What can I do when my design is stolen?

Every so often, but unfortunately not uncommonly enough, I’ll see through my various social networks an independent designer/entrepreneur blasting a large corporation for stealing their designs. The products in question range anywhere from a simple patch to a whole t-shirt, but it’s almost always astoundingly clear that the larger corporation indeed ripped this person off.

I can’t even begin to imagine how awful it must feel when you, as a small business owner, have your hard work stolen. You already have to deal with the usual qualms of being small—a somewhat unpredictable source of income, working independently and often without help—and to have your hardest obstacle be something malicious and entirely out of your hands, well, sucks.

So what can you do?

Right Now

The Internet’s great for a lot of things. It’s an infinite cache of puppies and kittens, articles on the weird hijinks of Elon Musk, and an excellent platform for raising social awareness. Effectively, it’s also where most independent designers first turn to battle a plagiarised design.

When designer Saylor Rose called out Nasty Gal for copying her bracelet design, Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso famously replied, “Forgive us for never having heard of you and give me a break for having done so. […] Congrats, you’ve been knocked off. It’s a rite of passage.” This remark, coupled with Amoruso’s alleged faux-feminist tactics and a reportedly toxic workplace, tainted her image. And most people empathized with Rose.

Calling out someone on social media may not be your jam, especially if you’re concerned with the consequences. After all, while it’s never been easier to openly criticize and then have that criticism rejected by a multimillion dollar company, the biggest difficulty most independent designers and small businesses have is affording a lawyer to take legal action.

There have also been scenarios where calling out a retailer resulted in the bigger company taking accountability. When entrepreneur Mel Lay discovered her t-shirt design being sold at Target, she too took to social media and called them out. Target replied:

Target has a deep appreciation for design, As such, we were concerned when this was brought to our attention. We’ve been in contact with the vendor that produced this tee. We’ve also reached out directly to the designer. We’re continuing to look into this matter and are in the process of removing the tee from our assortment.

Depending on how you look at it, Target’s response is either great or just simple damage control. You could argue they shouldn’t have stolen Lay’s design in the first place, and that’s definitely true. They also didn’t quite apologize. But they did take accountability and subsequently remove the shirt from their inventory—and Lay didn’t have to take legal action nor had to spend money or any further time to seek a form of reparation.

For the Future

Most likely, you’ll never get screwed over by a big corporation. Sure, there are rumors that certain companies scour the Internet to find designs and then duplicate them, but users of social media have gotten really good at making the Internet an excellent place for advocacy and social justice. Meaning: in an era where our president threatens nuclear war on Twitter, and bullying victims can be exposed as white supremacists in a matter of hours, call out culture can effectively used to criticize and change perceptions.

But of course, preparing yourself in a more “official” and practical way doesn’t hurt.

Issuing copyright through the United States Copyright Office costs $35 per work. Depending on who you are, that still may be an unjustifiable expense, but if you’re a popular designer and have a deep concern that your design may be stolen, you’ll be happy to know that cost covers legal fees in the scenario where that copyrighted work is infringed.

Knowing Your Worth

It doesn’t have to be said that all small businesses work hard for their livelihood. An unpredictable problem like a stolen design is something most entrepreneurs don’t factor into their small business careers, but it can happen. Having a strong sense of self-worth and a willingness to fight for your brand can help ease that situation, should it ever happen. And it’s nice to know that most people are willing to stand behind a small business rather than a big corporation.

A good entrepreneur is always prepared, and once you start finding your success, you’ll also learn to adapt to all the challenges. Hopefully your hard work will never be stolen, but having a good understanding of tackling your worst case scenario will not only make your business stronger, but able to thrive.


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