Gila von Meissner, better known to the jovoto community as Cross the Lime, makes her living doing, as she puts it, “artsy stuff” – a lot of branding and marketing work, as well as some illustration. She has been an active member of the jovoto community for 6 years. Having lived in the States for a year, and eight years in the Netherlands, Gila reports she is happy to be back in her native Germany – for now. When she’s not designing or issuing a DMCA (more on that below), you’ll find taking her retro pug Jette for walks or going to rockabilly concerts or techno club nights.
We invited her to talk to about third party material and designing as she has become somewhat of an expert on the subject and we wanted to share her insights with you. She became interested in the topic after discovering that people were stealing her work and posting it on “free” image services online.
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First up, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got to where and what you are doing now?
Well, I’m self-taught in terms of design. I have a marketing background and worked in marketing management for eight years – mostly for companies with no substantial design budget, so the design was done “in-house” – meaning I ended up doing it! Eventually, I set out on my own with a marketing consultancy, and clients were often asking me for design work, logos, and illustrations – so I started with that. Around six or seven years ago, I also starting working on design platforms. For the last year or so, I’ve mainly been working on illustration projects, and I’m freelancing for clients all over the world.
So how did you get to be so interested in third party material?
Trademark, copyright, and intellectual property law were all part and parcel of my studies. And I always thought what we learnt there was just logical. I’ve always had a very strong feeling for what is fair and what is not, and so I got really mad, for example, when I started seeing clipart and stolen work being used on design platforms. Also, I found out that people were stealing my work when it started cropping up on different sites all over the web.
One thing that really interested me is the many court rulings on design and what is considered a copy out there …. If you have a T-shirt that has a crocodile on it and someone else does a T-shirt that has a different kind of crocodile, is that copying or not? The apple logo almost doesn’t have to be registered anymore, it’s copyrighted no matter what – those are all things that I find really cool and interesting. It hasn’t been updated in awhile, but one of the funniest/best sites for design copyright fails is You Thought We Wouldn’t Notice. There are lots of examples on there of companies ripping off illustrators – quite often really big brands as well, especially in fashion. So it’s clear it’s a widespread problem.
How do you start to develop an idea? Do you use inspiration materials?
I have A LOT of Pinterest boards with A LOT of pins on them! For new projects, I usually start a new board – whether it’s colour scheme or concept based. Pinterest is good because you can keep your boards private. I also collect potential reference material for illustration work – photos or also other illustrations.
Getting inspiration from multiple sources is important: If I’m doing an illustration of an elephant, I don’t just look at one photo or one illustration of an elephant – rather I have 10 or 20, and I usually just look at them and analyze each part. I always take a step back, look at the materials, and consider why some work better than others. And which part makes them work, and if you know that, then you can save that in the back of your mind and judge your own work. It’s like: what can I add new to this, can I make it different (enough) or not. I close the boards before I go into photoshop or illustrator and start drawing – I don’t have any images in front of me on my screen – I’m never tempted to trace an image. Only once did I create an illustration too similar to one of the illustrations I had used as inspiration – the one that I had stared at the longest – so I couldn’t use it.
It’s great that you’ve developed this type of designer conscience that you know when you can’t use something …
There’s a lot of stuff that you could still legally do because concepts cannot be copyrighted for example – but there’s always one question I ask myself and I think all creatives should ask themselves: If this was my illustration and I saw that copy, would I immediately recognize my work and would I be annoyed? If the answer is yes, then you shouldn’t use it.
TIP >> If you are doing illustration, it’s better to look at photos for inspiration rather than other illustrations – it means creating abstractions yourself and not relying on an abstraction that someone else has done.
Yeah, that’s a great point to highlight. So how do you define an original work?
I mean, nothing is original, we’ve all seen thousands of images and they are stored in the back of our minds – even if we don’t recognize it. There’s nothing original anymore, I don’t think. We should focus more on whether our work is bringing something new to the table – that could be a special technique or your unique choice of colours. If I look at a piece of work and it’s too clear what your inspiration was, then you might be safe legally, but not ethically. For example, if you look at my logo designs, I could show you exactly which pieces I had in mind as inspiration, but if you didn’t know, you couldn’t tell. That’s I think the most important part – that’s what designers should be aiming for – in illustration especially.
If the elephant you’ve drawn is clearly traced off a photo – then that’s a direct reference and you legally have to mention it when submitting your idea on a design platform or directly to a client. You need multiple reference points – not just one. You shouldn’t use just one piece as inspiration – if you do that, you’ve already done something wrong – you should be using at least five different pieces of inspiration – or 10 or 20 …
What about stock materials, do you buy stock images to work with/from?
Since I don’t do much print work for clients, I don’t need to buy stock images all that often. I sometimes use stock images for staging my work, on Instagram for example – like an empty book background that I can place my illustration on top of – those types of images generally get more likes!
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What should creatives pay attention to when buying stock material?
That the license covers what you want to do with it – that’s the first thing! Some stock images are for editorial use only so you can’t use it on a marketing flyer, for example. If you want to use an image on a product/as part of a product, then you’ll need an extended licence. Stock images are only cheap because they are sold a thousand times – most clients won’t want a stock image to be used in a marketing campaign.
Budget plays a role of course. Maybe you have to opt for cheap stock images – sometimes all you need is a background or a happy couple in a small corner and then it doesn’t matter so much that the couple has been on a thousand other things. But if the whole campaign is about that happy couple, then stock is the wrong choice. The reach of your client is obviously important to consider too – are they a small local business or a large international brand with a much broader reach – there’s a whole different kind of ethics involved.
Do you ever just go out with your camera and take your own stock-style photos? Is that one solution?
In theory, it sounds like a great solution … but then you need a model release for anyone pictured. I do occasionally do that with dogs for example. I take a lot of pictures of dogs when I’m out because it’s something that clients want sometimes – a realistic dog silhouette in a design. And I can’t do that, really, without drawing off a photo – if I draw it freehand, it just looks cute! And dogs don’t need a model release so that works! But other than dogs, no. I’m not a photographer, other people are better at photography than me, I stick to what I know!
If you have to produce work that is ONLY original work, how do you deal with fonts for example?
The thing about fonts is that the look and the letters themselves cannot be copyrighted – only the software part, the .ttf or .otf file are what can be copyrighted and licensed – so designers cannot transfer that to the client without having an extra license. You have to convert the fonts to vector paths or tell the client what the font is and where they can license it if they want to play around with it or use it for other marketing materials – or you could license the font for the client.
For a unique typography solution, I tend to use an existing font – often one of the brush fonts – and tweak it. I arrange it the way I want it, and then I either print it out, do it in clip art studio, or sometimes on photoshop, and I paint over the font and add small flourishes and an extra line here and there, make sections thicker or thinner and do it in my handwriting. I use the existing font as a base to get the kerning right, but with all my edits and additions, it’s still original. If the client wants something completely original then hand lettering is the way to go – which is very on trend of course! There are a few designers I know that do hand lettering who I work with.
You mentioned earlier that your work had been stolen, how did you find out about that?
You just have to look. I spend an hour or two every few weeks, and I go through google images to look and see if my work is on platforms it shouldn’t be. Not for all of my designs – I have 80 or so images that are regularly stolen, over, and over again.Sometimes you get it taken down off one site and a few weeks later it will be back up on another one.
So how do you deal with that, what steps do you take when you find out an image has been stolen?
It depends on who has done the stealing. If it’s one company, then I can just deal with them directly, but if my work gets uploaded to Shutterstock that means potentially already 100 people already bought that design and then it’s a lot to take on – all you can do is get them to take it down, but the harm is really done already. iStock is obviously the most expensive one, but I can tell you their quality control is amazing – this never happens with iStock. There are a couple of designs that I’ve had to write off as lost because they ended up on a GFX site – illegal pirate sites.
When I find one of my designs somewhere it shouldn’t be, I file an official DMCA – Digital Millennium Copyright Act – “I hereby inform you that …”.
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And what kind of response do you get from companies?
It varies – Facebook, for example, is really good, Twitter as well, Instagram can be difficult at times, even now that they’ve been bought by Facebook, but most companies handle DMCAs fairly well. Some will have a specific contact form. Shutterstock, Fotolia, etc. are also good, but the problem with those sites is that the harm is already done. They won’t disclose how many times a design was downloaded, they don’t inform the clients that downloaded it either, they just remove it. When it’s individual companies, it depends on where they are located – if it’s anywhere in Russia or Asia, there’s not much I can do, although if they have a Facebook site, I can report them on there. You can also check who is hosting a website at WhoIsHostingThis, and if it’s one of the big providers, like GoDaddy, then you can also get them to remove the image.
So you can go around the company in a way?
Yes. For example, I have one logo at the moment that I’m still waiting for a client to get back to me on, because they own the license, not me, and they are discussing what they want to do. They are not using the logo at the moment, but it’s now being used by a Dutch company. Because it’s in Europe, it’s easier to kick up a fuss. With German companies, I could even make quite a bit of money … because, within Germany, I can issue a warning (Abmahnung) and actually get money without it having to go to court, but it’s never come to that for me. But in Europe, I have different possibilities, usually I would have to ask them to stop using the logo because it’s sold already – but I can see on Facebook that they’ve already done their whole branding with it – printed signs for the store and flyers etc., so I’m discussing an amount with my client that this company could pay to license the design.
Yeah, that sounds like a tricky one …. We’re out of questions, but do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?
It’s important people realize that Google Images is not necessarily stock material – the new interface hasn’t helped this – because the photos are displayed differently now and more removed from the source website. I like to play bullshit bingo when people steal my logos – I get “my friend designed it”, “we have no money”, or, my favourite, “it was on Google Images, you shouldn’t have put it on the Internet if it wasn’t allowed to be copied”. People don’t seem to understand that once your work is online – whether on a portfolio site or your client’s website – you can’t control where else it ends up online, whether it gets to Pinterest, etc. …. I now put my watermark/logo on all the images that I post to Instagram etc. – sometimes, like with logos, I can’t, but if I can, I always do. People could still take it off and some people do, but at least it makes it harder and then it’s clear they’ve intentionally stolen my design if they’ve removed my logo before using the image.
That seems like such an obvious point, but I guess not for everyone, and it needs making again and again – just because images are accessible online, doesn’t mean they are available for use.
Yeah, definitely! One of the problems are the so-called “free resources” – Pixabay, Freepik, DeviantArt. They are all supposedly free stock material – the problem is there’s often no quality control – although Freepik has changed for the better recently. I’ve had work show up on Fotolia, Adobe Stock, Shutterstock, all of them!
10 years ago you could get away with a lot, but that’s not possible in today’s hyper-connected world. If you’re designing for a local bakery business in the past it wouldn’t have mattered if your branding was similar to a local bakery business in a different country or even in a different town, no one would have noticed or minded, but nowadays every local business also has a Facebook page so their branding has more of a reach. I noticed where my logos show up a lot (where they shouldn’t) are small local businesses – like a dog walker in Holland who had no idea their designer stole my design – without Facebook and Google I would never have discovered that my work had been copied.
Thanks so much for all the insights Gila, it’s was a pleasure talking to you, and I’m sure everyone reading this will take a few tips away from it. Keep up with Gila on her jovoto profile, website, Instagram & Facebook.
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