Battling the Copyright-Infringing T-Shirt Bots

It's a war against the bots...

Last week, artists of all types launched an attack on unscrupulous websites and clothing retailers that sold t-shirts, as well as other products, with their artwork without permission, attribution or any form of payment.

The exploit was actually very simple. Many of these unethical shops use automated bots to scour Twitter and other social media looking for users saying they want a particular image on the t-shirt and then they simply grab the image and produce the t-shirt, site unseen.

The artists exploited this by basically poisoning the well. They created artwork that no reasonable person would want on a shirt sold on their store and convinced the bots to do exactly that.

Examples of this included everything from simply writing out the words “This site sells stolen artwork.”

To placing copyright and trademark-protected characters on the shirts in hopes that their owners may take some legal action.

But while the campaign did a great job getting publicity for the issue, it hasn’t proved very successful in stopping the infringement. A week after the campaign started, even many of the worst and clearest tricks are still available for sale.

While it’s certainly fun (and a good thing) to exploit the bots, the bots really aren’t the core of the problem. The problem is an entire system that makes theft incredibly easy, but stopping it nearly impossible.

The Bots Are a Symptom, Not the Problem

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Artists have been complaining about the unlicensed sale of their work for many years. The issue hasn’t been limited to sketchy t-shirt sites either, with many of the infringements appearing on sites such as Amazon.

The reason for this is quite simple: With print-on-demand technology, it’s easy to put any image you want on a shirt, poster, mug or other work, and make a profit, even if you just sell one.

This has changed the production of such products from chasing fads that will sell a large number of one item to chasing the long-tail. Now you can offer thousands of products for no upfront cost and, even if you just sell one or two, you make money. It’s like email spam but in t-shirt form.

However, when you’re chasing that long-tail and putting images on shirts that may not sell a single print, licensing the images doesn’t make sense and is likely impossible. After all, licensing images is not just a financial expense, but a time one that doesn’t scale well when offering thousands of products across multiple stores.

So infringement becomes the only practical way to fill these storefronts and infringe they do.

To that end, they’re helped by the fact that there’s no practical way to stop them. Lawsuits are impractical as most of these stores operate in locations where it’s functionally impossible to sue. However, even if they DO operate in the United States, the copyright registration rules mean that, unless the image was timely registered (unlikely), there’s no hope for statutory damages and the actual damages are too small to justify a case.

The best most artists can do is file a DMCA notice (even though the DMCA doesn’t apply since the images weren’t uploaded by a user) and get the shirts removed.

The CASE Act could help with U.S. companies that engage in this behavior, but that’s still just a small minority of infringements.

This frustration is part of why many took advantage of the bots to make them print shirts that infringed on the copyright and trademark of companies like Disney and Nintendo, which are known for being aggressive when protecting their intellectual property.

The problem there is that, for Disney and similar companies, these operations are too small, too many and too difficult to go after. Simply put, the cost of litigating these cases doesn’t justify the relative damage that they do. Even if they did, they couldn’t shutter a small percentage of them.

For Disney, suing these sites is like trying to exterminate an anthill by crushing each ant individually. It’s not likely to be effective and it’s just not worth the effort considering the relative danger.

So What Can Be Done?

So, if large companies aren’t harmed enough to take action and the small artists that are being significantly hurt don’t have a practical resolution, what can they do?

The advice used to be to ensure that your images were too low of a resolution to be useful for printing. That advice worked reasonably well when A) Printers actually cared about the resolution of the artwork and B) Images for social media were not as high of a resolution as they are today.

Right now, a full-size image on Twitter has a maximum of 1024 x 512 pixels Facebook posts are 1,200 x 312 pixels and YouTube thumbnails are 1,280 x 720 pixels. These are all sizes that are perfectly fine for many printing uses, especially if you don’t care too much about quality.

In short, if you upload your images at the desired resolution for most social media platforms, printing companies can (and likely will) take them and put them on various products.

The next piece of advice was always to watermark your images before posting them online. That advice still stands. However, it’s no longer a deterrent to use, instead, it’s a warning to potential customers.

As we’ve seen with these bots, they will take literally anything and no one is sanity-checking the work that they do. That said, a clear watermark may warn a potential customer to not buy that version.

Unfortunately, from a proactive standpoint, that’s likely the best anyone can do. With social media now demanding high enough resolution images for printing and bots blinding grabbing whatever meets their criteria, there’s no practical way to stop the images from being grabbed and used, just from being bought.

It’s not much, but it’s still better than nothing.

Bottom Line

As I said above, the bots are just a symptom, not the cause of the problem. This issue has been brewing for over a decade as print-on-demand enabled such infringement on a significant level and the internet’s appetite for higher and higher resolution images made it easier than ever to find content to print.

Artists, for the lack of a better expression, are stuck between a rock and a hard place. If they use the internet and social media to find an audience, then their work is easy pickings for infringers. If they don’t, then infringement doesn’t matter at all.

Though minimizing resolution and including prominent watermarks can help, the effectiveness of those approaches have waned over the past five years. Artists in a bigger bind than ever and the bots are just the lastest symptom of the problem.

To that end, there’s precious little that artists can do, except perhaps draw attention to it by making them print fake Mickey Mouse shirts…

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