Certain corners of Tumblr and the Internet at large have erupted this week after artist Katie Woodger posted this image and explained that an image she created, featuring Lewis Carroll's heroine Alice, appeared on cosmetic bags being sold by Disney—and Disney never asked for her permission to use the image. So how does a piece of uncredited, unlicensed artwork end up on Disney's merchandise?
Here is what Woodger poster on her Tumblr earlier this week:
DISNEY HAVE STOLEN MY ARTWORK
I don’t know what to do. I am so upset. Can anyone help me?
My painting was created back in 2010, (see it HERE) and since then so many people have expressed their love for it, not just on tumblr, but in many places. At least 9 people had it tattooed on their bodies. It’s one of my favourite images I created at University and I was proud of it in many ways.
I’m so mad because I have no chance at getting Disney to do anything about it. I had so much respect for the company and now I am just SO upset and disappointed.
Any help, advice or signal boosting would be amazing. And thank you so much to the kind person who messaged me about this.
It appears that Disney has since removed the cosmetics bag and the t-shirt (although the t-shirt appears to be, if anything, a copy of an idea and therefore not legally infringing). Woodger attempted to contact Disney, but as of her most recent posting four days ago, she had not received word from Disney.
Now, I'm not suggesting that whomever handles merchandising at Disney spotted Woodger's artwork, knowingly lifted it, and slapped it on a cosmetics bag. Not a month goes by that some artist I follow doesn't have their artwork illicitly turn up on a piece of merchandise made by Hot Topic, Urban Outfitters, Forever 21, or some other company with deep enough pockets to pay artists, and the official story always seems to be the same: Some designer (perhaps an independent contractor, perhaps someone who works in-house) has taken the work, passed it off as their own, and sold it to the company for a nice licensing fee. Then the company, thinking it has paid for the image, starts printing it on t-shirts, bags, and bumper stickers.
Commenters over at Cartoon Brew make the further suggestion that a designer at Disney might have seen Woodger's illustration, which Woodger has said was Victorian-inspired, and mistaken it for an older, public domain illustration. So perhaps they erroneously passed it up the Disney chain.
What Disney committed here was a direct copyright violation. They reproduced a copyrighted work without the authorization of the copyright holder. Whether an agent of the company knew that the image belonged to Woodger is irrelevant; to prove tortious copyright infringement, one need not show that the infringement was willful, only that it occurred. (There are other aspects of copyright law where willfulness comes into play.) So even if we assume Disney's ignorance, Disney violated intellectual property law.
And honestly, this particular infringement should not have happened in the first place. If you search for the image in TinEye, Woodger's deviantART gallery pops up very early in the results. It would have taken mere seconds for someone at Disney to see that someone was, at least, claiming ownership of the piece—if anyone had bothered to check, that is.
Woodger's case is just one instance of a persistant problem, one that indicates that large companies need to be more diligent about avoiding even accidental infringement of artists' works. If companies fail to perform even basic checks to see if images are infringing, they're placing an undue onus on artists to identify products that infringe on their own works. And Woodger's plea for help is a perfect example of how at sea some artists feel when they discover a big company has lifted their work. It's not always clear to artists what recourse they have and whom they should contact. Certainly, even with diligence, some infringing pieces may still slip through the cracks. It would be nice if retail companies, especially those that deal with third party design vendors and contract designers, offered artists a clear place to report their suspicions of copyright infringement.
And I truly hope that someone at Disney reaches out to Woodger, apologizes, and offers some sort of compensation. When things like this happen, it can feel like a monolithic corporation against the little gal. But they're the result of human errors, and a little humanity—in the form of some basic manners and a mea culpa—can go a long way toward making things right.
Hat tip to Esile for pointing us toward this story.