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Cartooning & Comic Art

NYPL Adds Public Domain Images to Digital Collections for Reuse by Artists

Posted by Rebecca Blake on February 02, 2016

The New York Public Library (NYPL) has added over 674,000 public domain images to their on online database of digital collections. The public domain database includes prints, photographs, maps, video, and manuscripts, which can be downloaded in high resolution. The NYPL statements on the collection indicate that the materials are out-of-copyright, and the public is invited to “go forth and reuse!”. However, a closer look at the NYPL selection process indicates that some images may not be public domain, or may have additional rights assigned, and artists are cautioned to proceed carefully before using the images.

The collection was developed with the NYPL Labs, an interdisciplinary team within the library with the mission of positioning the Library’s collections for the digital age. The NYPL Digital Collections overall provide a great resource of research, educational, and reference material for designers and illustrators. Visitors to the Collections can search by keyword, scroll through recently uploaded items, or browse collections such as Fashion, Nature, For Designers, or Book Arts and Illustrations. For illustrators needing reference material for historic projects, for example, illustrations of 1930s era farm life, the search features and collections can be a tremendous aid. To select for public domain images within a collection, the user checks the “Show Only Public Domain” filter selection. This filters for only images the NYPL believes are out-of-copyright.

NYPL Public Domain filter selection

Above: When in a collection, be sure to select for only public domain images to view images the NYPL has flagged as available for reuse.

While the newly added materials are described as “public domain” (items for which the coyright has expired or doesn't exist), the Library doesn’t commit to that legal designation. The Library legal team utilizes services such as reverse image searches and the Catalog of Copyright Entries to research the copyright status of items before release. However, because of changes in US copyright law, and the lack of provenance on many images (in particular photos), the NYPL demurs to definitively state the items are public domain. Instead, their blog post on the public domain additions clarifies that the legal team was unable to find copyrights to the items, and states that the Library is unable “to guarantee that we have not made a mistake in either the facts or the law.” The rights statement on the public domain images reads “We believe that this item has no known US copyright restrictions.” The statement also warns that the items may be additionally restricted: “The item may be subject to rights of privacy, rights of publicity and other restrictions.”

NYPL public domain image rights statement

In celebration of the release, the Library is inviting the public to apply for a “Remix Residency.” The NYPL Labs is accepting proposals to reuse and remix from the collection to create “transformative, interesting, beautiful new uses of our digital collections.” As examples of such uses, they’ve provided links to sample NYPL public domain remixes, such as “Navigating the Green Book,” an exploration of travel guides that showed restaurants, hotels, and other establishments open to African Americans during the age of segregation. NYPL Labs is accepting proposals through the end of February. Recipients of the residency will receive a $2,000 stipend, consultation with the Lab’s staff and curators, and workspace in the NYPL research rooms.

Ad Agency Video on Spec Work Belies Reality Facing Creators

Posted by Rebecca Blake on November 18, 2015

A video and blog post on spec work produced by Toronto advertising agency Zulu Alpha Kilo is burning up the Internet. In the video, an actor approaches different businesses unfamiliar with work on spec (for the most part) and asks for free products or services – a cup of coffee, a breakfast, architectural design, picture framing, and personal training. The incredulous reaction from the business owners doesn’t deter the actor, who trots out business jargon to justify his request: “You guys can make me a spec breakfast, right? And if I enjoy it, I’ll make you guys my ROR, my Restaurant of Record…” He even pushes the personal trainer to give him the intellectual property rights to the training techniques. The video concludes with a challenge to ad agencies: “It’s time we all said no to spec.”

As Adweek reported, the video was created by the agency founder Zak Mroueh for presentation at Strategy magazine’s Agency of the Year event.  Mroueh told Adweek that Zulu Alpha Kilo hasn’t done a pitch requiring spec work in five years, freeing up time and resources to work on clients’ brands rather than on generating new business. The strategy seems to have worked for the agency; they reported that they’ve tripled their staff and gained high-profile clients such as Google and Corona.

It’s heartening to witness an ad agency pushing back on spec work. Unfortunately, the equation is quite different for the professionals contracted by ad agencies to create content. As reported in numerous publications, such as Mashable, New Business Intel, and the LA Times, ad agencies are increasingly turning to crowdsourcing to generate content for their clients. The Mashable article’s glib description of, “hordes of talented people” who are “willing to work on the cheap and on the fly,” belies the experiences reported by many professionals. Requests for work on spec or free have skyrocketed (see our articles on “Spec Work Documented on Social Media” and “Artist Dies of Exposure”), undervaluing the illustration, design and animation professions.

“There’s a double standard being applied to the professionals who create the content that drives the advertising industry.”

Crowdsourced content is being leveraged by a new breed of ad agency, such as Victor & Spoils. Victor & Spoils, which launched in 2009, prides itself on being an agency which collaborates with brand fans – or as their website describes them, “lunch ladies” – as well as seasoned advertising pros, pulling in fan feedback on brands at the outset of the creative process. The agency relies heavily on crowdsourcing. A 2009 article on Wired.CO.UK described how the agency used platforms such as crowdSPRING, 99designs, and GeniusRocket for projects ranging from brand strategy work to TV spots. (The agency even used crowdsourcing for its original logo and website design.)

Victor & Spoils also utilizes their network of professional creatives to generate content. In the Wired article, agency founder John Winsor described their process: 50-100 of their “creative department” are invited to contribute to a project, and from the submissions, 6-12 finalists are selected to compete for the final product. Only the finalists and winner are compensated. Of course, the participants give up any pretence of ownership of intellectual property; the agency’s terms stipulate that any contribution is work-for-hire. Winsor complains that only 10% of the creative output is any good, requiring “strong creative direction” from agency staffers.

The crowdsourcing model used by Victor & Spoils isn’t unique. Talenthouse (“the world’s largest creative department”), Tongal (“The World’s First Studio-on-Demand“), and GeniusRocket (“A creative video agency powered by a curated crowd”) all rely on content inexpensively provided via crowdsourced projects. The trend makes the acclaim of Zulu Alpha Kilo’s anti-spec video bittersweet. It’s inspiring to see the video which casts a spotlight on spec work receive so much recognition. However, if the example shown by Victor & Spoils reflects a growing trend, there’s a double standard being applied to the professionals who create the content that drives the advertising industry.

Below: a screenshot from Zulu Alpha Kilo’s video. This guy can’t believe he was asked to work for free.

Zulu Alpha Kilo no-to-spec video

October Drawing Challenges for Illustrators

Posted by Rebecca Blake on September 23, 2015

For illustrators, October means more than autumn leaves, Halloween, and the return of pumpkin-spice-everything. Two drawing challenges extended during the month inspire artists to up their technical skills, as well has have a great deal of fun. For the rest of us, the month means we get to scroll through feeds of often beautiful (and beautifully ghoulish) artwork.

Inktober logoInktober is the better-known challenge. It was initiated by illustrator Jake Parker as a way to motivate him to increase his inking skills. The challenge is simple: artists create ink-based work (pencil under-drawing is permitted), and post it to their social media accounts and blogs with the hashtag #inktober. Parker posts the best of the work on the Inktober Facebook, Tmblr, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest accounts. The challenge encourages artists to post a new work daily, but many are only able to commit to every other day, or weekly posts. As Parker wrote, “INKtober is about growing and improving and forming positive habits, so the more you’re consistent the better.”

Drawolleen is a similar challenge with a different focus. Artist Brian Soria was inspired by Thing A Week, an exercise by musician Jonathon Coulter in which he posted weekly compositions to “keep his creative juices flowing.” Soria retooled the exercise to challenge himself to draw a monster every day during the month of October. He extended the challenge to the illustration community, with a calendar of daily themes such as “Day of the Dummy,” “Vampire Venesday,” and “Urban Legends.” Artists can contribute work in any medium, and post their images with #Drawlloween or #Drawlloween2015. Last year, Soria launched #fontober, a similar challenge for creepy hand-drawn lettering. Sadly the challenge didn’t get traction, and hasn’t issued this year.

Drawlloween logo

Orphan Works in Canada: Attempting Accountability

Posted by Rebecca Blake on September 02, 2015

The alarms sounded this summer about orphan works legislation, while unfounded (no such legislation is under consideration at this time), underscored the emotional resonance of the issue. Congress has long wanted to address the issue of orphan works, creative works whose author and copyright status are unknown. For a number of years, there has been a tremendous push by varied professions and industries – academics, museums, publishers, documentary filmmakers, the entertainment industry, and others – to pass legislation which would permit the use of orphan works without the fear of copyright infringement lawsuits. Creators are justifiably concerned that any legislation would weaken their copyright protection, or would enable businesses to use orphan works as a way of avoiding the cost of commissioning or licensing works.

Canada, however, does have in place a system that permits the use of orphan works, while attempting to protect the interests of creators. The Copyright Board of Canada has published a brochure outlining their system. A businesses or individual who desires to use an orphan work must first conduct a diligent search for the copyright holder, by contacting collective societies, doing Internet searches, and contacting publishers, libraries, museums, and educational institutions and ministries. Once a reasonable search has been conducted, the petitioner must fill out an application in writing which includes both a detailed description of the search for the copyright owner, as well as the intended use of the work.

Once the application is reviewed, and if the Board is satisfied that a diligent search was conducted for the copyright holder, it can issue a license and set a royalty fee for the usage. The license terms set the authorized use, such as number of copies, distribution, and expiration date. The royalty fee is not retained by the Board, but is distributed to whichever copyright collective society would represent the copyright holder. The collective societies may use the royalties in any way they see fit to benefit their members. However, if the copyright holder surfaces within five years after the expiration of the license, he or she is reimbursed the fee by the collective society.

To assist authors in monitoring what orphan works licenses have been granted, the Board’s website lists chronologically the licenses which have been issued going back to 1990. The site also lists the applications that have been denied, and gives the reason why. The system is somewhat limited, in that the license issued by the Board is only valid in Canada. However, the system enables those wishing to use orphan works for legitimate purposes to do so, while reducing any financial incentive to bypass illustrators and passing on to creators due compensation.

Screenshot from Copyright Board of Canada

Wallpart: Online Print Shop “Stealing” Arists’ Work is Not What You Think

Posted by Rebecca Blake on July 30, 2015

We have to start with this warning: please do not visit Wallpart’s website (you’ll read why). Earlier this spring, illustrators were up in arms when it appeared that an online business, Wallpart, was appropriating their work and selling high resolution prints. Social media was inundated with reports of people finding their work on Wallpart’s website, articles were written on photography and illustration blogs and forums, and a petition – of questionable effectiveness – was started to shut down the website.

A closer investigation revealed the Wallpart is not what it appears to be. First, a search we conducted on Wallpart’s website pulled up on odd collection of poster “art.” In addition to illustrations and paintings, search terms pull up nonsensical images such as snapshots, web banners, and random web graphics. (The site’s Twitter account also shows a similarly random selection of web-based images.) Search results are inconsistent; illustrators searching for their own work have been stymied when repeated searches showed vastly different results. Secondly, the site’s Terms and Conditions claim (in broken English) that they “…don’t steal photos or images that other people have shared and pass them off as your own. We have no base of images and doesn’t host and store the image on servers… the site uses the data of the most known search engines.” [sic] And third, the site’s counter, claiming over 3,000 happy customers, is in fact a static image.

It now appears the Wallpart is actually an elaborate phfishing scheme, devised to trick visitors into entering in their personal data. Comic artist John Ponikvar summarized his findings on his blog, Peter & Company. The site features a prominent “Report Violation” link, which appears to collect the personal data from anyone filling out the form. As Ponikvar reported, the Report Violation form “…is actually the main purpose for the site’s existence – they completely anticipate artists being upset about their work supposedly being sold, so they developed a system to exploit those who complain.” Additionally, the site‘s source code is larded with malware and malicious code; one of our board members reported that her personal computer was hijacked by the website as she was looking into the site’s functionality.

The site’s search feature appears to use web scraping software, which funnels Google’s image search results into Wallpart’s storefront layout. That explains both the oddity and inconsistency of the search results. People seeking to report the site to Wallpart’s webhost have been confused on where to report the website. The site appears to frequently change webhosts, and utilizes CloudFlare software, which acts as a reverse proxy for websites, delivers content quickly and, ironically, protects sites from online threats such as spamming and DDOS.

Below: Wallpart's footer includes a prominent link to what appears to be a DMCA/copyright infringement reporting page (highlighted). The Report Violation form in fact collects personal data used in pfishing.

Wallpart screenshot

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