Whose Art Is It Anyway? What To Do If Your Work Is Stolen Online

The Internet can be an incredible and terrifying place for artists. Social media in particular has become a powerful tool to share work, reach new eyes, and put our work out into the world. This, of course, is a double-edged sword because not everyone on the Internet has an artist’s best interests in mind–sometimes not even other artists.

Take the case of Richard Prince who took 39 portraits curated from his Instagram feed and sold them as his own — selling one portrait for a reported $90,000. While Prince’s stunt may have arguably been a commentary on the precariousness of social media as a platform for artists it also reflects the scary reality faced by professional artists in the digital age.


Photograph by Cindy Trinh.

This week I spoke to Cindy Trinh, an activist and photographer based in New York City. Her photographic work ranges from the festive to the politically-charged and everything in between. She has been featured at the Museum of the City of New York and pop up exhibitions at the Annual Fundraiser for Equality Fund, Asian Americans for Equality and the Annual Asian American Community Development Conference.  She also regularly posts her work to social media and has had her work stolen a number of times.

I spoke with Trinh about her advice for artists when they are confronted with people stealing their work online.

Sayre Quevedo:  Tell me about your experience with having your work stolen. How often has it happened? How did you find out and how did you respond?

Cindy Trinh: I have a photo blog and I post my images on several social media accounts, including Instagram, Tumblr, and Facebook. Many of my photos have been stolen from my social media accounts and posted on other accounts without credit to me. This happens very often. Most times I can’t do much about it besides try to message the account holder to include credit to me. I recently had to deal with an artist who stole my image and used it in her artwork that she was trying to sell for profit in a gallery. I threatened legal action against her, it was a very troubling experience and extremely stressful.


Sayre Quevedo: Have you tried to protect your work from theft since it has happened? How so?

Cindy Trinh: I spoke with an attorney who represents photographers and photojournalists and I now work with him to catch any theft of my work on the Internet. Many law firms have software that can detect when your image has been used illegally by someone else. This has helped tremendously.


Photograph by Cindy Trinh.

Sayre Quevedo: The internet can be a sketchy place sometimes. Why share the work there? What is the benefit for you as an artist?

Cindy Trinh: I know the risks of posting my images on the Internet, but for the kind of work that I do I feel it is a necessary evil. I document activism and social justice movements in New York and it is important for me to share what is happening in the streets. Social media has given people the tools to share things in real time. It is a great way to educate the masses and to shed light on issues to a wider audience.


Sayre Quevedo: Do you have advice for other artists who share their work publicly via social media?

Cindy Trinh: My advice around protecting your work would be to consult with a lawyer who works on a contingency fee. There is no retainer fee and therefore no charge to you up front. It helps to have access to that special software that can detect when your work has been stolen, otherwise it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. Lawyers who work on contingency will only take a percentage of whatever money you are awarded if there is an infringement.

I also think a lot of artists use watermarks and that’s really up to each person. It’s usually the first precaution people take when sharing on the internet.


Sayre Quevedo: So it’s sort of play-at-your-own-risk unless you’re willing to hire a lawyer?

Cindy Trinh: Yeah pretty much. It’s hard to protect everything on the internet. I think including disclaimers might help, but not much. People tend to steal anyways.

You can see more of Trinh’s work on her website, facebook, and instagram (@cindytrinh.v)

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