Silver Sprocket’s Avi Ehrlich Talks Business of Small Press and Art Theft on Redbubble

Logo via Silver Sprocket
Michael Sweater Follow Yr Bliss Image via Silver Sprocket
Art by Michael Sweater.

Art theft is as old as art itself, but in the digital era it is easier than ever to commit, and harder than ever to police. Perhaps the most common and familiar form occurs when an artist’s work is shared on social media without credit; a work can earn thousands of reblogs, likes, and comments before the artist realizes their incredibly popular piece is either misattributed or attributed to no one at all. Artists may also find their work printed on cell phone cases, t-shirts and other merchandise at print-on-demand style sites. These sites handle the distribution and manufacturing side of production; all artists have to do is upload their work and ensure it meets the right criteria, and the website handles all the rest. It’s this problem that currently plagues art collective/distro Silver Sprocket, whose artists have found their work repeatedly stolen and sold in Redbubble online stores.

Redbubble is no stranger to controversy; they have been called out for allowing individuals to sell merchandise featuring the racist golliwog and jokes about serial killers, and had to find a new legal team after refusing to take down merch with catchy Nazi slogans. While offensive t-shirts and hate speech are a different legal issue, Silver Sprocket’s battle against art theft raises another legal question: what about copyright?

The answer, like everything related to copyright, is a bit complicated.* First, it should be noted that each piece of art belongs to its creator regardless of whether they register that work with the copyright office or not. However, registering a work with the copyright office enables a creator to sue when copyright infringement occurs. The first step a creator would take in such a situation would be sending a cease and desist letter. (If you’re curious, you can view a sample letter here.)

Copyright gets dicier when it comes to digital content – well, to be fair, copyright gets dicier at the drop of a hat. However, Silver Sprocket’s situation is unique because their artists are dealing with two entities: the individual using stolen art in a Redbubble store and Redbubble itself. Because Redbubble is an Online Service Provider (OSP), they are protected by section 17 USC 512 of the Copyright Act, which was passed as part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA.) (If your head is spinning with all the lingo, just think of Redbubble as an online marketplace, not a producer of content.) Section 17 USC 512 limits secondary liability for OSPs, which means that Redbubble isn’t liable for stolen content listed on their site – until they receive a DMCA takedown notice. Upon receiving the notice, Redbubble must remove the stolen material, unless the individual who uploaded it can somehow reasonably contest. (Redbubble outlines this process on their website.) In Silver Sprocket’s case, their artists have registered copyrights of their designs, so they could take the issue to court if necessary. However, they would be taking the individual who uploaded the content to court, not Redbubble.

The most important takeaway from the copyright piece of the situation is this: because the Silver Sprocket artists have to track the art theft and notify Redbubble when it occurs, they cannot just make art; they must also spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring they benefit from their own work. I spoke with Silver Sprocket crew member Avi Ehrlich about moving the punk music scene to visual arts, their experiences trying to engage with Redbubble, and the very easy and free solution Redbubble could implement to curb art theft.

Mitch Clem Art via Silver Sprocket
Art by Mitch Clem, available as prints and stickers at Silver Sprocket.

Tell me about Silver Sprocket! I think of you as a distro with a foot in the realm of publishing, but on twitter the description of the organization is: “Collection of budz making art stuff and being self sustained disasters,” which I also like. How do you describe yourselves?

Silver Sprocket started out as a bicycle club with the same crew of friends who took part in my old record label, Springman Records, and has since morphed into a vehicle for all sorts of fun projects and activism. This is technically a business that is presently a sort-of art crew with a lot of what I think of as punk, DIY, and anarchist values, but with plenty of non-business goals and silly bullshit as well. I think branding is really interesting and there are definitely some culture-jamming elements to it. We are also trying to help our friends achieve their goals and make a living on their own terms without being forced to fall in line with what any “industry” dictates as the necessary way of doing things.

When did Silver Sprocket start publishing comics online? What provided the impetus to do so?

Working with bands for the past 20 years has always involved working with a lot of visual artists, for album covers, concert posters — merchandise that often brought in more money than the albums would. The artists we were working with were great, and I think it specifically started when I asked Mitch Clem if he’d do some artwork for us. He asked if we wanted to take care of selling merchandise for his old Nothing Nice To Say webcomic. We quickly figured out that the work we were doing for bands was just as relevant for artists of other types, and shirts and comics are a lot easier to break even with than CDs and LPs.

People who collect or enjoy records have a lot in common with people who collect or enjoy comics, and there’s a lot of overlap in what makes the media interesting and the kinds of messages being communicated. Fans of the music we released were immediately into the art-centered releases, since they were clearly by and for the same community.

The world of punk rock bands has lots of opportunities to build community; concerts are public social events…[and] bands get to go on tour and play in different cities and meet new people. Punk-scene comic artists don’t really have these networks, since comics (and visual art in general) is a lot more solitary. People generally make art by themselves, their audience generally reads the comics by themselves, and it’s really easy for that to become a vacuum.

It wasn’t specifically something we set out to do, but in hindsight and looking at what Silver Sprocket has morphed into, I am really excited about having this be a kind of “record label but for artists” that has found ways to build community, connections, and ways of making and distributing works that are analogous to record label activities. We publish an anthology series called As You Were where we ask our favorite punk-scene comic artists to submit short stories on a theme. We’ve made 5 so far that have been really well received, acting a lot like a compilation album in the world of music. Now we’re releasing stand-alone comics and graphic novels, which are a lot like an EP or album in that they showcase one specific artist doing their thing in short or long-form. Putting comics online is a lot like bands putting albums on Bandcamp these days. If you want people to see your art, the internet is a pretty obvious place to post it.

As You Were Vol 5 cover by Janelle Hessig, courtesy Silver Sprocket
The cover of As You Were Vol 5, art by Janelle Hessig.

There are blog posts up on the Silver Sprocket website that include emails sent to Redbubble CEO Martin Hosking, explaining that several of your artists have had their art stolen, stamped on various products, and advertised in Redbubble stores. Tell me how this all began; when did you first realize that these designs had been stolen, and what have communications with Redbubble been like?

Now that “print on demand” is a thing, it is easy for anyone to print anything they want, much like using a CD-R to make a copy of a CD in the 90’s. When it’s an Etsy store or something we can just send an email to the store owner letting them know that we’re real people trying to make a living with this, and would appreciate if they’d knock it off, and they will, right away, without issue.

There are MANY “print on demand” companies now that you can upload to and get your own custom t-shirt or coffee mug or whatever. What sets Redbubble apart is they go far out of their way to not have any basic morals about it. They are a marketplace for individuals to make money off stolen art, which Redbubble makes a healthy commission on. Other print-on-demand companies use free and easy to implement, open source software to see if the art a user uploads is in a database of artwork they have already gotten notice about not being allowed to print. Redbubble chooses not to do this because, since their content is user-generated, the “DMCA” law says they are in the clear as long as they remove the infringing art when they are given notice. The problem is that any user can immediately put the art right back up on their site, and there are so many things I’d rather do than spend all day searching their site for stolen work.

Communication with Redbubble has been pretty frustrating. They are a $288 million [valued] publicly traded company with a legal team that knows their shit. They’ve taken down infringing artwork when I let them know, but haven’t lifted a finger to do anything beyond their minimum legal obligation.

After many emails and attempts at having a conversation with someone at the company beyond the takedown notices I just went and visited their office in person with a letter for them and some examples of our work. They let me in, left me alone at a table for about fifteen minutes trying to figure out what to do with me, then showed me the door saying that someone from the legal department would get in touch with me. They still have not reached out to me at all and it’s been months. I don’t think they have any interest in helping artists. They just want money.

Amanda Kirk's sloth design, image courtesy Silver Sprocket.
Amanda Kirk’s – or Nation of Amanda’s – sloth design.

Which artists’ work has been ripped off? Do you have a rough count on how many times?

We’ve had worked ripped off by lots of companies, but they usually only do it once and then stop once they know we’re paying attention. Redbubble is different in not taking any measures at all to prevent the same art from being ripped off over and over again. We’ve sent them over 50 DMCA takedown notices including over 25 for the exact same illustration: Amanda Kirk’s “Nap All Day, Sleep All Night, Party Never” sloth design.

In accordance with the DMCA, Redbubble’s claim is that they aren’t responsible for anything and I should be taking their users to court instead. So, I’ve gotten a spreadsheet from Redbubble with the names and supposed addresses of users from around the globe who have collectively made thousands of dollars off our work.

I don’t have the resources or desire to hire lawyers in all these countries to collect tiny sums of money from Internet randoms. I’d rather Redbubble have some basic human decency and respect for independent artists and implement a really easy technical solution to this problem.

I don’t even know how much Redbubble has made on those sales; I imagine it is significantly more than the $3,000+ since their payout percentages are so dismal. [Ehrlich later clarified that Redbubble claims they paid out at least $3,000 on Silver Sprocket designs to Redbubble users.]

What solutions do you see to the theft – both simple and not so simple?

What makes this so frustrating is how simple the solution is. The software to keep our designs from getting ripped off exists and is free, and I have friends who work at other companies who do work that is technically similar to Redbubble and who have no trouble figuring it out.

Going back to the music analogy, this is exactly like Napster in the 90s, except they are literally making money by selling our work, not just helping people exchange it. Napster was successfully taken down when a court figured out how easy it would be for them to use “fingerprinting” technology to have their computers recognise copyright violations on their service. The record industry’s lobbying group, the RIAA, has really good lawyers, and before you have a CD or LP manufactured, the factory is legally obligated to upload your music to a central database that checks for copyright violations (like to see if you’re illegally pressing copies of The Beatles CDs, or have an audio sample from a TV show without permission), just like the technology that lets know what song is playing in the background of a video you upload. The RIAA made it so the CD and LP pressing factories are responsible for piracy, but Redbubble hides behind the DMCA to not be responsible at all despite how easy it would be for them to do so. Independent comic artists and illustrators in general don’t have a massive lobby like the RIAA, so we’re left with “the free market” which could not give a shit.

Doctored images of Redbubble CEO Martin Hosking are featured in Silver Sprocket's Redbubble store. Image courtesy Silver Sprocket.
Doctored images of Redbubble CEO Martin Hosking are featured in Silver Sprocket’s Redbubble store.

I really don’t know why an artist would sell their work on Redbubble when the company doesn’t have any policies in place to keep them from getting ripped off the way we’re getting ripped off. If someone had a really successful Redbubble store, there isn’t anything stopping random users around the world from taking a screen-capture, setting up their own store, collecting commissions on sales of the work until they get a takedown notice, and to then just set up another store. If the law can’t make Redbubble have some basic ethics, maybe the “free market” could, if their users started deleting their accounts and making the reasons for it known.

With this in mind, I set up a Redbubble store, and we advertised it with Facebook and Instagram ads targeting people interested in “Redbubble” in the cities that they have an office.

I think it’s a great thing that an artist can draw something and make a business out of it without having to do all the work of physically manufacturing things and inventorying and building a store and all that. I just wish Redbubble could do it without systematically ripping off so many independent artists in the process.

Art theft happens frequently online, whether it’s people on Tumblr reblogging work with the artist’s name cut off or selling goods on sites like Redbubble. What can fans and supporters to do help deter art theft, both in your particular situation, but also more broadly?

One really easy tool is Google’s reverse image search, which lets you upload an image and find out where else it is on the internet. I can almost always figure out where an uncredited graphic comes from by doing a reverse Google image search, and then comment something about giving the artist credit.

It’s really a cultural thing, for fans of art to understand that real people made the art they are enjoying and deserve to at least get credit for their creations. Someone at a comic book convention in LA told me about how he was getting a tattoo of one of our artist’s designs, and I suggested they ask the artist first. She has always been excited about fans getting tattoos of her work, but really appreciates when they ask first! The dude was completely thrown off and offended by my request, thinking it totally fair for the tattooer to get paid $200+ for their work, but that the original artist didn’t deserve to even get asked. That’s fucked up.

Squatters of Trash Island by James the Stanton image via Silver Sprocket
The cover of Squatters of Trash Island by James the Stanton.

Switching gears back to Silver Sprocket’s work as an art crew, there’s a bunch of new comics coming out in spring! Tell us about the comics, merch, convention visits and other fun stuff you’ve got coming up.

Oh god, we are always biting off more than we can chew.

It’s been exciting seeing the positive response to our new books like Your Black Friend by Ben Passmore [reviewed on WWAC here] about race and identity in groups that consider themselves already progressive. No Gods. No Dungeon Masters by Io and Rachel Dukes is about the intersection of anarchist and nerd culture, and there’s the As You Were punk-comix anthology series.

Books coming up include Be Your Own Backing Band by Liz Prince, collecting autobiographical comics that were previously published in punk rock fanzines, Siren School by Isabella Rotman, which is about tricking mansplainers into getting eaten by mythical creatures, and the GIRLS art book by Jenn Woodall, and Squatters of Trash Island by James the Stanton is about garbage people living on that island of garbage out in the Pacific Ocean. [We also have] more political comics like Our Best Shot about an illegal Supervised Injection Facility operating in secret against the USA’s “war on drugs” and Magical Beatdown by Jenn Woodall  [a 2016 best for WWAC] which is a hyper-violent street-harassment revenge magical-girl fantasy comic.

Then new books from Ben Passmore, Tom Neely, Michael Sweater, Benji Nate, Erin K Wilson, Liz Suburbia…I am way jealous of future versions of everyone who gets to live in a world with these comics!

We’re going to tons of conventions coming up including DINK, TCAF, VanCAF, SVCC, CAKE, San Diego ComicCon, SPX. Our website has a good list.

The Silver Sprocket crew are stuck in a difficult situation, but their artists are clearly still creating exciting new content! In addition to purchasing their comics, you can get a taste of these creators’ work by checking out the webcomics posted to Silver Sprocket’s site. As fans, we can also call out art theft when we see it, whether it’s adding correct credits to comics and illustrations online, noting when an artists’ original work has been edited without their permission, or alerting artists when their pieces end up on unauthorized merchandise. Artists gotta eat and pay rent, too!


*My hopefully digestible description of copyright is an amalgam of explanations given by Avi Ehrlich, Dr. Emily Knox, and Assistant Professor and Copyright Librarian Sara Rachel Benson. Thank you for the links, definitions, and your patience!

The explanation of the DMCA in this article has been edited for clarification purposes.

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa is a queer librarian and intense cat mom. She spends her days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts at @alenkafiga.