Adventures in Intellectual Property Rights, or Hey… That’s Mine!

One of the more frustrating aspects of being an artist/artisan/entrepreneur/writer/creator of cool stuff & putting your work out for the world to see is the knowledge that some day, someone will steal from you. Do something awesome, & eventually, someone else will want to do it, too. And until recent years, unless they were really clumsy or really successful at it, you the originator would never know.

Enter the internet, where suddenly you can browse the work of other artisans & companies from all over the world. And one morning you’re scrolling along through new bath & body listings on Etsy, just to see what folks are making/listing/buying these days, & you see an image of one of your own products pop up & you think hey… I didn’t list that today.


Last month, I had the uncommon delight of having one of my product photos stolen by another Etsy shop owner. Just one photo, a rather badly lit, nondescript shot of The Victorious Sun Sorbetto.

The shop owner in question had listed a scrub of their own, but apparently was not satisfied with their own product photos & went fishing for something better. A quick Etsy search for “yellow scrub” & a simple right-click-Save-As, & voila, new photo!

In the grand scheme of things, it is, admittedly, a pretty minor infraction. The shop owner in question didn’t lift my formula, my package design, my branding, or my company name. They are a very small shop with very few sales, & aren’t likely to make any aggressive bids for soapy world domination any time soon. If I hadn’t been procrastinating & poking though random Etsy listings, it is very, very likely that I would never have known about it, nor would I have seen any negative effects in terms of sales, image or identity.

But my mum & dad drilled into my head from a very early age that stealing is wrong. W-R-O-N-G. Even if it’s just a stupid picture/candy bar/dollar from the tip jar. Even if it doesn’t hurt anyone. Even if you can get away with it. Thanks to their influence, I’ve got a similar lack of sympathy for the light-fingered, & while I’m not going out looking for opportunities to bring thieves to justice, if I see it, I call it.

And call it I did, with a very polite, professional & steel-edged email to the shop owner in question, explaining my ownership of the image & requesting that it be taken down immediately. This is often all it takes to put out IP fires at my level – once folks realize that there’s a real person willing to stand their ground, the offending content magically disappears. In this case, however, I got a reply stating that no, it was her product, & her work bench, & the photo was taken by her friend. No really, I wrote back, it’s my photo. Take it down, please. Now.

Her response was essentially “I’m not taking it down. Bring it on.”

:cue ohbitchnoyoudidn’t moment:

Fortunately for me, I do the bulk of my business through Etsy, a large, well-organized company with a delightfully competent legal team. Once I got over the initial urge to send the offending shop down in a ball of flaming poo, I did three things:

  1. I reported the shop to Etsy, with a brief outline of the issue & what I had done on my level to attempt to resolve it. Etsy’s admin staff is inundated with messages on everything from site issues to terms-of-use-violations, & I knew that it would likely be a few days until they got to my report, but this would ensure that there was a record of the issue on file.
  2. I compiled & sent a letter to Etsy’s legal team, with very detailed information on my ownership of the image & its subsequent & illegal use by the other shop owner. This is a pretty daunting step to take, with lots of legal-speak to digest, until you take time to read through the necessary information. In the end, all Etsy needed was my contact info, the image in question & my proof of ownership, & details on where that image was being used without permission.
  3. I replied to the shop owner, detailing exactly what steps I was taking to have my image removed from her shop. Yes, she was being a shyster, but I firmly believe that one has a right to know what’s being said about them. Especially in cases like this, when I had the law on my side & undeniable proof of ownership.

Then I made myself stop thinking about it. Composing searingly eloquent smack-down letters in one’s head is on occasion good therapy, but in this case, I made myself step away & keep a bit of perspective. It was one photo, one tiny shop, & I’d done exactly what I needed to do to defend my IP. Seething about it any longer would have been a total waste of energy.

A few days later, I got a cheery email from Etsy’s legal team, thanking me for my letter & informing me that the offending content had been taken down. I checked the shop to make sure, allowed myself a bit of a “We Are the Champions” moment, & thanked the universe for neat things like time/date/hardware stamps on digital photos.

End scene.

So, what have we learned, children? What if you, a fellow Etsy seller, find yourself a victim of IP infringement?

  1. Don’t take it personally. Copycats are lazy, soulless creatures out for a quick buck. It’s not about you & your work, it’s about their unwillingness to do their own.
  2. Take immediate, professional action. Convo the shop in question & ask them to remove the offending item. Keep it calm & polite & absolutely clear. Do not threaten, apologize or resort to name-calling. Keep a record of every email/convo, & be prepared to provide those records if needed to prove your case. Fill out every form, even the ones that make you cross-eyed.
  3. Be patient. All told, it took me nearly 2 weeks to get my stolen photo taken down. Once you’ve submitted your reports, let the Powers That Be do their job.
  4. Protect your work. More & more sellers are using watermarks on their photos, & including your logo/labeling in every photo makes them much harder to re-use.

For the record, I download all of my photos into flickr, & set them to Private. This process includes a stamp that shows exactly when a photo was taken & with what equipment, proving that it was an actual photo taken by me, not a screen grab. This information is what allowed me to stake my claim in this case as the IP owner.

I sincerely hope that none of you experience the joy of having to defend your IP, but in the event that you do, I hope this post was in some way helpful. Etsy’s got a lot of great information about copyrights & IP here. It’s a little heady, but worth wading through if you’re at all curious about what parts of your work are protected.

Back to the fun stuff with my next post, I promise!


About Hayley

I'm a trained pastry chef, DIY queen & mother with my heart in west England, my soul in Chicago, & my feet in south-central PA. Paintbox Soapworks was born out of my love for handicraft, beautiful fragrances & clean hands. I play around with colors & scents & soothe my insomnia by dreaming up new ideas. I pull heavily from music (Waits, White Stripes, Wilco), books (Tolkien, the avalanche of children's books in C's room) & my own fertile imagination.
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