Stolen sketches on a wall in China

March 26, 2015 | 15 Comments

Earlier in the year, through an amazing sequence of events, Francis from Singapore discovered one of his sketches was used on a wall in a Singaporean restaurant in Shanghai. Within minutes of his posting this on facebook, the adjacent food sketch was recognized as mine. What a great example of the power of social media…and proof that I have a distinct style – hey?

Thanks to local lawyer friend of Alvin (Hong Kong USKer,)  we were able to get photos of the full wall. The original photo Francis had was only one part of the wall.

The rest of the wall featured sketches by Don Low and Paul Wang. And right in the middle a huge sketch of a row of shophouses… one of mine! Incredibly the designer had included a note at the bottom “Designed by [email protected]”. Wow! what cheek!

Do I need to explain that there was no approval or payment to use these works in this way?
Now, there isn’t much respect for copyright in China, but it turned out that this was done by a Singapore Design Firm. I don’t want to go on about how shocking and outrageous this stealing of our work is – but instead I want to share a few more pro-active thoughts.

What did we do?
We emailed the guy asking for either payment or for the works to be removed. No surprise, which of the options was chosen…  yes, the images were removed.

Here are photos of the stock images that were used in replacement. Trying to fight for payment or compensation is something some people might feel inclined to do, but sadly I think in many cases it is a waste of time.

The designer claimed he had no idea who was the owner of the work but my shophouse sketch clearly had my blog listed and it is very easy to contact me.

How many of our images are being used without our permission and knowledge?
It is hard to say! Perhaps there are many of my images that have been lifted from my sites. In the last month, there have been a number of other instances of my friends’ work being claimed by other people as their own, being used on websites and even being put onto cards and sold on Etsy.

The big surprise?
The fact my low res Flickr version was high enough resolution to reproduce my sketch on a wall – and look good! I have my Flickr set to ‘disable download’ and maximum image size 1024. Obviously, this size is not safe. Wow! that has really surprised me.

I have been using watermarks for the last year or so. I don’t believe in locating the watermark in a way that destroys the viewer’s enjoyment of the work so I locate mine on the edges of the image.  Regardless of where it is located, watermarks can be easily photoshopped out, so I know that if someone really wants to use my work, they will find a way. Therefore, my reason to watermark is not to stop people from stealing my images, but as an identifier. If someone finds my image and wants to see more of my work (or commission a sketch or two!),  the watermark’s role is to point them to this site!

Image Size?
Well, I thought 1024 was a safe size but obviously, it is not. It also seems that in this case, the work was taken from Flickr. A pixel width 640 is a standard size, it is the width of my blog and it is now the size that I use to post my work to FB and here on the blog. It is a little small if someone whats to look at the work carefully…. have any of you noticed the size difference? They look the same on the blog page, but if you click on the 1200 version you can see a larger version in the lightbox mode.

Here are the two sizes…. and here is the version on Flickr.

My plan is to post only 640 size images of square/landscape single-page images and 1200 for the long spreads (which equals 600 for the single page)

In regard to Flickr, I could choose to only upload 640 size images but I use it as an off-site backup and therefore upload high-resolution versions that I can only access. I have disabled downloading by others and the 1020 is the smallest size that is available (see above). Therefore if I want to continue using Flickr as an archive, I don’t really have an option to stop this happening again… unless I upload two versions, one private use only of high resolution, and one publicly viewed low-resolution version.

Sharing ups and downs
Basically, if you share your work online there is nothing much you can do to totally remove any chance of it being stolen or copied.

The upside of sharing generously is that people know our work and it is instantly recognisable…in my case, even when it is not teacups! That is quite powerful – we have a network of spotters around the globe. It is possible that social media could be used to protest against organisations that stole artwork. It is not something that I would promote, but having 100s or 1000s of emails flood an organisation would be a way for them to get the message. Whether or not they would actually pay the artist for use of the work is another matter entirely! Hopefully, as in this case, the designer would not do this again.

The Bottom Line
There is so much to gain by sharing my work online – I don’t want to lose that. Sharing and sharing generously is the very core of what I do, but at the same time, I don’t want to make it too easy for people to steal my work! Striking the balance is the challenge, and whatever I do, I want my sharing to continue in a way that it brings joy to my readers … and to me too!

Anyway – I am very interested in people’s thoughts and similar experiences.

You might want to check out this very comprehensive post on the subject by Katherine Tyrrell.


  • No folks, it is not just China unfortunately. I and several of my artist friends have been in the same situation of illegal usage. In each case it was a US company using "an outside designer" which I guess is their blanket defense that it wasn't really their fault. I don't know of any artist that has been paid anything once they have found their art being illegally used. All that ever seems to happen is that they stop production…maybe.
    In your case, the crazy thing is that the restaurant would rather pay the expense of redoing the entire interior rather than pay you something…unless you had provided a $ amount that far exceeded the cost of reinstalling something new.

  • Jacqueline says:

    It has become so rife that many people don't even think about it as theft. I put a Christmas greeting on a friend's FB wall with a picture I had taken of some Christmas decorations. She loved the photograph and said she was going to use it. I politely wrote back that I was happy for her to use 'my' photograph but it would be nice if she gave me credit. She wrote back and said she had assumed I'd just got the picture from the internet. She did use it and did give me credit.
    In general though, people don't understand copyright and think that it's a free for all with regard to internet content.

  • For the sketch in the restaurant, Liz should better ask to be paid with food instead of money ???

  • MiataGrrl says:

    Right on to all of it, Liz. So sorry that this happened to you. But we are all the wiser for it. And I agree that it's still better to share than NOT share — and take the risk that goes with that pleasure.

    – Tina

  • RaSonya Pearce says:

    I am so sorry this happened to you! There are some positive take aways from this terrible experience- first, your art is so awesome they wanted it blown up on the walls of their business and second, your work is so unique friends recognised it right away. It is so frustrating that people feel free to use images they find on the net in any they wish without regard to the original artist. However; we create art for people to see and enjoy which the Internet greatly facilitates. Unfortunately, it also increases the risk our work will be used without our permission or even knowledge. Personally, I believe the rewards outweigh the risks of posting images on the net. Think of how much all of us would be missing if you didn't post your wonderful work!!!

  • sandra de says:

    Your images are always so eye catching that they are instantly recognisable. The looser would have to be the restaurant because the replacement images are blahhh! Serves them right. A very informative post.

  • larry says:

    I think the most important point from your post, Liz, is the one that is dismissed regularly on Facebook. If a 1200pixel image can become a 6-8foot long image on a wall, a 640pixel image could easily become a t-shirt, coffee cup image, or something else. EVERY image uploaded to Facebook is in Facebooks's control, by the agreement you agree to as a member. They have the right by that agreement not only to use it but to subcontract it out for use by other people. They will, which is the reason those clauses are in their users agreement. — Larry

  • redharparts says:

    Exactly, Larry! I've just been to my second of six sessions on "The Business of Art". The presenter is not a lawyer but is an artist who has consulted with attorneys and been in business a long time. The first day he said, in very strong terms, NEVER post your work to Facebook or Instagram. However, it doesn't entail the same issue with the Terms of Service to post a LINK to your work on a more protective platform. And what Liz did is what he recommended as far as demanding payment or removal. I've always downsized my images for the internet and now I'm going BACK to 640×480! Since Flickr prevents right-click-and-steal when the settings are correct, I wonder how they got an image big enough to make so large? One can always do a screen-capture, but that results in a low res image.

  • As a licensed artist who produces art for products, most of which are manufactured in China, I've struggled with this for years. My art and that of my friends in the art licensing industry spot our art everywhere and there is not much we can do to stop it. I've even been told that I should take it as a compliment. Hard to feel that way when you depend on your art to pay the bills and you find your art for sale globally and in your own home town with no credit or payment.

    One thing you can try beyond what you've suggested is to post on social media not scans but photographs that are taken sometimes from an angle and sometimes close up shots that show details without revealing the whole image.

    When I've uncovered infringement, it is sad but we have to decide when it's worth hiring legal help and when it's not. Sometimes major retailers act responsibly to remove the offending art and others they are so profit driven they won't even cooperate in getting Chinese factories to reimburse with a reasonable royalty payment.

    I've consulted for Chinese companies and have discussed this topic at length with Chinese entrepreneurs. Their culture is so opposite ours that they really have no grasp of our insistence on the rights of the individual and why we are so offended when our art is used without permission. Their technological ability to reproduce from a very low resolution image and to remove watermarks would astonish you.

    There is just no easy answer for this. All I can say is I'm sorry this happened to you. Sadly, it has happened to most professional artists I know at least once, and for many of us it's a regular occurrence.

  • Susie says:

    On another tack of stealing content, I regularly see pirated DVDs for sale on ebay. I used to let the artists know but quit after getting many snotty replies (like, mind your own business) or none.
    Only one replied nicely, thanked me and said it's real a problem. He tries to keep up with it, but can't. Every so often a bunch of this artist's DVDs go up for sale and soon after they are taken down. Some artists care, many don't bother. It's just so much work to police the crooks….
    Good for you calling this company out, I hope it doesn't happen again. And yes, your style is unique!

  • Corinne says:

    It's not just design companies that do this sort of thing. I took a very well known seed and gardening supply company to task this week about this very same subject. The company posted a number of pictures to their Facebook page with "source: the internet". I reminded them that every photograph has a copyright and they couldn't use them without the author's permission. I checked back to see what they had done about this and they deleted my comment so I posted my comment all over again. I'm pretty sure they will do the same again. The only other alternative is to put a large watermark on your photograph so it becomes unattractive to download. I know a lot of my friends on Flickr have resorted to this method to prevent their pictures being stolen. And, stolen is what they are.

  • Corinne says:

    This is in response to redharparts comment above. It is quite easy to enlarge photographs in Photoshop without loss of sharpness and quality unfortunately. I've used it myself when I've mistakenly taken a low resolution photograph and wanted to print a larger copy. The only remedy I can think of is to put a watermark on your photographs. It doesn't have to be in black but a semi-transparent copyright symbol with your name and year should fix it.

    Talking about being safe of Flickr – I've recently discovered there is no such thing. It was pointed out to me that if you google images of your work, they will come up and there is nothing to stop someone right clicking and downloading them. So much for the safety net on Flickr.

  • Hi Liz, I had the same thing happen to me, and shared the results on Flickr: My comment includes a link to my original. I really wasn't sure what else to, as I didn't see a way to contact the website owner. Since then, I mostly try to include a water mark with my website. You were lucky to find out, and to be able to have it removed.

  • RosC says:

    Hi Liz, I follow Brenda Swenson's blog and she reported theft of her work by a Russian woman – here's her post about it.
    Brenda was highly incensed and reasonably so; she managed to have the situation reversed as you can see in her post. How to share with such generosity and build your practice as an artist and at the same time, preserve your copyright is certainly a conundrum.
    I must say I really appreciate the inspiration you bring with your regular posts full of thoughtful concepts, development process and practical how-to.
    Many thanks,

Leave a Reply