It goes well beyond photography and supports a wide variety of artwork including literature, paintings, sculpture and more. Though sites such as Flickr are often used by artists, dA is targeted at the market specifically. That, in turn, attracts a wide variety of artwork, much of it very of very high quality.

Second, dA’s search features make it very easy to find exactly the kind of art one is interested in and the subject they want. It is trivial, for example, to find oil paintings of dragons if that is what you wanted.

Third, dA closely integrates Creative Commons Licensing into its system. Many people either misconstrue CC licensing or abuse it. CC licenses also attract viewers, both good and evil, with reuse on their mind.

Fourth, dA, outside of a relatively weak watermarking system, does very little to help users protect their work. Artists who host their own content and run their own sites can take many different steps to protect their content and have much greater opportunity to prominently display copyright information.

Finally, dA’s demographics seem to skew younger with 37% of their members being between 18-24 and many members under the age of 18. Though age is not a factor in copyright ownership or protection, younger people are often targeted, theoretically, for their lack of experience with such matters and because their claims are often taken less seriously.

All of these facts should give artists a reason to pause and consider the role they want dA to play in displaying their art. However, they aren’t the only factors to be considered, there is good news after all.

The Good News

The good news is that, despite the recent spate of plagiarism complaints from dA members, there is little reason to believe that dA has a significantly higher rate of theft than any other site, at least at this time.

With 4.5 million registered members, a few such complaints are to be expected and the recent controversy on Flickr only further accents the point that these types of problems can happen anywhere.

When it’s all said and done, it seems that dA is not significantly more or less dangerous than any other site out there. Most of the limitations and problems with dA are similar to that on any other photo sharing site and are not exclusive to dA.

However, with that being said, there are several things that dA could be doing to help prevent these kinds of incidents. Most of them are very simple steps and some could be implemented almost overnight.

What dA Can Do

Though dA can not completely stop this kind of abuse, there are steps that it can take to reduce the problem.

  1. Prominent Copyright Information: Right now, when you view a work on dA, the copyright information for it is only prominently displayed if either the work is licensed under a CC license or the user adds it manually to the comments. dA needs to prominently display the copyright information on all works, regardless of licensing and make it clear that non-CC licensed works are NOT in the public domain to stave off confusion.
  2. Better Watermarking: dA offers an automatic watermark on uploaded works but it only works on images that are resized. If users want to display full-resolution images, they have to watermark them before they upload them. Expanding the watermarking system to go beyond resized photos is a must as high-resolution images are the ones most often taken.
  3. Image Protection: Though transparent overlays and segmented images are not perfect tools for stopping content theft, they can help a great deal and can be implemented fairly easily, especially overlays. It would be up to the user to turn this feature on or off and could add an extra layer of protection for those very worried about theft.
  4. Protecting Full Resolution Image: Very high resolution images, right now, can be downloaded without an account and are not tracked. Requiring an account to download a full resolution of an image would provide a deterrent and might make it easier to track down who is misusing the photo.
  5. Provide Copyright Resources: Though dA has always been very solid when handling infringement on its own service, it provides very little information to its members to deal with infringement that takes place elsewhere. Some basic advice on this matter would be a great addition to their Help & FAQ section.

Though none of this would stop infringement of the artwork dA hosts on their site, it would reduce the number of incidents. Since most of these steps would be almost painless to end users, they are likely worthwhile even if they only stop a small number of cases.


With so many members, dA is destined not only to be a target of plagiarists, but also a home for them. However, dA’s commitment to battling art theft when it takes place on the service has not extended that deep into protecting its legitimate members.

Though there is still no reason to believe that dA is more or less safe than any other site currently available, there are things that dA can, and probably should, do to help protect its members. This is especially true since dA attracts many different kinds of artists, including many who spend a great deal of time and energy on their work, and dA, with a few reasonable steps, can help them protect that effort.

If nothing else, offering better content protection could be yet another selling point for dA as it looks to carve its niche in the increasingly crowded image and art community category. Protecting users copyright can be a great distinction in a field with a lot of very similar sites.

More than that though, it will help dA turn the focus away from these art theft issues and put it back where it should be, on the art itself.

With so many talented artists on the site, it is a terrible shame that content theft has been the topic of conversation lately.

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