Artists Commit Intentional Copyright Infringement to Draw Attention to T-shirt Websites Selling Stolen Designs
December finds many people in gift-giving moods, as the holiday season aims to spread goodwill as the year winds down. While material goods dominate the gift exchanges, we are always up for a good figurative present, and Twitter user Nirbion humorously gave one to the whole world last week. Posting a design that featured a crudely drawn Mickey Mouse, he lured companies into committing copyright infringement when they placed the artwork on a T-shirt after their bots picked up the design from the web.
As we noted in this August longform story, brand hijacking is a tricky issue, with some merchandise companies doing more to combat it than others. It seems that has led to artists and other ordinary folks taking the matter into their own hands, looking to expose guilty parties themselves.
Enter Nirbion. Taking the lead from a fellow Twitter user bent on making a mockery of specious transactions, the individual dashed off a Mickey Mouse drawing that had the character stating that he smells “like rotten eggs” and divulging a plea for someone to add it to a shirt or mug. Hoping to ensnare an offending website in a situation that could yield a lawsuit, he indeed found a taker when bots picked up the design and automatically published it to a custom shirt site.
They were testing a theory. For years, artists posting their work online have found the art turned into t-shirts and other merch without permission or compensation. The theory was that this was being done by automated bots that combed Twitter for images with such enthusiastic replies, and then automatically created merch on sites such as Gearbubble, copthistee, and Teeshirtpublic. These sites take images from just about anywhere, apparently without much screening, and put them on commercial products.
hey can y'all do me a favor and quote tweet/reply to this with something along the lines of 'I want this on a shirt', thank you pic.twitter.com/UhuGRQgU6b
— Nana (@Hannahdouken) December 3, 2019
I LOVE this artwork. Nice drawing, omg! 😍
I need this on a shirt!!!😻♥️ pic.twitter.com/0tfJY0t3xQ
— Nirbion (@Nirbion) December 4, 2019
Soon after the stunt, though, the site, likely well aware of the care that Disney takes in protecting itself against copyright infringement, removed the garment. The idea also prompted other artists to create copyrighted designs, including Pikachu and Coca-Cola, which also got picked up. Nirbion hopes the site's owners got the message.
“I think this is a very effective, frightening measure,” Nirbion, whose given name is Hans-Jurgen Eisenbeis, told Fortune. “How long this holds, is another question.”
It is, indeed, an inquiry that has us curious. As Fortune explains, “Digital platforms such as Instagram and Giphy attract customers or traffic by letting unsavory users—including bots, trolls and pedophiles—do nearly anything they want. T-shirt printers just happened to get a hard lesson about the many risks of that model.” Will the egg on said companies’ faces be enough to scare enough of their peers to go straight that we can cease to see copyright infringement as a massive problem? Wouldn’t an affirmative answer be an unexpected holiday gift!