Flighty birds: My free Creative Commons designs that keep getting stolen anyway

I’ve been having some problems with flighty birds recently. Actually one is a penguin and the other is a dragon. Here they are, together for the first time:

Cartoon penguin meets Twitter dragon.

Two variations of Tux

Original Tux on the left

I created the penguin in early 2009, working on a tiny EeePC, running Linux. I was actually taking a stab at improving the look of Tux, but he went in a different direction.

The dragon was created in early 2010, to look like the familiar Twitter bird, but with a unique Welsh dragon spin.

Both images have gone on to be pretty popular on the web, used for avatars in forums, on Twitter and so on. I deliberately licensed both as Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This means that people are welcome to use the images, for free, on condition that they provide a proper credit, and do not seek to profit directly or indirectly from use of my work. Also, they must make any derivative work available under the same terms.

The continuing misadventures of ‘Boggle’

These conditions seem more than reasonable to me, but I’ve spotted examples of people either not knowing or not caring that they are violating this very liberal licence, especially with the cartoon penguin design. There was a guy selling penguin t-shirt prints, and then only last month I found an iPhone game and a Mac software house using him. I ended up giving permission to the latter – they seemed nice enough.

The original Cartoon penguin post had actually become one of my most popular pages, bringing in 100+ hits per day via Google image search… until a few days ago I noticed this had stopped! Compare the following images:

'cartoon penguin' in Google image search - September 2009

This is how the image search for 'cartoon penguin' looked last month (September 2011).

Compare that with the result today:

'cartoon penguin' in Google image search - October 2011

...and this is the same search today (October 2011)

Yup, now Google has removed the link to my original page, and instead sends searchers to this charming Tumblr page:

bowlofcarrots, some random dude on Tumblr

SEO surgery

Clearly the guy is no designer or SEO expert, but he has managed to outrank me for my own image! I’m assuming he’s winning because the image is near the top of the page in the title area (that appears on every page), and he’s renamed the image ‘cartoon-penguin.jpg‘, whereas my original is the less useful ‘penguin_finished_012.png‘.

Last night I optimised my site a little in an attempt to win back favour. I also contacted Mr. Bowlofcarrots via his site and Tumblr support, though I don’t really expect any joy from either of them.

It’s surprised me how annoyed I am by this minor injustice. After all, this is an image I was happy enough to give away for free. It occurred to me that even though this Tumblr user isn’t attempting to ‘steal’ my work in the same way as some previous people have, he has nonetheless taken it from me in a more real sense. Quite innocently, he has robbed me of my sense of ownership of the image itself. It’s very frustrating.

The @thisiswales saga

My other ‘bird’, the Twitter dragon, has been on other adventures. In this saga, I found him being used as part of the branding for an official-looking Twitter account calling itself ‘this is Wales‘.

Twitter page for @thisiswales, 5 July 2011

How @thisiswales looked in July, 2011

Official-looking it may be, but that’s simply because it imitates the look and feel of a BBC design, while appropriating the ‘This is X’ brand owned by Northcliffe Media (see This is South Wales / @thisisswales for examples). Not to mention, my Welsh dragon design.

Twitter repliesI asked people on Twitter if I should be upset about this – after all, this is another of my ‘free’ designs, and @thisiswales didn’t actually seem to be for any kind of profit.

It turned out that most were more outraged on my behalf than I was! (Thanks everyone!)

In the process of complaining, I may have upset the account’s owner, but he did remove my design later that day as he promised he would. Well, kind of. As I write this I notice that the background image still contains my work, but I think I’ll declare victory anyway.

The owner denied any wrongdoing, claiming that he “recently took on @thisiswales with logo already in place.” This may be true, but I have actually been aware of the account since July, and at that time it linked to the same Mr. @uselessdesires. Depends how you define recent I suppose.

So what?

I do realise both of these cases are pretty trivial. It’s not like Paperchase or Urban Outfitters have stolen my work to be used to fuel their profit machine. In the worst case, a blogger has been denied 100 hits a day that weren’t really contributing anything of real value anyway.

Cartoon penguin in life preserver and goldfish bowl helmet. But it’s frustrating to offer something for free, yet still have it taken without permission asked or credit given, especially when the casual theft can have a negative impact on me. It makes me want to use a more traditional full-copyright licence, and go after people who take the piss.

I wonder where they’ll turn up next?

UPDATE 2011.10.18: Tumblr got back to me; they have suspended the blog that was using my penguin image. A bit harsh perhaps, but I’m not going to complain. It will be interesting to see if I regain my ranking (or if Mr. Clipart manages to get his Tumblr blog reinstated).

9 thoughts on “Flighty birds: My free Creative Commons designs that keep getting stolen anyway

  1. Not sure I’d be happy to let him continue using your icon in the background, he’s clearly trying it on…

    It’s worth noting perhaps that breaking a creative commons licence is just as illegal as breaking copyright, and although I generally give people permission to use my work (photos in particular) when they have asked me beforehand, I think I’d be much less forgiving than you if I found people had simply misappropriated them without consulting me.

    • I agree with you entirely, Mark. Compare/contrast with a moral reaction: “Oh, dude, is that your dragon-bird? Can we keep him if we add a credit, as we really think he’s neat?” / “Oh, dude, okay, gosh, you’re right, this does break your CC licence. (*yanks avatar *yanks background)” Instead you got petulance and a half-arsed response. Stand up for yourself and for your work: you DO have a clear licence in place, and this licence carries weight.

      I think it’s a non-sequitur argument to say these infringements of your copyright don’t compare to more serious instances. They DO compare: it’s theft. If someone shoves you off the street, you may not be as badly off as the guy who landed in hospital after his beating … but it’s still assault, and it’s still wrong.

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  8. I think you’ll find the general feeling is that if any work appears on the web it is fair game no matter what the Licence agreement. All my work is Copyrighted and it is very rare for anyone to contact me for use of my work – this is why I have “Copyright” plastered across most of my images. I have even found my images for sale on a “Prints” site where some enterprising individual simply stole one of my images and sent it in to a company that prints out full-colour images for sale. If you want to slow down (not eradicate) non-agreed use of your cartoons embed a watermark and state that there is an embedded watermark to enable you to track it on the web. Or if you want to eradicate non-agreed use, then simply don’t publish on the web at all – it’s the only option :(

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