Michael Whelan’s Webmaster On Fighting Online Art Theft


Art detail from “The Long Road Home” by Michael Whelan.

It takes a lot of talent to put a book together.

For many of us — readers of SF&F — the first of that talent we see when we go into a bookstore and see a book is the work a cover artist has done.

whelan-beyondscienceBut cover artists are a rare breed in publishing. Unlike writers who receive royalties based on their sales — royalties that can see them make and save money throughout their lives — artists get a flat fee for their art and that’s it. Artists have to depend on selling the rights to their artwork again to continue making money. But right now, selling those art rights is under assault by thieves. And no one knows this better than Hugo Award-winning artist Michael Whelan and his webmaster Mike Jackson.

Whelan is perhaps the most celebrated SF&F artist of all time. His work has graced the covers of hundreds of books. Michael Moorcock. Anne McCaffrey. Piers Anthony. Melanie Rawn. Tad Williams. Brandon Sanderson. The list goes on and on. It is his work on Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels though that has recently caused a stir in the SF&F community. With the advent of social media and the anonymity of the internet(s), a new crop of art theft has taken root, one where thieves steal art and sell it online in various forms — filching money from artists.

Mike Jackson is combating this new type of art theft, one illegal posting at a time. He has been the twenty-year webmaster for Whelan and he has decided to take on these thieves.

I decided to interview Jackson about this and we ask for your help.

Read below.

Unbound Worlds: It appears as though people are stealing art from artists and then selling prints, canvas hangings, and the like — which is illegal. How did this first come to your attention?

Mike Jackson: I have been working with Michael Whelan since 1995 when I produced his first website. Copyright has been an issue the entire time (as we knew it would be), but commercial infringement has been a growing concern for the last couple of years with the rise of on-demand printing services and creative marketplaces like Etsy and eBay.

Recently, we’ve been seeing an uptick in infringement surrounding Dark Tower illustrations because of the upcoming movie from Sony Pictures. This has mainly come in the form of unlicensed t-shirts advertised on social media platforms like Facebook.

I’m a fan of the series and the author, so naturally Facebook serves up ads for Dark Tower and Stephen King related t-shirts as part of their algorithm. It doesn’t take much effort to keep tabs on unlicensed merchandise when you have roots in fandom. It does, however, take an enormous amount of time and effort to get ads and products taken down.

UW: How did this become such a problem?

MJ: Over the years, the issue of copyright has shifted from unauthorized use of images (fans reproducing work on personal websites, often low quality with no attribution) to commercial abuse (selling images without license).

Obviously as a fan, I understand the enthusiasm of posting an artist’s work. That’s where I started all those years ago. But there are rules to fair use. You should always post with proper attribution and re-blog from the artist’s platform (or clearly link back to the artist / source).

For the record, it took quite some time to train online media sites on proper attribution, but I think we’re starting to see more diligence on that front.

Fair use is about promotion of the artist’s work—and in some cases the product it illustrates. You’d think this would be common sense, but we live in an era of mass media and instant gratification. It’s easier to click than question, right?

So we have a problem when art gets out there and the lines of ownership are blurred. Inevitably some unscrupulous individual will stake a claim. You wouldn’t believe how often I hear the rationalization that others are using the artwork so therefore it must be okay for me to commercially exploit it.

But no, that’s not okay ethically or legally. If you didn’t create (or commission) the art, you shouldn’t be selling it. Copyright really is that simple.

Remember, illustrators makes a living by selling rights to reproduce their work. Anything that muddies ownership of their work harms their ability to make a living.

UW: Okay, that all sounds great but you mentioned it takes a lot of time to deal with this. What do you have to do to correct the situations that arise?

MJ: For every illegal use of an image, we have to submit a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown request and that process is different on every platform. Generally we have to cite proof of ownership of the image (usually a link to the art on our website), provide contact information, and agree to all sorts of legal statements. It’s not complicated, but it does take time especially when we have to do it over and over again.

Once the complaint is filed, we have to stay on top of the ad and the product to make sure both are taken down in a timely manner. Quite often when that happens, the offending party creates a new ad campaign and puts up a new product in an act of willful infringement. It’s really a game of whack-a-mole.

Theft of intellectual property happens with renowned illustrators like Michael. It happens with fledgling artists as well. That’s why I recently raised the issue on Michael’s Tumblr blog to give voice to others suffering from the same abuse.

Hopefully this dialogue will empower artists and push more of the burden defending copyright back to social media platforms like Facebook who can do more in responding to repetitious and willful infringement.

UW: What artists have been affected that you can tell?

MJ: So many! Here is a current list of what I’ve found:

  • Jimmy Cauty – classic 70s LoTR poster
  • Jules Feiffer – Phantom Tollbooth Map
  • Matt Ferguson – Stranger Things poster
  • David Finch – Dark Tower / Marvel Comics
  • Mary GrandPre – Harry Potter (all rights held by Warner Bros)
  • John Howe – classic LoTR illustrations
  • Michael Komarck – Song of Ice & Fire
  • Paul Kidby – Discworld
  • Jae Lee – Dark Tower / Marvel Comics
  • Iñaki Aliste Lizarralde – TV Floor Plans
  • Todd Lockwood – Drizzt
  • Bill Mudron – Avatar: The Last Airbender map
  • Ted Nasmith – LoTR
  • Stephen Player – Discworld Map
  • Marc Simonetti – Kingkiller Chronicles
  • Priscilla Spencer – Codex Alera map
  • Isaac Stewart – Mistborn and Stormlight maps
  • Chase Stone – Song of Ice & Fire
  • Steve Stone – Dark Tower covers
  • Russell Stutler – Sherlock Holmes Floorplan
  • Justin Sweet – Song of Ice & Fire
  • Nate Taylor – Kingkiller Chronicles map
  • Keith Thompson – Leviathan map
  • Jerry VanderStelt – LoTR (license held by Warner Bros)
  • Michael Whelan – Dark Tower and Stormight Archive

UW: That’s a lot of artists! What can non-artists do to help stop this from happening in the future?

MJ: If you’re a fan and you see artwork posted without attribution, make sure to clarify who created the image. Post the artist and a link in the comments. Write a message to the author of the article encouraging them to post an “art by” caption.

There are reverse image search engines that can help identify the source of an image if you don’t know the artist. If you’re like me, you’ll probably want to see more of their work anyway. So copy the web address of the image and look it up on a site TinEye (https://www.tineye.com).

If you’re looking at a commercial product without attribution, always check with the artist. Make sure to include a link so they can easily find the product.

As a rule, if it looks sketchy, it probably isn’t properly licensed. The shop likely won’t have contact information. And if it’s printed through an on-demand service, stay away if the creator isn’t directly involved.

I think we’ve all seen the proliferation of “Fans of” pages on Facebook hocking t-shirts. You can pretty much assume those are all bogus. Leaving comments is great, but they often get deleted. Product reviews don’t. ?

If the product isn’t legitimate, still let the artist know of your interest. There may be a market for their work they haven’t considered. Maybe you can still get that snazzy t-shirt or mug. Artists, as a rule, are usually focused on their craft and sometimes don’t think about the commercial appeal of their work.

The bottom line is support artists in every way you can, even if all you have to offer is moral support. They make our world a better place.

UW: What is the proper and legal way for these sellers to sell art?

Contact the artist. Explore the possibility of securing a license.

Make sure you have a good business plan, of course. If you look unprofessional, you probably won’t get the time of day. Be courteous and patient. That goes a long way to establishing a positive working relationship with an artist.

I’m usually the first contact for rights with Michael, and I can tell you that we like having quality merchandise in the marketplace. We publish an extensive catalog of art ourselves, but for the most part we don’t have the time or energy for other products in-house.

We’d like to do a calendar again. Journals and bookmarks too. And t-shirts. I have a killer design for a Dark Tower shirt…if we can ever make time for it.

I know many artists and almost all of them have this very same problem. It is not right — morally or legally. Help Whelan, Jackson, and these artists maintain the integrity of our industry. Because artists are an integral part of his reading experience.

And we want to them to continue being so!