You sit down at the computer, open your email, and click on one from your best friend. Your heart immediately drops into your stomach as you read, “Isn’t this the painting you did last year? Someone else is selling it online!” Shock, anger, and frustration burn through your veins once you realize your artwork has basically been stolen.

It can be a helpless feeling, but there are steps you can take toward restitution. So, what do you do next? Take a look:

Step 1: Do Some Digging

First, ask yourself: what is the actual offense? This will help you determine what path to take next.

Did someone copy your exact piece, or was it only something similar? Remember, you can’t copyright a certain style or subject, only a final piece of art clarifies artist Suzanne Day in “What To Do About Online Art Theft and Plagiarism.” And, as much as we get attached to our creative work, similar ideas can come to different people at the same time. Just look what happened to writer Nir Eyol.

But, if someone has copied your work exactly, is printing your images on commercial goods, or passing work off as their own ... you should start digging a little more into this theft.

It might be hard to tell by just looking at a website, but try to get some details like when they first started using your art, how many pieces they have ripped off, and how much profit they have made. This will all come in handy for the next step.

Step 2: Decide What Action is Necessary

After you’ve gotten the facts straight, decide what type of action is proportional. If the offense is as simple as using an image of your painting in a personal blog, there’s probably no need to summon a federal judge. You can either ask that it be taken down or linked to your Artwork Archive Public Page in a caption.

But, if someone else is cashing in big time on the artwork you took so much care in creating, it’s time to take legal action.

Step 3: Understand the Law*

Yes, all of your work is copyrighted as soon as it’s created, but actually registering for copyright protection with the United States Copyright Office is a whole other story, explains consultant Alan Bamberger.

Whether you file before or after your imagery is stolen can affect how much you are entitled to in compensation. 

For instance, Alan explains that if you haven’t registered your artwork for copyright protection before it gets ripped off, you are only entitled to collect the amount of profit the offender made from your art. But, if it was registered beforehand, you are entitled to “statutory damages” that could be total much more than the profit.

Registering your art also makes it easy for officials to tell when your work was created, leaving your offenders in a lurch trying to prove when and where they got the art. Without this registration, the burden shifts back to you, making it much more difficult to prove it was your artwork first. 

Even if you haven't previously registered your artwork for copyright, you have to register it before bringing a copyright infringement to court.

Step 4: Turn to a Lawyer

If you’ve decided you want to move forward with legal action, the next step is to talk to an attorney about sending your offenders an official cease and desist letter to stop their use of your artwork and about getting reimbursed for the profit and potentially the damages you are owed.

Step 5: Try to Prevent It

As the old saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. Be proactive in keeping your art safe from online thieves by trying a few of these tricks:

  • Register your art with the copyright office in your country. U.S. artists can check out www.copyright.gov for more information.

  • Place a notice on your website that all images are copyright protected, including the copyright symbol (c), the year, and your name.

  • Use sites like Artwork Archive that downsize your public-facing images (and keep your high-res images stored privately for you) to prevent replication. 

  • Follow these crediting tips from Art Biz Coach Alyson Stanfield.

While these actions are not 100 percent foolproof, it does show potential thieves that you are serious about the matter and helps you gather proof if you ever need to settle a copyright matter in court.

What’s the bottom line?

Realizing your art was taken without permission can leave you feeling sick to your stomach. You spent so much time creating your work and trying to share it with the world, you should be the one receiving all of the accolades and profit. The key to dealing with copyright infringement of your art is to keep a level head and decide what the best course of action is for the crime. Just don’t be afraid to demand what you deserve.

*Legal Disclaimer: Please note that this article should not be construed as legal advice, and Artwork Archive will not be held responsible for any legal activity resulting from reading this article. If you have any legal questions, please consult an attorney.