UPDATE: Jon Engle’s Copyright Infringement Case

Posted: April 13th, 2009

Last week, I wrote a post on freelance graphic designer Jon Engle and an $18,000 bill he received for allegedly using copyrighted material from a stock art website. This case had caused an outrage around the blogosphere and Twitter in overwhelming support of Jon and a donation collection was even set up for his defense fund. Well, the other side has spoken. An excerpt of Stock Art founder Robert Askew’s open letter concerning this case:

Dear Respected Design Community,

I have been fighting for artists rights for over 11 years to the point where it has devastated both my business and the livelihoods of my artist alliance . I’m guessing we only license 1 image these days to every 50 which are stolen and profited from. I personally have uncovered over 500 for- profit companies whom have stolen over 8,000 images from my artists!!!! I can not expose this story to the point which will soon be shared, but please know one thing about this irony! I have fought this matter with my own personal investments to a point of bankruptcy. I love my artists and their right to earn money from their unique, artistic, intellectual property! If anyone is interested in the entire story of my experience, please contact me personally at accounts@stockart.com/.

I do want to personally thank you for your concern. I understand your concern! Stockart.com is proud to advocate and represent the copyrights and works of the many award-winning and talented artists who have provided their work to Stockart.com for rights managed licensing for over a decade.

In addition, The Logo Factor, a graphic design blog with no relation to either side, did a little investigating into the matter:

Seems Stock Art are ferocious in protecting their illustrators property and copyright (certainly something that I’d demand if Stock Art were representing me). [Jamie] Silverberg [a lawyer representing Stock Art] denied harassing Jon’s clients, but told me that they had contacted two in order to see if the client’s had legitimate licensing rights to their client’s work. I wondered how likely it would be that Stock Art’s established illustrators would risk their reputation, and Stock Art’s business, by copying some designer they found on the internet. To make matters worse, the issue revolved around the licensing for no less than 65 images to which it appears typography was added and the images uploaded to various portfolio sites like ElanceLogopond (while they didn’t expressly tell me so, the $18,000 bill is likely the result of licensing fees for the 65 images in dispute. Works out to about $275 a pop). I was also told that before contacting anyone, IPG perform extensive research into the background of any disputed images, including creation date, history and when it was added to the Stock Art site, pointing out that some of the images “in question” have been on the Stock Art website for almost a decade. Logopond, the supposed source for the designs (at least according to Jon’s blog), had only been online since June of 2006 at the very earliest. The worst point, from a designer’s point of view anyway, was the dispute involved the work of over twenty illustrators. With illustrations and icons that just happened to mirror their exact personal style. And if that wasn’t enough, Jon had previously been billed for other Stock Art licensed work, after it was discovered that it may have been used without permission. He paid that bill.

The Logo Factor also provides samples of the Stock Art designs in question and compares them to what was found in Jon’s portfolio in Elance (scroll to about halfway down the page). While the copyright dates on the Stock Art images show 2009, apparently some have been around for more than a decade. Meanwhile, Jon alledgedly claims:

It seems as if most or all of them were lifted from my LogoPond showcase. They especially seemed to favor the ones that made it to the gallery.

My theory is that someone copied my artwork, separated them from any typography and then posted them for sale on the stock site.

This seems somewhat questionable since Logopond has only been in existence since June 2006, the earliest possible date he could have uploaded his graphics. So now we have a he said, she said battle over who uploaded what first.

While, admittedly, I was initially angered by this “scheme by a single greedy website owner and a shady lawyer friend,” I can now only take the stance that this does, in fact, need to be decided in a court. The evidence does carry some weight against Jon, though it is still speculative. Couple this with the fact that it doesn’t look good that Jon has removed, his website, blog and Twitter account from existence and even the legal fund set up to help him has been cancelled.

I was actually able to catch the last of his Twitter feed before his account was removed. While this is recalled from memory, he says something to the effect of, “The blood has been spilled, but in the end no one cares where it came from” and that he “has to keep quiet due to advice from his lawyer.” Regardless, his career as a graphic designer is over no matter what the verdict is and what public support still remains (which took a u-turn pretty fast).

If anything, now is a good time to learn a few major lessons from all of this:

1) Watch out where those stock graphics you use come from.

2) If you do “borrow” those graphics without acknowledging or paying the proper owner, you may be in line for the next $18,000 billing.

3) Look at both sides of the coin before making plans to burn down larger companies with “bulldog” lawyers.

More on the author, Johnny Spence
Johnny is the founder of The Freelance Rant and a freelance web programmer with 8 years in the business. Have a visit at his company Oscarrr!web or see what he's up to on Twitter.

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