Thou Shalt Not Steal...Unless It's Digital

Artists struggle to make a living in an age of digital piracy as lawmakers and downloaders struggle to come to terms with a working, legal definition of the phrase.

Mount Laurel native Kandice Zimbleman was a child prodigy. By the time she was a teenager, the art she’d drawn with her highly gifted hands was hanging on the walls of Congress and she’d won two medals from NASA for painting and writing. Other awards soon followed, including a summer scholarship to the University of the Arts. She teamed up with a group created by Al Gore and worked on a project called “Globe,” a science initiative for kids. Celebrated as a very talented young woman, her future in fine art seemed bright.

Her dream was to build a career doing what she loves, but Zimbleman can’t make a living as an artist. The current cultural norm of accepting digital piracy has stolen that ability from her. Lately, she’s been making regular trips to the local food bank to stock up on basics for her family. She still does her art out of love, but being the victim of online theft has left her nearly bankrupt financially and emotionally.

“People take my work, claim that they are me and they sell it on Ebay” she says. She’s found her art on websites of “various kinds of companies similar to Cafe Press.” Worst of all, she says that some people have opened entire online galleries of her work and nothing else, impersonating her for profit. Warnings by fans around the world alerted her to the practice, and she has found at least 20 instances where the situation warranted her pursuing further action. While some of the time, she’s able to get the perpetrator to shut down their site, constantly staying on top of the thieves is exhausting. She has to go through a large amount of red tape and hassle just to prove who she is, and the sheer number of offenders can become overwhelming. “There are so many of them that sometimes I don't even bother,” she says. 

It’s not just the pirates who have prevented Zimbleman from supporting herself, it’s the very perception of what art is worth in modern times. “It’s a cultural thing” she says. “People get upset because they want to pay me $5 when they want $5,000 worth of work and quality. The creative side of things is not doing very well right now in general. I don't have money to market myself.” Besides the perspective of the financial value of art, there has been a major shift in the societal outlook on creative people in general, Zimbleman says. “I was working in a bank and when people found out I was an artist they would say ‘oh, you're “creative.” They said it as if I was schizophrenic. People sneer at creatives and sneer at art but when they're in the presence of it they are impressed.”  The experience has left her shaken, and unsure about the future. “People don't buy on impulse anymore like they used to. I’ve been asked where I see myself in ten years. I don't know. I have zero income right now. At this point, I don't know what to do.”

She had friends who let the despair of being undervalued destroy them. “I know creative people who took their own life because they could not make a living doing what they wanted to do” she says.  “I've gone through the mindset that I'm not good enough. People assume that you don’t have to get paid.  I have gone through depression. It's frustrating.”

Cynthia Bennett, from Atlanta, Georgia, feels the same way. She started out learning the violin, but the moment she heard Aerosmith and picked up an electric guitar, her life changed forever. She played bass in a band called Mosaic Nation, performing for enthusiastic crowds and eking out her identity as a musician. Her ultimate dream is to be in a band full time, but the current culture of digital piracy may prevent that. “It makes me fearful and skeptical of the industry” she says. “If people can just go online and steal what you create, it defeats the purpose of being a struggling artist. I want to make a living. It’s hurtful and makes you very scared sometimes to find out that you may get there and there's no money, people are stealing my products, and I'm not getting what I'm supposed to be getting.”

She’s disillusioned with pursuing music full time. “The way the internet is set up, people think they can get the milk for free without buying the cow… they just come behind you and steal your work. I hear people say ‘oh I just go online and burn it, I don't buy that stuff anymore. Why should I spend $10-$20 on the CD when I can just take it?’ They're not understanding what they’re really doing. Yes, times are tough but it does not merit stealing in any way.”

Even her own friends evade the question when asked if they will support her music, or if they will simply burn free copies. “I ask if they'll steal my album or if they'll pay for it and they never give me a straight answer. They're going to do it even if it really hurts someone. I fear they will go behind my back and just download the CD. I'm not pointing fingers at anyone in particular but I hope they can answer me… I would hope I'm wrong.”

Kyle Carrozza of Burbank, California, has crafted his musical career by planning ahead for digital piracy, and exerts significant time and energy to do so. It seems the days of artists being free to focus exclusively on their art are long gone, and instead they are forced to find innovative ideas to not only stay one step ahead of the thieves, but also to keep honest people’s interest from waning. Carrozza sometimes adds incentives to his songs or albums, even going so far as to give out freebies in an effort to get people to buy.

If albums were still on vinyl, piracy would be obsolete, but vinyl is extremely expensive and therefore impractical. “I would do it myself if I could afford to get vinyl pressed up” Carrozza says. “It’s a great way to prevent piracy, and I absolutely love vinyl. It doesn't cost anything to release things on digital, but an LP costs thousands of dollars to produce.”

Instead, he takes extra steps to prevent the desire to steal his work, such as releasing new pieces the moment they are ready and keeping song prices very low. He, like so many other independent artists and musicians, does not make a living practicing his craft, but instead holds a regular day job to support what’s now a hobby.

Philadelphia native Ed Hall, a graphic designer, has plenty of experience with piracy, and has suffered financially because of it. “In one instance,” he says,” I had somebody do a direct copy of  a website I designed. I’ve had personal artwork stolen and presented by other people as if they were me, and I wasn’t credited for it. Some of it has even gone viral.  It's troubling. I see it all over the place, and no one acknowledging it…as a freelancer it is really challenging.”

Having his work  populating the internet without his name on it takes money directly from his pocket, because much of Hall’s business comes from people who have previously seen a properly credited piece he’s done. “My work is how I make my money” he says. “If it gets spread around by thousands and thousands of people, that's work I have lost. Some things I've seen on Pinterest and Facebook, and each time there are several thousand people who have shared it and liked it, and I’m not credited for it. I could be losing anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per piece. I could have  gotten many potential clients from that work and now I have nothing.”

Pursuing the thieves is extremely costly, and would put a significant financial strain on him. “I haven't (gone after them) because it's not feasible for me. I make enough money to survive but I don’t have the kind of money to take out a full lawsuit against someone because it's timely and it's costly. It’s not designed for a small guy like me.”

To add salt to the already painful wound, Hall has been blamed for the piracy by his own friends and acquaintances. “Some people say ‘that's what you get for putting your stuff on the internet’ or say I should put a watermark on it, but I want to be able to share my work how it's meant to be seen without having to alter it. It’s how I make a living.”

Joyce McAndrews of Seattle, Washington, has been an artist for the past 20 years. Her talents are manifold and include illustrating, app development, set design, brand strategy and textile design. Her friend alerted her to the fact that her artwork was being used on notecards being sold at Target. “This publishing company had taken my work and tweaked it a bit,” she explains. “I fortunately had copywritten the artwork they had stolen. They  had stolen my art before and were selling it in Saks. They even had some proceeds going to a nonprofit for children. (In that instance) I couldn't sue them because I hadn't registered the images with the copyright office. I have created thousands of images over the years and I couldn't possibly register all of them…I couldn't afford it.”

McAndrews had never signed a contract with the publishing company and got a variety of excuses from them regarding why the work was taken without her permission, such as “We were eventually going to pay you”,  “We had a contract made but forgot to send it out,” and  “We thought you were okay with our publishing your work.” After involving attorneys and going through legal hassles, the case was eventually settled out of court.

She no longer works with publishers and still finds her work “all over the internet.” The experience shook her so deeply that it took her five years to resume illustrating. “The infringement case consumed me and…greatly affected my creativity. I stopped drawing for years. I was never going to share my work again, never be published again because I didn't trust the system.” Now, she says, she has finally recovered and is producing again.

A musician questioning whether or not to pursue music, an illustrator debilitated for five years, a fine artist making regular trips to the food bank, a singer giving work away for free and a graphic designer being robbed of many thousands of dollars represent just a tiny fraction of the pain and financial suffering of independent artist of all kinds at the hands of digital pirates. The problem is, it’s not just the pirates who are to blame, it’s the normalization of piracy in our culture. People who are able to afford artwork, illustrations, graphic design, music and movies feel totally justified in downloading illegal copies. Widely-used excuses on social media include:

-“They make too much money anyway.”

-“It’s not stealing because it’s digital.”

-“Why do they think they can charge $15 for a cd? That’s too expensive.”

-“It’s only a copy, so it’s not stealing.”

-“This is what we do. We share. It’s how we live.”

-It's something I wouldn't have otherwised purchased, so therefore, it's not stealing.

These statements come not from impoverished students, but from working adults who think that they get to decide who makes “too much money.” I would suggest to them that “too much” is relative. Surely a homeless person would think anyone reading this article makes “too much” money, so would it be ok for that person to come into your home and steal your things? What if he found something in your home that you wrote, let’s say a short story, and “just made digital copies” of it, then sold it for a profit? According to the prevailing logic, that should be just fine. Similarly, it should then be ok to steal just about anything you "wouldn't have otherwise purchased." How about going ahead with that idea and stealing some expensive office equipment tonight? Most people probably wouldn't have otherwise purchased that, so would that be alright?

Stealing from the “fat cats” such as major music producers and Hollywood executives leads to a trickle-down effect. Because piracy has slowly become normalized, and is now widely accepted, no one is off limits from theft, including millions of independent artists just trying to get by in the world.

Theft has become so rampant that any efforts to stop it are shot down by large corporations who brainwash the public with blatant lies, which is what happened in the case of the SOPA bill. Google, Youtube and Wikipedia teamed up to push the message that the government was “trying to censor the internet.” Millions of people took up the cause on Facebook, and “stop SOPA” groups popped up by the second. The outcry was so immediate and overwhelming that the bill got shot down. Unfortunately, it appears that no one actually read SOPA to see what was being proposed. If they had, they would have seen that there is an already existing bill that has been in place since 1998 and is exercised every single day here in the United States. That bill is called “The Digital Millennium Copyright Act.” Under the bill, many thousands of videos and millions of pieces of content are pulled or blocked from the internet and many Websites are shut down, including the famous case of the site Megaupload.com, which was taken off the Web during the time of the SOPA furor. Many people mistakenly thought that the site was closed because of SOPA, but SOPA had not even made it to the Senate floor, and never did. 

SOPA would have only extended the ability to prosecute pirate Websites overseas, where many illegal websites operate, and would have prohibited and penalized companies here from doing business with those websites. That’s why big business stepped in and started their campaign of falsehoods. Google certainly would not want its traffic slowed even more for failing to provide access to free music, art and movies. Since Youtube is owned by Google, of course they got in on the action, campaigning aginst the bill. Google and Youtube already get sued many times each year and pay out substantial amounts of money for copyright infringement in the US. They already block content and are penalized if they fail to do so. Obviously, they did not want SOPA to pass because it would have meant being forced to serve up even less content, deal with more lawsuits and ultimately, suffer more significantly reduced profits.

According to the bill's author, Lamar Smith:

The activity these foreign websites are engaged in is already illegal in the U.S. But because they are operated overseas, the sites are out of reach of current U.S. laws that protect intellectual property. The Stop Online Piracy Act simply applies to foreign illegal websites similar standards that are already in place for domestic sites.

...SOPA only applies to foreign illegal websites...why are Google and Wikipedia opposed? Unfortunately, one of the reasons why you can’t believe everything you read about the Stop Online Piracy Act is because some critics of this bill have generated enormous profits from illegal websites that sell stolen intellectual property.

The saying goes “ignorance is bliss” and misinformation about SOPA was so prolific that the vast majority of people speaking out against it had no idea that the 1998 bill already provides for lawmakers to prosecute violators here in the US and that SOPA would have merely extended that same ability to foreign websites. Smug techies everywhere seemed terribly satisfied when they proclaimed that lawmakers “don’t understand how the internet works.” In reality, those techies just didn’t want their ability to steal to be further infringed upon. Those who think that SOPA was some kind of attempt for the government to “censor the internet,” or that Google and Youtube’s motives were driven by anything but their own financial gain, have not read the 50+ pages of the SOPA bill. Instead, they chose to buy "Big Corporate's" story hook, line and sinker without doing any research. 

Interestingly, there were no widespread protestations against the Digital Millennium Copyright Act when it passed unanimously in 1998 or when it went into effect in 2000. Perhaps people still thought stealing was morally wrong back then.

The situation has gotten so bad that some people look upon piracy as a form of social justice. The late Aaron Swartz was a key proponent of this idea, and was instrumental in defeating SOPA. A Slate article details how he believed in “copyright reform, collaborative culture, open access to data, (and) political activism.”

His suicide represents a tragic end to a life that could have been brilliant, but nonetheless symbolizes what can happen when piracy is taken too far. As prosecutor Carmen Ortiz put it-  "Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar." Of course, this statement is widely decried by many who feel that “stealing is not stealing” because “Swartz merely hooked up his laptop and made a copy of something that wasn't his.” Actually, he stole millions of pages of documents in clear violation of laws and policies, but this simplified version is another example of justifying digital theft. The idea that everything ought to be free has taken such a hold on the American psyche that questioning it can cause one to be viewed as a social pariah.

Swartz and many like him thought he was fighting for access and social justice, but where is the justice for Kandice Zimbleman, Joyce McAndrews, Ed Hall, Kyle Carrozza, Cynthia Bennett, and thousands of other artists who are forced to live in a world where theft is excused as “just making a copy of something that isn’t yours?”

While all of the artists interviewed stated that they are open to collaborative culture and fair use, (for example, Zimbleman doesn’t mind when fans re-use or re-mix her art for personal purposes, especially if the fans are children) they realize that piracy is personally and professionally harmful.

“Would you go to the grocery store and take the groceries?” asks Hall. “Would you go to the doctor and not pay them what they’re worth? Would you ask them to do the service for free? It's doesn't work that way. If you wouldn’t steal groceries, what makes it ok to steal someone’s artwork or movie?”

 “Fraud is fraud and it is illegal” says Zimbleman. “You can't claim to be someone you're not, and you can't make money from someone else's work.”

She doesn’t want much, she says, just the ability to put a roof over her daughter’s head and some food on the table. “I don't need to be rich. I just want a decent wage, healthcare, and be able to live comfortably.”

Cynthia Bennett says people do not consider how what they’re doing affects others. She’s still not sure if she’ll ever pursue music full time; piracy is too prolific and threatens her livelihood to a degree that makes her doubt her ability to support herself. “Across the board, don't steal,” she says. “There's no excuse for you to be taking anything. Don't steal…I can't starve all the years of my life.” 


Kyle Carrozza's Website can be found at: www.tvskyle.bandcamp.com

Kandice Zimbleman's Website can be found at: http://blackunigryphon.deviantart.com/

Ed Hall's Website can be found at: 

Joyce McAndrews' Website can be found at: http://www.joycemcandrews.com/

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Richard Weisgrau February 25, 2013 at 11:33 PM
@Morgan Kong, in theory what you wrote ought to be true. In reality is is not. The missing links are threefold: 1) The value of content has shrunk to a point where it is now worth less to the creator than it was in the 1960s (of course the Stars do not experience the reality of the norm). 2) "Free-to-play" as you describe it is just that. "Free" does not reward the creator of a work. When I find my any of my five books downloadable for free on the web, I am not being rewarded for my work. When I find one on my photographs being used without authorization on the web, I am not being rewarded for my efforts. Yes, there us a greater demand for content than ever before, but the reward for supplying content is lower than ever before. 3) it is easy to reach an audience at no cost to the audience. Vimeo is a perfect example of that. However, the creator cannot pay the phone bill with Vimeo hits. 3) When you say "Making a living with art is really hard. As a creator, you can have 100 paying customers, or a non-paying audience of 10,000 - learn to take advantage of that." I really want to now how to do that. Can you guide me?
Morgan King February 26, 2013 at 01:09 AM
The value of content has changed, certainly - technology has changed they nature of reproducible media. It's less valuable per-unit, but the per-unit costs for many mediums are also much lower - creation costs may have only dropped slightly, but manufacturing, distribution, and promotional costs start at $0 for many mediums. There were plenty of writers, painters and musicians who couldn't make a living in the 60s, too. Free-to-Play makes it's money by providing 99% of the content for free to a gigantic audience, and selling the remaining 1% of content to the tiny sliver of the audience who really want it. In games, it could be a unique avatar outfit, in music it could be rough demos, for a podcast it could be an extended interview, for an author it could be access to raw data or extraneous chapters, for an illustrator it could be a .pdf of sketches. People downloading a pdf of your book are the same people who were extremely unlikely to have purchased it anyway. If it wasn't there, they'd have chosen a different free source. Same for photos - if they had to pay, they'd just use a free image, or no image, instead. The virtually infinite amount of content allows an interested audience to pass over it if there's an obstacle - If there's 2 folk singers of equal quality, and one guy's album is $16 and the others is $0, the $0 guy is going to have a lot more listeners, a greater potential audience for shows, and therefore a larger pool of people who might also buy a shirt.
Kim February 26, 2013 at 01:39 AM
Boy Sachi, I'm guessing the culture you were brought up in doesn't appreciate a woman having a different point of view from you. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Bitter and angry...really?
Richard Weisgrau February 26, 2013 at 04:48 AM
Morgan I don't disagree with much of what you say. Especially that the people who illegally obtain on of my books would have otherwise bought them. I also agree that many creatives did poorly in the 60s and in every other decade. What I do not agree with is that distributing work for free is going to result in some parallel bonus for the creator of a work. That is an hypothesis for for which I can find no evidence in support. That profitability from 1% of the audience paying with all others getting a freebie is not supported by fact. Your thought that the "creation costs may have dropped slightly" is true. They have except for the creative labor. My personal labor cost increases every year as the cost of living goes up. I can do typing and photographic processing faster with digital technology, but is not where the value in what I do lies. The intellectual property that flows from my mind into a tangible work is the more valuable part of my work product. There is no way that technology reduces that effort. The knowledge, skill, talent, etc. that go into the product do not flow from technology. What you are saying is true for the people who publish my work, but not for me, the grunt who produces it. I must say that it is nice to quality comments like yours here, even if I disagree with some of them.
Stacy Litz February 27, 2013 at 11:40 PM
Aaron's story also shows how the criminal justice system can drive one to suicide... so what is the correct punishment for these "thefts?" Jail? That obviously works. Most $ made by artists is from touring, actually. http://www.billboard.com/articles/list/502623/musics-top-40-money-makers-2012 And has technology not HELPED artists? Back in the day, sure, you could buy records, but you couldn't buy digital copies on iTunes. Surprisingly, a lot of people DO still purchase music. And enough do that these artists DO make money. Adaptation. Surprisingly it works. Or you could cry about it all day long and look towards the, for a lack of better words, tyrants in power to lower the boom on people. Maybe government sponsored music is just about as good as government sponsored liquor stores. Yum.


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