When I was 19, I was commissioned to create a poster for a student union election. Now, I was 19 and my skills weren’t what they are. Neither was desktop publishing technology. Still, my poster told a story, included characters, and was my work.
The student politician ghosted me, without paying. I assumed they thought my work was bad and amateurish, and felt too ashamed to say anything. I felt like I had deserved it.
A few weeks later I saw the posters go up.
They were my exact posters but re-drawn by an artist friend of the student politician. I got no money or credit, while the student politician’s friend got money and credit and future commissions.
Back then, it felt like proof that my art was worthless. That I was worthless. It was part of the reason I abandoned art for several years.
A while back, some readers alerted me to a work that included many pages seemingly cut and pasted, with a little chop and tuck, from my own work, the Ultraviolet Grasslands.
Turns out, this whole project, which included mutual acquaintances (for example, the editor), took place without my knowledge. Perhaps the “author” suspected I would object to 30 pages crudely cribbing-together the encounter and event tables from my book.
More than outraged, I felt hurt.
Today, through luck, and some effort, someone stealing my work doesn’t have the impact it did when I was nineteen.
Still, I am just a small writer of fictions (to twist a turn from one of my favorite authors, Zedeck Siew), and to get justice, I face a hard calculation. Though I am protected by copyright, the costs of legal action are easily greater than the payoff. Even if I raise my voice in the public forum, the battle will be exhausting.
Whatever course I could choose, the fact remains: my words were stolen.
Creative theft is especially evil when the target is someone starting their professional journey. Whether young (as I was), starting later (as I did, after my hiatus), or struggling to find success over long years (as many do, often unfairly).
Creative work, after all, isn’t just wage labor. It uses your personal and emotional core to create a gift to your (potential) audience. Art speaks to us, art is the artist’s voice.
When your work is chopped up, repackaged, and sold as the thieves’ own work, the damage cuts your soul not just your bank account.
There should be a better way to protect your work, pursue legal channels, and learn about copyright law generally.
The broader solution, beyond any one case, is for all of us to promote, encourage and celebrate artists and writers, designers and all the people whose creativity inspires us. I know this from my experience and heart.
One of the simplest ways to do this is to credit creators.
When a book inspires us, we name the author and the title.
When we quote a passage, we share its origin.
When we post a work of art, we say who made it.
When we loved a game, we share links to it.
It’s so, so simple.
We don’t have to be perfect about it. We can make mistakes. All we need is to make a good-faith effort to give credit and recognize other good-faith efforts.
And for those just starting out (or farther along), who are inspired by someone else’s work and want to build on it?
Just ask! Nine times out of ten*, they’ll be delighted.
P.S. – *Please be patient when you contact me about building on my works though. It just takes time to get back to you.