Trouble in Whatever, USA: Design Crimes and Ice Cream

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Over a thousand people flocked to Crested Butte, CO last weekend for Anheuser-Busch’s “Whatever USA” advertising campaign. There was Prancercise, beer acadamy, drag racing, and a whole plaza for hot tubs. That Saturday, people flocked to the main street to discover Vanilla Ice himself pulling up in a Ice Cream Truck—passing out, as you can guess, vanilla ice cream.

It was cute, it was great, everyone had a blast. However, designer Ben Douglass called foul play on the beer giant, claiming the design on the Vanilla Ice Cream Truck was directly ripped off of a design he’d posted on Flickr back in 2010.

No problem @budlight@vanillaice feel free to steal my work. I'm sure times are tight for— bendouglass (@bennyd302) September 7, 2014“My friend saw (a photo of the truck) on Facebook and immediately recognized my work. So he posted it, tagged me, and asked, you know, 'Did Bud Light pay you for this?' Of course I was shocked, completely shocked, to see it there,” Douglass told Paste.

Douglass says that no one from Anheuser-Busch had contacted him about using his work and instead used it without consent. He reached out to fellow artists for help, and several recommended that he make it public, make it known that this was happening. He posted the side-by-side comparison of the images on Facebook and Twitter, and very quickly had hundreds of shares on each site.

Vanilla Ice, who'd tweeted the actual artwork a few weeks ago, responded directly to Douglass:

Now I see it. Looking good. Big pimpin, luv your artwork @bennyd302— Vanilla Ice (@vanillaice) September 7, 2014

Douglass says his artist friends encouraged him to get a lawyer, and fight for their profession. It's possible that Anheuser-Busch had no idea this was happening; it's likely that their creative agency is responsible, or that they thought the artwork came from Vanilla Ice's creative team.

Douglass sounded hopeful that this was a misunderstanding, but says he is still due compensation for his hard work. His lawyer is attempting to get in touch with Anheuser-Busch to figure out a solution. A spokesperson told 9NEWS in Colorado, “Anheuser-Busch and Bud Light respect the property and creativity of artists and we're looking into the situation.”

This is sadly not a new trend, but a longstanding and disappointing one. Imagine you've spent months creating art and post it online in the hopes of getting more freelance work, or selling the design on t-shirts, mugs, or prints. Seeing someone else completely rip off your hard-earned creative work is disheartening at best, enraging at worst. In 2008, Jess Fink discovered one of her designs on Threadless was being sold by Hot Topic. Fink later saw an artist named Todd Goldman had built a business off of ripping off Threadless designs, and put together a side-by-side comparison of six she'd found.

Clothing brand Forever 21 has been under scrutiny for designer knockoffs as far back as 2011. The most recent incident receiving media attention was the design below, originally by Sara and Shana Barrett from Bark Décor, a Boston-based clothing company. According to Jezebel, Forever 21 has been hit with at least 50 lawsuits so far.

forever21stole.jpg Image from Bark Décor's Facebook page

Back in April, Missouri designer Tad Carpenter discovered a Brazilian designer was reselling his artwork as their own:

My Dad saw the image on the right in a French bookstore in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The French like my work! Flattery! :'(— Tad Carpenter (@TadCarpenter) April 30, 2014So, what do you do when this happens?

I asked Ben Douglass what he’s learned so far in this ordeal. “As soon as you publish your work it’s copywritten,” he says, “But you also have to register a copyright for the work, which would help give you more of a solid case when it happens.” It’s definitely good practice for designers of all levels.

The process for registering a copyright of your work is affordable and less painless than a lawsuit. Douglass’ lawyer suggested every 3-6 months a designer should head over to the Copyright Registration Service and add everything they’ve worked on. You can add several projects at once.

Copyright infringement isn’t even new to Ben Douglass himself. He said that several years ago one of his Threadless designs was stolen. The matter was handled quickly, as Threadless has lawyers specifically to protect the rights of their designers and content.

Always read the fine print when submitting.

The Vanilla Ice Cream Truck design is being sold on a website called TeePublic. Similar to Threadless, designers submit their work and TeePublic manufactures and sells the shirts, giving the original designer some of the sales as profit. There are several other models like this, including TeeFury and ShirtWoot. The terms and conditions of these websites vary, but all four companies allow a designer to retain the rights to their designs. This is important—Threadless used to take ownership of the work and the ability and distribution of the work, but this changed earlier in 2014. If TeePublic had this clause, they could have sold Douglass’ design to Anheuser-Busch without any legal repercution. Douglass has been in touch with TeePublic repeatedly and they’ve assured them this didn’t happen.

I would’ve loved to have been a part of Bud Light and Vanilla Ice,” said Douglass. “It would’ve been a dream come true. But, it’s unfortunate that someone, somewhere, decided that they were just going to take my work and my idea.”

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