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#GeeksCare: An Interview with Amy Wagner about Art Theft and How Indie Creators Can Protect Themselves

When Fanbase Press is not providing you with the latest in geek news and entertainment, the Fanbase staff hopes to offer our readers a myriad of opportunities to give back to the community. We love reading comics, watching movies, and playing video games, but we are never happier than when we are able to help others in need. With #GeeksCare: How You Can Help, Fanbase Press will provide you a variety of causes that would greatly appreciate your time.

In this week’s installment of #GeeksCare: How You Can Help, Fanbase Press would like to highlight Amy Wagner, author of the blog, “Behind the Scenes at Stuart Ng Books,” who has devoted her time and efforts to the study of art theft and educating independent creators as to how they can protect themselves.  In the following interview, I chat with Wagner about her efforts to combat art theft and piracy, what she attributes to the rise in the phenomenon, how creators can learn more about ways to protect themselves, and more!

Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief
: What can you share with us about your work, and what motivated you to take on this endeavor?

Amy Wagner: Star Wars changed my life. It inspired me to go to USC Film School. I got a Master’s Degree in Cinema and worked in the feature film industry for about 14 years. The marquee moment in my film career was a writing deal at Disney. My favorite industry job was working at the Warner Bros. feature film story department.

My husband started Stuart Ng Books in 1997. Stuart specializes in books on illustration, animation and comic art. He has a great eye for finding books that inspire top artists. We are fortunate to have amazing patrons. They are leading artists and collectors in those fields, as well as fans and students. Many have become personal friends. I worked full-time at SNB for several years, exhibiting at cons like San Diego Comic-Con, WonderCon, Big Wow and Creative Talent Network Animation Expo (CTNX).

2017 will be Stuart Ng Books’ 20th year exhibiting at San Diego Comic-Con. I’ve been writing my blog, “Behind the Scenes at Stuart Ng Books,” since 2008.

The blog is my outreach to fans and artists who might never get to conventions, due to travel expenses, etc. I document my impressions – of the conventions Stuart exhibits at — of exhibitions I attend at museums and galleries—of the inspiring encounters I see with artists at these venues.

As Stuart’s business grew, I worked less at the store and more on my own writing projects. I get to catch up with our artist friends at events and conventions. We often discuss the struggles of life as indie artist-entrepreneurs. Artists might work isolation, but their challenges are similar.

Many of our artist friends launched their own websites and online stores, I began to hear horror stories about art theft. I use the blog to document these art theft cases. I try to find remedies for artists in these situations. Much of my own career success came from my passion for artist rights, and my knowledge on protecting my own Intellectual Property (IP).

Every month I update the post “Your Guide to Behind the Scenes at Stuart Ng Books,” where newcomers can learn how to use the blog and find links for the most visited posts. These are posts on “Copyright Info for Artists” …. “Art and Anxiety – Dance Steps” … “Yoga for artists.” This year I added a new post to the list: “Combat Art Theft.”

BD: What do you attribute to the rise of art theft and piracy in the comic book community?

AW: There is a culture of what I call “tolerated piracy” regarding online art. It’s ridiculous… and it’s the product of ignorance. Ignorance is a harsh word… but all it means is a lack of knowledge or information. Artists and fans lack a vital education on the importance of artist rights.

All artists should be 1) creating original work and 2) developing their personal brand. The online opportunities today (websites, social media, online stores, Patreon) are fantastic platforms for an independent artist to sustain themselves with their artistic work.

All artists should be registering the copyright for their work.

All artists should be familiar with copyright and trademark protections. Copyright is a federal law designed to protect artists. Why wouldn’t fans and artists want to be familiar with these laws and enforcing these protections?

All artists should be educating their fans. Online shopping has become the standard for our consumer culture. This business model encourages instant gratification. It rewards ruthless discounting. This model is death to small businesses like indie artist-entrepreneurs. Titans like Amazon exploit the power of their fulfillment centers. Online shopping is a great way to get cheap goods fast, often with free shipping. But online shopping disconnects the client from the creator. We are losing the personal touch of patronage. No individual person can survive replicating Amazon’s business model. Sadly, online customers often treat indie artists like another extension of Amazon… expecting free shipping and steep discounts. If customers want options. If fans want unique items. They cannot have online-shopping-expectations regarding artists.

The rise of social media has diminished respect for artist rights.

Social media succeeds due to image sharing. Big companies are making lots of money with all those “free” images we like and share. But where’s the attribution? Why can’t an image be linked to its source? Why do credits disappear off of images? Is art that is out in the world free for everyone to exploit… make derivative works from… claim credit for? Not according to copyright law. But where is the enforcement?

We take art and artists for granted. All the “free” art to like and share isn’t helping artists. Artists post work online to connect with fans and possible free-lance jobs. They don’t post art to have it stolen for unauthorized commercial use by others.

Platforms like Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. thrive on the work of artists. These institutions owe it to artists to listen to their concerns. Yes, some comply with take down notices when artists contact them about stolen art. But where is the effort by these platforms to educate the general public about copyright protections? These platforms do little to fight public ignorance about artist rights. Instead, the companies encourage a “free-for-all” attitude that the public assumes is endorsed by the artists

Art is work. Work requires credit and compensation.

The exploding popularity of comic art in pop culture and fan art also contributes to the attitude of tolerated piracy. I love fan art too… but we need to understand the role of fan art and why license holders tolerate it.

Fan art is an entry point for many artists and collectors. It’s fun to draw popular heroes and villains. Fans enjoy seeing “mash-ups” of licensed characters. Entertainment company license holders tend to tolerate most fan art. It’s an interpretive dance they do to please fans, as long as they get to lead on the dance floor (i.e.: the fan art is a small scale operation that doesn’t conflict with their position in market place and/or compromise the family values of a brand).

The proliferation of fan art online and in the artists’ alley areas of conventions has risks. Now that comic cons are on the radar of the general public, there are large crowds wandering the exhibit halls. If these new attendees see mostly fan art all over the exhibit floor, then we are raising generations of fans to 1) only look for art they already like from mainstream sources and 2) only value artists who imitate instead of innovate.

For now, too many artists and fans stay shrouded in the grey areas of fan art. Fan art shouldn’t be enveloped in a blanket of “fair use” of known characters. Fan art could become a pro-active teaching tool. Artists could learn how to grow beyond their fan art to nurture their own brand.

What if fan art — made for commercial sale as prints or merchandise, etc. — could be produced under a nominal, flat-rate provisional license for a limited period of time? Maybe 3 – 5 years. This would give an artist time to build a fan base from their fan art. At the same time, they can be cultivating their own personal art for their fans to support. There are challenges to setting up this sort of license. However, working out those details would benefit artists, license holders, fans, and convention organizers: Everyone impacted by copyright infringement issues.

If convention organizers really want to enforce the copyright rules in the fine print of exhibitor contracts, a provisional license could confirm compliance and level the playing field.

The point of fan art is to be fun and experimental. Fan art is not a business model. Requiring a provisional license would help teach artists how licensing works, and teach fans how licensing benefits creators.

Licensing is a business model that gives artists credit and compensation.

It’s hard enough to make a living as an artist. Making everyone’s art anonymous doesn’t help. Churning out your version of popular characters may pay some bills for now… but what about your own art? How you spend your time… is how you spend your life.

In the US we have an expectation that, if we dream big and work hard, we’ll land a job that will provide a good living. It’s a great idea… but it rarely works out. We need to realize that a day job to pay bills isn’t a sign of failure… it’s part of the process of following your bliss. You can always do what you love. If it gives you a living, that’s wonderful. But if it can’t, that’s okay, too. Success is finding work-life balance. Not frustration from feeling your dreams can’t sustain you.

Because of Stuart Ng Books, I’ve seen conventions in France and I’ve gotten to know some European artists. The culture of art life in Europe is different than in the US. Yes, there are many of the same struggles, but I’ve also seen how the rhythms of life can be about more than deadlines and office hours. This is just my impression, and perhaps it’s based on a limited sample of people living this way. But I learned that art and work can have a place in life, but they don’t have to overtake your life. This lifestyle situation is a cultural difference. It was shocking at first, but I’ve come to appreciate the lesson.

BD: How can other individuals get involved in the fight against art theft?

AW: Fans who are empowered with knowledge about artist rights are the front line of attack on art theft. These fans are the ones who alert artists about stolen images. They see unauthorized commercial use of images they know from artists they love. They use social media to contact the artist… and to report the theft on platforms like Etsy, Facebook, etc.

Incidents like this prove that education is the best way to fight art theft. Intellectual Property rights protect artists. Respecting those rights… and expecting that same respect of copyright law from others… enforces those protections. Understanding copyright lets everyone enjoy the images that artists choose to share online.

Fans can protect artists by buying directly from artists and sources that are credible. Don’t “like” art from a legit artist and then look for the knock-off version to buy it cheap. Invest in what moved you to like the original work. Buy from places that credit their art sources. When you post art, link to the artist. Expect retail chains to respect indie artist copyright.

Artist Lili Chin has filed a lawsuit against Kohl’s for a particularly egregious case of copyright infringement. Her fans alerted her when they saw her art on shirts and socks at the retail giant. Chin is an established artist with her own successful brand, Doggie Drawings.

She has previously licensed her art for commercial use, but there was no agreement, or even any contact, between Chin and Kohl’s … they just took her art. Reporters are following this case, along with many artists and fans.

Fighting art theft is expensive for artists. They lose sales to cheap imitations of their work. They are drained by the emotional costs of time and effort. Not to mention money spent fighting counterfeiters. Artists can help themselves by focusing on the fans that will support them. The people who only want cheap knock-offs aren’t fans.

Artists need to invest their attention on the fans that will be loyal to them. The good news is the internet can put artists in touch with a vast community of fans. With billions of people online… there’s a good shot an artist can find those 1,000 fans that will spend $50-$100 a year on their art. It will take time to get there, but it’s a reasonable goal. Fans will invest in artists they feel connected to. Social media builds those connections.

Artists must talk to peers and fans about copyright protections. Be an example and respect the copyright of other artists. If you do a single work inspired by someone else’s art: Credit them.

Fight anonymous art. Put your name loud and proud on your work. Build your own brand… don’t do riffs on another person’s art, and certainly don’t mass produce it. It doesn’t advance your brand and it dilutes theirs.

BD: Are there other organizations who have launched their own initiatives to combat piracy?

AW: There are several, but the one I’m most familiar with is the Graphic Artists Guild (GAG). Their website is full of fantastic free downloads. You can find guidebooks on Copyright on the “Tools & Resources” page of the GAG website.

I found GAG via an online webinar they hosted on “Small Copyright Claims Court; New Legislation to Help Authors and Creators.” An artist friend sent me the link for this 8.17.16 webinar and we both listened to it live. Many GAG programs are free to the public. Several of the past webinars are available to listen to online on their website.

The Graphic Artist Guild works closely with artists to craft legislation proposals to improve copyright protections. Copyright protections for artists are under the jurisdiction of federal law. Changes move slowly at that level. The Copyright Office recognizes that current copyright law is not protecting artists in the internet age. New laws to fight art theft, and new ways to enforce protections, are in the works.

Visual artist organizations are working together and with legislators to draft new copyright laws. These organizations include: Graphic Artists Guild, American Photographic Artists, American Society of Media Photographers, Digital Media Licensing Association, National Press Photographers Association, North American Nature Photography Association and Professional Photographers of America.

BD: Are there any other events or activities that you are currently working on that you would like to share with our readers?

AW: Many artists struggle with chronic physical or emotional pain. Silence only feeds the fear of these issues. We need to share stories about life. Too often we just talk about our jobs. If you are struggling with something: bring it up. Be brave. Seek solutions. Help is out there.

You have to be in shape for indie-artist life: health, fitness, family/friends/pets, day job, recovery time all have to be balanced. Recovery time is important. Stepping away is how we refill the reservoir to get everything done.

Artists must make time for self-care. If you aren’t well, you can’t work well. If you want to work well into the future, you must invest time in taking care of yourself. Today.

Artists don’t realize the damage they do to their bodies. Years of drawing and desk work can cause physical problems. News stories document the dangers. Sitting is the new smoking… a harmless habit for decades, until we learn the impact on our health.

There’s a quote about how if you want to live a healthy life, manage a chronic condition. We all have something. I ‘ve had type 1 diabetes for over 40 years. I had to become very disciplined about it after a health scare a few years ago. For example: I have to exercise for 2 or 3 hours every day, including an hour of yoga and physical therapy stretches every morning. I wish it kept me whippet-thin. I’m grateful it keeps me mobile. Artists depend on the mobility of their backs, shoulders, arms and hands to do their work. Find ways to manage. Share what helps. Don’t suffer in silence. You aren’t alone.

BD: What would you like to tell readers who want to learn more about encouraging copyright protection or who may want to donate their time and/or resources to this cause?

AW: If you are in art school, insist the curriculum include a workshop on copyright or better yet classes about legal steps involved with all facets of entrepreneur life, i.e.: pros and cons of filing for a DBA or LLP. These artist life skills are just as necessary as a portfolio. All art school students should be taught how to register the copyrights for their art.

Art students can also look for internship opportunities at the office of an IP attorney, or in the Business Affairs department of a company that employs artists. Knowing how to read a contract is a handy life skill.

Conventions often have panels on copyright. I urge fans and artists to attend these panels. There is an annual “Comic Book Law School” series of panels at SDCC that everyone can attend and lawyers take for credit! I went to a great panel at SDCC 2016 on copyright and costumes.

If you know convention organizers, ask them to have panels on copyright issues. You learn a lot when you see IP rights across the spectrum of creative arts! For artists who are looking for a copyright lawyer, the speakers on these panels are often open to taking new clients. You can get their business card after the panel, or their contact info on handouts. Follow up with them about an introductory meeting.

Professional services can be expensive, but it’s worth getting things done right. I took an auto mechanics class years ago. Yes, I learned how to change spark plugs, but mostly I learned that the money I spend having an expert fix my car is worth it.

Protecting your IP is an investment you must budget for. Artists have options. Many artists register their copyrights themselves. There are links and info online at the Copyright Office.

If you want to hire a lawyer, there are ways to make it affordable. Get together with a group of artist friends. See if you can hire an IP lawyer to give an afternoon workshop on issues that you all need help with. You could all split the lawyer’s fee between you. I belong to an IP legal service where I pay a monthly fee that includes being able to schedule phone consultations.

Find a lawyer who is qualified, who you like working with, and who will work with you.  Don’t let a bill from a law office prevent you from protecting your most valuable assets.

If you have a volunteer opportunity or an important cause that could use the assistance of a few geeks, please email the details to barbra (at) fanbasepress (dot) com.

Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief




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