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Who owns digital art? Illustrator accuses another artist of 'ripping off' her work: 'I really did not want to do this'

In a TikTok video uploaded on Aug. 19, illustrator Eva Malley claimed she had tried everything in her power to ask another artist to “stop ripping off my brand.” She said she had reached out privately, but “nothing has changed for almost 2 years.” So she decided to make the issue public.

Malley is based in the U.K. and started her small business in 2018. Her products range from stickers to reversible totes and zines, all featuring, she claims, her original designs.

The artist she’s accusing of copying her is Oana Popescu, a Romanian-based illustrator who also sells products with her artwork on them.

“I really did not want to do this because I want absolutely no interaction with her,” Malley wrote about Popescu. “She’s made me feel very unsafe and uncomfortable to be online and I’ve seen lies that she’s sent people about me.”

Malley’s plea was initially shared on her Instagram account, where she included side-by-side screenshots of some of her work and Popescu’s.

Left to right: The first and third columns are examples of Malley’s work, second and fourth columns are Popescu’s art. Credit: <a href="https://www.instagram.com/evamalleyart/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:@evamalleyart;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">@evamalleyart</a> / <a href="https://www.intheknow.com/tag/instagram/?utm_source=internallinks&utm_medium=internallinks&utm_campaign=internallinksinstagram" data-ylk="slk:Instagram;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Instagram</a>

Malley also showed how, at one point, the two had very similar bios — down to the specific emojis used and the order they’re in.

Credit: <a href="https://www.tiktok.com/@evamalleyart/video/7268935651951693088" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:evamalleyart;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">evamalleyart</a> / TikTok.
Credit: evamalleyart / TikTok.

“At the end of the day, I need to protect my business,” Malley continued. “I work too hard to allow someone to do this to my brand. I also genuinely haven’t felt safe online knowing that this has been going on for so long.”

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Part of Malley’s allegations against Popescu is that she believes Popescu is copying more than just her art. Malley claimed, in addition to stealing her illustrations, Popescu was repeating things she’s said in interviews, “copying text” directly from her website and even posting the same Instagram Stories as her, even if they have nothing to do with art.

Malley’s posts got back to Popescu quickly — Malley tagged her on both Instagram and TikTok — and she responded in a series of Instagram Stories of her own. Popescu argued that the drawing style she calls “doodle-oriented comic inspired, cute, Polly Pocket vibes” was not invented by Malley and that Popescu was inspired by a number of artists online.

Credit: <a href="https://www.instagram.com/iunapine/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Oana Popescu;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Oana Popescu</a> / Instagram.
Credit: Oana Popescu / Instagram.

“I think it is so messed up how this artist made her entire case and narrative about me being a stalker and abuser, when in reality I never once behaved in the way that she’s describing me,” Popescu wrote. “In every conversation we had I told her that I don’t want her to feel beteayed [sic] by what I do, I explained myself over and over again and showed her proof that my work is not a straight up copy of hers.”

Popescu also pointed out that Malley has an unfair advantage in the debate since she has a larger audience.

Credit: <a href="https://www.instagram.com/iunapine/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Oana Popescu;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Oana Popescu</a> / Instagram.
Credit: Oana Popescu / Instagram.

“There is a difference between working in a similar style and actually stealing someone’s work,” Popescu continued. “Being highly inspired by other artists, themes and aesthetics is something I’ve always been transparent about.”

Based on her Instagram history, Popescu has been drawing in this style since 2022 — “love your new style!” one comment reads — and Malley started experimenting with the illustration style in 2018.

A person’s original work — whether it’s written, drawn or recorded in some other way — is protected by copyright. This does not include basic elements like commonly used shapes or tropes, and arguably there can be cases of like-minded thinking.

But directly copying “a substantial amount” of someone else’s work qualifies as infringement, Laura Heymann, a professor at William & Mary Law School, told the New York Times.

Emily Poler, an experienced litigator in the intellectual property space, told In The Know by Yahoo that legally Malley could have a leg to stand on if she had formally copyrighted her work. Some of her pieces, however, with phrases like “Better Together” are harder to argue as being entirely hers. (Popescu also has some illustrations with the phrase “Better Together.”)

“From what I can see on TikTok, it looks like Popescu (the creator accused of copying) has made enough changes, even if subtle, to avoid liability,” Poler explained. “If she did want to proceed with a copyright claim, Eva Malley (or anyone else) should start by registering her works with the copyright and sending a formal cease and desist letter.”

Another option would be to take the claim to the Copyright Claims Board — a tribunal that works with smaller copyright claims — which could take a closer look at the terms and conditions of the platforms on which Malley was sharing her work to see if there was a way for her to get the content taken down.

“Legally speaking, there aren’t really many other options,” Poler concluded.

Debates over “heavy referencing” and whether someone can “own” a drawing style are common within the digital illustrator community, but certainly aren’t limited to it. Earlier in August, one DIY creator accused another of stealing her maximalist interior decorating ideas.

In The Know by Yahoo is now available on Apple News — follow us here!

The post Who owns digital art? Illustrators debate line between copying and referencing. appeared first on In The Know.

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