Ask Greg: How To Fight Back When Someone Has Infringed Your Work

Screen Shot 2013-11-30 at 2.50.43 PMQ. I recently discovered that someone was selling T-shirts featuring my illustrations. They've credited me as the artist on their website, but I've received no financial restitution and they didn't ask my permission. I want them to either pay me or stop selling the T-shirts altogether. What are my options for getting them to stop?

A. Let's be honest, you don't want to sue anybody. You don't have the time and you probably don't have the money, and even if you did, the effort and emotional toll it takes is astronomical. So before you go down that road, there are some things you can do to save time and money, and hopefully avoid court.

  1. Send the infringing party a “cease and desist” letter. You'd be surprised how often people don’t even realized they're infringing someone else's work. Oftentimes, they think the work is in the public domain simply because it's available online. And even when people do infringe your work on purpose, an officious sounding letter is usually enough to make them stop. While you can always draft a cease and desist yourself, it has more teeth if it comes from a lawyer.
  2. Negotiate! If you reasonably feel that the infringer isn't acting with malicious intent, give them a call and see if they're willing to talk turkey. You want to get royalties for all T-shirts already sold, and you definitely want to get a fee for all future sales. If this works, it's a classic win-win. They stay in business and you get a financial benefit. At the very least, you'll get a sense of their motives.
  3. Use social media to rally people around your cause. This can be a surprisingly effective way to get public support and put pressure on the infringer to do the right thing. You may have heard this story about a graphic designer who wasn't paid for poster designs he made for Spike Lee's newest film, Oldboy. The designer sent an open letter to Lee recounting his abuses. This was a smart choice on the part of the designer. Even though Lee, like most directors, has no role in the marketing of his films (marketing is almost exclusively the domain of the studio), by going right to the top, the designer started creating groundswell. And if he can get Lee to go to bat for him, the pressure placed on the studio could be overwhelming.
  4. Lastly, BE NICE, no matter how much of a jerk the other party is. That old saying about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar - it's absolutely true. I can't tell you how many times I've seen victims of infringement get swatted by a judge because they acted like unrepentant assholes. If you look worse than the guy who actually stole from you, you're going to lose, plain and simple. In general, when interacting with a potential legal adversary, you should follow my patented Famous Three Step Rule For Dealing With Infringers: First time be nice. Second time, be nice. Third time, be nice. You can always be direct, but politeness really can make the difference in your outcome.

If you do all of these and the infringer still won't pay you back or cut you in, it's time to sue. Call a lawyer and get that ball rolling ASAP (you have three years from the discovery of the infringement to bring a lawsuit). And if you have anymore questions, don't hesitate to Ask Greg.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA