It’s a major problem in the science fiction and fantasy art communities–and not just for the artists. It’s also a problem for those who may be looking for artwork they can use for their fandom projects, be it a website, a self-published book, a fanzine, etc. And the problem lies in how one makes sure that they really have the rights to the image they wish to use, when there are a lot of people out there selling art they claim to be rights-free/copyright-free when that is not in fact the case.
I see it reported almost weekly at SciFiFantasyHorrorSpace_ArtShows (wiki), a major mailing list for artists who work (both professionally and at the hobbyist level) in the Science Fiction & Fantasy illustration and fine arts fields. Constantly, members are finding people listing for sale on ebay cds of “public domain/copyright free” artwork – work which in fact they’ve stolen from various artists’ websites (or scanned from books, calendars, etc) without permission and burned onto disk. These sellers have no rights to these images, yet they figure no one will catch them doing this. And even when people DO catch them – often by recognizing a piece of artwork shown in one of the listings – ebay will do nothing about it unless the specific artist whose work is being featured in the listing submits a claim, and they don’t make it especially easy to do so. (Their “Verified Rights Owner (VeRO) Program” involves a complicated procedure that puts the burden of proof, and effort, on the artist whose rights are being infringed upon instead of the seller claiming those rights illegally.) And often it seems like an uphill, never-ending battle to these artists fighting this type of copyright infringement, for as one listing gets shut down, ten more just appear in its place.
Many artists try to do what they can to protect their work: watermarking images on their websites, disabling direct downloads, yet crafty thieves still will find their way around these blocks to take what they want to sell. And even beyond people selling artwork they don’t have the rights to, others with less nefarious goals don’t think anything of taking a piece of artwork they see on an artist’s site and using it on their own website, MySpace page, LiveJournal icons, craft projects, etc. This happens with fan art as well as just fantasy and science fiction art and is a huge problem for artists trying to maintain the rights to their work.
A case that shows how this can affect not just an artist but someone unknowingly using an image they (at least claim they) didn’t realize was copyright protected is that involving Russet Noon. The author of this controversial Twilight tribute novel, Lady Sybilla, apparently “purchased a CD collection of allegedly ‘royalty-free’ images” which included “Blood Roses” by Charli Siebert. The artist never gave up rights to this image, and yet, the impression of this exists on-line due to the image’s inclusion on this CD and, as Lady Sybilla commented elsewhere in the Russet Noon debates, “it’s being used and edited by people all over the internet”. Here, just like with the rights-infringing ebay sales, the burden of proof was directed back at Charli Siebert to have to prove ownership of the rights to the image (and eventually Lady Sybilla acquiesed and announced she was looking for new cover art for her book.)
My point in bringing up this issue (both in general and this one specific case) is that when either creating or using artwork, one needs to be very aware of not just protecting your rights as an artist, but also being certain you really have the rights to an image you want to use. Artists, take care to protect the images you share on the web, and be vigilant about cracking down when and if you are alerted to someone violating your rights. To those using other’s artwork, be careful where you obtain it. Be wary of third-parties claiming to sell you “public domain”, “royalty free” and other kinds of “clip art” collections. If you’re looking to publish or create something for profit yourself using someone else’s artwork, consider biting the bullet and purchasing the rights to use an image either directly from the artist, or through a stock image clearinghouse site that will provide evidence and stand behind their rights to sell you that image for use. Don’t assume just because you see an image “everywhere” that everyone–or specifically anyone other than the artist–has the rights to use it.