The Ethics of Art Theft

Is there a blurry line between stealing and celebrating art?


 

Earlier today, Jordie Bellaire (whose incredible coloring work seems to appear in every other book in existence these days) called out a website for art theft. The ensuing Twitter saga ultimately led to the conclusion that the site itself was actually a bizarre scam presenting Google image search results in lieu of actual products, but “WallpartPosters” is hardly the only place one might go when trying to secure wall-sized prints of comic (or other) art. As Bellaire noted, “It’s just ugly, lots of artists are just tired of it. It’s happening all the time and no one cares to stop.”

It’s hardly the first time I’ve seen artists perturbed (understatement much?) at attempts to profit freely off of their hard work; last month I was introduced to Hiba Khan by virtue of some sleazy entrepreneur’s attempts to claim her work was public domain — by virtue of its existence on the Internet — and then sell products emblazoned with it.

The obvious problems of theft notwithstanding, cases like these have led me to wonder whether (and where) there is a place for custom-designed products featuring others’ work. In Khan’s case, someone was actually trying to make money off of her painting, and she expressed intent to sell shirts of her own, featuring that work, once it was finished. The damage to her is thus fairly clear. But what if she never intended to sell those shirts, and you wanted to wear her design? In days past, you might have bought iron-on transfer paper and printed out an 8 x 10 to DIY it. Would that have been unethical? And if not, is it any less ethical to order a custom shirt or poster made with the image file an artist (or their employer) has already made available, especially if they don’t sell shirts or posters?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. I recognize that people — perhaps including the artists mentioned here — might simply say “yes, this is unethical.” And insomuch as the work is theirs, the conversation might just as well end there. However in a world increasingly rife with fan culture, edits, and other creative undertakings, intellectual property ethics aren’t always in keeping with intellectual property law, and assumptions of ownership seem to be cloudier these days than they were ten or twenty years ago. Just look at what has happened with the Suicide Squad trailer from SDCC. What once might have been looked at as free viral marketing (and, heck, is looked at that way by many other companies) was perceived by Warner Bros. Pictures as despicable piracy (read: theft) and damaging besides.

This all sort of hit home for me last night, as I spent an hour or so fruitlessly trying to track down a poster I was sure must exist but evidently does not. I wanted to add Sara Pichelli’s cover art from last year’s Ms. Marvel #1 to my wall, but it does not appear that I will be able to do so since neither Marvel nor Pichelli sells such a thing. In the grand scheme of things, this is a trivial concern. But if I’d wanted to express my love for the book just a tiny bit more than I do, I might have ended last night trying to upload that image to a site just like WallpartPosters, not to earn or take any money from the people who created the art but simply because there was no viable way for me to give them money for the product I was seeking.

Are fan culture and artists’ rights inherently at odds with one another? Is it actually unethical to seek services for creating posters or shirts to celebrate something you love when those posters or shirts aren’t otherwise available to buy? Is it truly reprehensible for websites to exist to provide those services? Why don’t larger companies (such as Marvel) simply run their own version of these services (so that the covers or panels they own can end up on the bodies and bedrooms of their fans)? I’d love to hear what you think.

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