Our digital age is all about sharing – and as a result, so is our creativity. We reiterate our sources of inspiration, copy and paste them into our clipboards and sample them into our newest tracks. This global village of ours is engaging in an all-inclusive, open-ended conversation. We celebrate, and call for, a free Internet of sharing and re-sharing ideas of all sorts. Yet with sharing as our core value to stand behind, other principles are sometimes left out of the discussion – such as that of attribution. In this fast-paced digital climate, online content often breaks away from its original source and gains a virtual life of its own. An image posted by one creative can go on to become an independent dweller of cyberspace, belonging to no one in particular (or worse: falsely attributed to the wrong person).

The Distracted Boyfriend meme, for example, had taken so many twists and turns in its time circulating around the web, that revealing the name of its original photographer (Antonio Guillem, Shutterstock) is reason enough to make headlines. Many designers have experienced a similar phenomenon, surprised to find their original work show up, unsolicited, uncredited, and needless to mention, uncompensated – in the hands of others. We chatted with three creatives and Wix users who have taken a clear stand on the matter, in hopes of better protecting their work – and that of their fellow designers. Here’s what Adam J. Kurtz, Tuesday Bassen and Amber Vittoria had to tell us:

Adam J. Kurtz: It may be flattering, but that doesn’t make it okay

Last summer, NYC based artist, designer and author Adam J. Kurtz published a vlog and an Instagram post that immediately sparked a conversation. In a YouTube video, Adam shares the backstory: he found his own work posted on some big brand’s social media channels, without credit or permission. It was not the first time this had happened to him, but this one incident turned out to be the exception that proves the rule, as the story got its happy ending. After Adam reached out to the company (twice), explaining in detail what made it an unjust use of his work, they ended up compensating him by retroactively licensing the artwork. Following the incident, Adam wrote down a list of the dos and don’ts of social reposting, and shared it on Instagram. “If you’re coming to my Instagram or anyone else’s and thinking it’s just a stock image service, you’re mistaken,” his caption read. In the post, titled Guidelines for Reposting My Work, Adam brought up some importants points for when and how to repost fairly.

“I think most artists working online would love the extra exposure for something they’ve already made,” Adam tells High on Design. And as reposts are a great way for his work to reach new audiences, fans and clients, the last thing Adam wants is to discourage people from sharing artwork online altogether. But the very same thing that increases his following, can under different circumstances become harmful and demeaning. “Creative work is a massive industry with thousands of specific roles and everybody’s work is valid and has value. And that value deserves to be recognized,” Adam explains.

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feel free to share or repost *** inspired by the response to my lil “f u pay me” vlog, here are some guidelines on how to repost my work. in general i’m rly chill and grateful about this but i’m not trying to directly help you sell your granola or meditation classes… when a company wants to use my art for business purposes they can hire me or license something. and of course use your best judgement! . if you’re coming to my instagram or anyone else’s and thinking it’s just a stock image service, you’re mistaken. if you’re enjoying something or feeling encouraged, that’s totally awesome (and the point) and i’m so glad. this post is really more geared towards stopping companies from posting for their own profit, under the guise of “friendly reposts” that undervalue creative work made by real human people. . and if you wanna hear me talk about this for 13 minutes head to YOUTUBE.COM/ADAMJK 🙃 i kinda just went in on how our creative work has value and how it’s up to all of us to educate others, especially if we work for a company with a social media team. 👌 the response has honestly got me inspired to talk more and put more videos up. . p.s. i’m not here to publicly shame anyone! that’s not usually the best way to get things done. but if you wanna repost these guidelines or privately share this post with an account you see doing this stuff often, that’d be cool. remember that kindness is often more powerful than anger, especially when trying to educate someone!

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Adam differentiates between individual fans who share his work, to businesses that, whether directly or indirectly, profit off of their social media content – including posts that are not an ad per se. The way he sees it, individuals are “always welcome” to share any work, as long as they properly credit the artist, and don’t edit the image in any way (as in no cropping, let alone the deleting of watermarks). But when it comes to brands reposting artwork, however, Adam is not as lenient. Businesses, he says, should always seek direct permission prior to posting, and are only free to share creative work when the mere purpose of the post is to support and showcase the artist. And whichever the case, Adam stresses the importance of proper credit in the first two lines of the caption. For him, proper credit implies tagging the creator alongside an explanation that would tie them to the image, for example: ‘art by @adamjk’.

We asked Adam how we can standardize proper crediting as more of a widespread norm. “It’s hard to say how to fix this,” he admits. “People will [always] take, repost, and profit from other people’s content. That’s just the Internet.” But while there might not be a magic formula at hand, it’s still important for Adam to educate people on the value of creative work. “Everybody’s work has value. Even if the creator isn’t famous, even if the art isn’t in a museum, even if it looks like it was made by a 12-year-old. Creators deserve respect, compensation, and credit for their work. Period.”

T-shirt by Adam J. Kurtz
T-shirt design by Adam J. Kurtz, referencing the iconic Joy Division album as a symbol of wrongful appropriation.
Pins by Adam J. Kurz
Pins by Adam J. Kurz.

Tuesday Bassen: Your work and ideas deserve compensation

Tuesday Bassen is a Los Angeles based illustrator and fashion designer, who in 2016 found herself at “the forefront of creatives demanding pay for their work,” when recreations of her original artwork were mass distributed and sold by a leading fashion corporation. “Companies rely on artists not having the resources to fight back,” Tuesday comments, “but thanks to my amazing lawyer and my very vocal fight that got picked up by every major news outlet in the world, I did.”

Tuesday took the case to court, and the point that she made reached far beyond the judicial system. Images of her original work juxtapozed with its corporate ripoff were all over the Internet, attaining much support and encouragement from the online community. The story received major press coverage worldwide, from Vogue to The Guardian. Following Tuesday’s lead, other independent artists stepped up with reports of the same fashion brand reproducing their work too. Amongst them was Adam J. Kurtz, whose voice Tuesday describes as being “indispensable in amplifying the message.”

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Mail coming your way 💌 #pingame ShopTuesday.com

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#pingame ShopTuesday.com

A post shared by Tuesday Bassen (@tuesdaybassen) on

Tuesday’s story became a modern David and Goliath tale, highlighting just how uneven the playing fields are when independent freelancers face multi-billion dollar enterprises. And in line with the moral of the story, Tuesday believes that designers shouldn’t underestimate their power. “The first steps you can take are applying for trademarks and copyrights on your pieces,” she advises. “Copyrights are not expensive and can be filed yourself through the government or with a lawyer. Once you have that legal protection, you have extra firepower to fight back – and you should do so publicly and loudly. Do it for yourself and for the countless creatives that aren’t able to.” Apart from the legal measures, Tuesday also recommends harnessing social media in your defense. She believes online platforms serve in giving individuals a voice, “which is incredible,” she remarks, and can make all the difference in having your claim heard and taken seriously.

These steps are important and commendable, but not all creative theft instances are as clear-cut as Tuesday’s. Copying can often be a more nuanced matter, easily mistaken for inspiration and interpretation. “Obviously nothing we make is created in a vacuum,” Tuesday observes. “Creating something based on the work of another’s you love is fine, [as long as it’s done] privately and as a starting point for growth.” According to Tuesday, you may copy others’ work as part of your personal learning process, or for your own fun – but you should never claim credit for what isn’t yours to begin with. “Passing off someone else’s work as your own is inherently wrong, and is illegal. Intellectual property is property and creative work is work.”

Amber Vittoria: Reframing common courtesy online

New York based artist and illustrator Amber Vittoria is part of a group of female illustrators (together with Agathe Singer, Ana Leovy, Sara Boccaccini Meadows, Fatema Abizar, Sneha Shanker, Isabelle Feliu, Jackie Diedam, Natalia Vico, Pauline Bachel, Roeqiya Fris and Rosie Harbottle). Under the initiative of Illustrator and Wix user Isabelle Feliu, the group created and shared The Reposting Etiquette, building on Adam’s Guidelines for Reposting My Work with their own thoughts. Below are their guidelines in full:

  1. Crediting: When reposting artwork, please tag and mention the artist at the beginning of your caption, before any other text. Don’t just tag!
    If you would like to repost an illustration that has been made for a specific client, please include this client in your caption too (ex. Illustration by @username for @username).
  2. No edits: Please do not crop signatures, use filters, make collages, add texts or edit artwork in any way. We put a lot of thoughts in our work and it is always heartbreaking to see it has been edited.
  3. No promotional use: You may want to repost artwork as inspiration without any references to brands, products, business related events, etc.
    However, if you would like to use an illustration to promote a product, announce an event or a sale, go with an article on your blog or any business related commercial or promotional purposes, please contact the artist to discuss an agreement.
  4. Copyrights: Buying original artwork or prints doesn’t give rights to reproduce or use an image for promotional or commercial purposes.
    The copyrights remain with the creator of the image. If you want to use it, you have to contact them to discuss an agreement.

“Education is important,” Amber elaborates, stating that “the Internet is incredibly new,” and with it is online etiquette, which for the time being, remains somewhat vague. The academia boasts a rich history of citation styles, and the methods for crediting artists in museums and gallery spaces is also deeply rooted in tradition. Yet the practice of crediting online creatives has only just made an appearance, leaving much room for unintentional error. “So many people don’t think what they share should have the credit to the original creator,” Amber concludes. “Over time, both platforms and platform users will create and learn that crediting the makers of this work is the ethical way to share.” And until that day comes, we can all strive to build the kind of community we’d like to be part of, giving fellow designers the respect and credit they deserve when we share creative work online.

Illustration by Amber Vittoria
Amber Vittoria, Walking on the Sun.
Art by Amber Vittoria
Amber Vittoria, Amber. Photo by Dana Kim