Monday, May 12, 2014

As many of you know, I am somewhat known for creating this Horse Alphabet poster. This began as an art school assignment, to create an alphabet, and the first version was in pen and ink. After graduating, I reworked the alphabet in color, and had it printed into a poster. It was my first foray into entrepreneurship, and a sizeable investment in four-color printing. I soon had a stack of brown-paper wrapped 18 x 24 posters, one thousand of them, and I began selling them at the RISD Alumni sales, and other art show venues. A few shops ordered wholesale, a t-shirt company licensed them for shirts, and slowly, my investment began to pay for itself. I had to hire an accountant to learn how to file a Schedule C, report sales taxes, do inventory, and such. I found a supplier for poly bags, paper tubes, and then bigger tubes for wholesale orders. The posters were my bread and butter at art sales. I could always count on poster sales to at least break even on my booth fees. After some time, my pile of brown wrapped packages began to dwindle, and I ordered a second printing. I designed thank-you cards using my alphabet letters, and licensed my design to a lovely local company called Wild Horsefeathers, which has used the letters for tees and sweatshirts, totes and other things.
I have always been happy to honor requests to use the image for charitable functions, and it has appeared in online articles and blog posts, usually with a credit given to me or a link to my website. Sharing the image in this way is much appreciated. Once I got a flurry of online orders, and discovered the source was a link from New York Magazine online, as a Christmas gift idea.
I have been selling this poster for 25 years, and of course, it is out there on the internet in many places. I cannot control who reposts it, photographs it, shares it on Pinterest or Facebook, or any other social media sites. Anyone who owns the actual poster could scan it, photoshop the letters together, and do anything they want with it. It doesn't make it legal to do so. I don't even have to have a copyright notice on the online image for it to be protected, like the ugly text I have placed over the image above. I would prefer to share my images without a big copyright notice across them.
Recently, a friend alerted me to a use of my alphabet letters on facebook. The facebook page owner had found an image where someone used the letters to spell out Happy Mothers Day. It looked innocent enough, and I assumed the person who posted it simply found it somewhere on the internet and didn't know where it came from, and thought it was free to use. I thought about ignoring it. It wasn't even very well done. The scaling and the spacing was poorly executed.
But I posted what I thought was a relatively friendly comment that simply pointed out that the alphabet letters were my copyrighted material, and I added a link to my website, for proof. If I had been in the other person's shoes, I might have simply said, "Oh, I'm sorry, I should give credit to Alecia Underhill as the original creator of the alphabet." I would have gone away happy, and all would be right with the world. But the person chose to turn the blame on me, because obviously it's my fault for putting the image on the internet in the first place. My artist friends chimed in on my behalf, in an attempt to politely educate this person and her followers about intellectual property rights and copyright law.
Then my favorite comments were the ones that shouted at me (in all caps)that it is all over Google images and Pinterest. Using the search terms they indicated, I had a tough time finding it, until finally, I found a pinterest post that had the mother's day message, unlinked, uncredited, and untraceable. I did find several postings of the alphabet poster that linked back to me. It would not have been difficult to find me and simply ask if it could be used. Here's another illegal use that I found, where someone put text of different horse breeds on there, which don't really make any sense. The letters are all skewed and the text is all over the place. Not my work, I assure you.
The bottom line is that I post images of my work online because that is what I have to do as an artist to market my work. I love when images are shared, and even when someone doesn't ask permission, I don't ask to be paid for an online use of my web images, because the images are at a low resolution that wouldn't print very well, anyway. All I ask in return for their use is a credit, or maybe even a link back to my website. That's fair use, right?