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From Stolen Art to Legal Triumph: How Jonas Jödicke’s Galaxy Wolf Sparked a Copyright Crusade and a Home Purchase

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Berlin-based artist Jonas Jödicke spent only a couple of hours on a piece of art that would significantly impact his career, though he was unaware of its future importance at the time. Hesitant about sharing it online, Jödicke viewed the piece as an experiment. The digital painting depicted a wolf's head adorned with stars, featuring colors that mimicked the twilight hues of summer on one side and a soft pale blue on the other, reminiscent of imagery you might find on a fantasy enthusiast's apparel. "I was simply trying to add my personal touch to [the trend]," Jödicke stated.

Before Jödicke's creation, the concept of galaxy wolves wasn't new, yet during the mid-2010s, his piece titled Where Light and Dark Meet became iconic. It was so popular that you could see it on various items like hoodies, mugs, and even toilet seats. Jödicke recounts an instance when his sister's partner discovered the artwork adorning the wall above his bed in a hotel in Germany. He also mentions a friend who spotted one of his pieces displayed prominently in a hotel lobby in Vietnam, covering a significant portion of the wall.

Jödicke's cosmic wolf creation had become ubiquitous. The twist: Every bit of it had been plagiarized.

During the early 2010s, Jödicke harnessed the power of the internet to establish his presence in the art world. He reminisces about that period as a golden age for artists on social media, with platforms like DeviantArt and Instagram offering substantial opportunities for exposure and growth. His artwork captivated an audience that quickly expanded into the thousands, leading to widespread sharing of his creations online. When Jödicke shared his work, Where Light and Dark Meet, on DeviantArt in February 2016, it unexpectedly captured the fascination of many, sparking significant interest and engagement from the online community.

The picture rapidly circulated from one platform to another. It popped up on Tumblr for some, while Instagram was where others stumbled upon it; it spread across the web at a strikingly fast pace. However, it wasn't merely enthusiasts disseminating his creations. Upon looking up “galaxy wolf” on sites such as Amazon and Alibaba, Jödicke discovered his artwork being utilized by countless shops, across a plethora of products, leading to numerous transactions. For an extended period, he experienced a sense of vulnerability, feeling defenseless against individuals profiting from his creative work.

Many people who post their work on the internet can relate to this experience, which has gained additional complexity with the common concern among creators that AI tools are harvesting their content. Jödicke reflects on this, noting, “It's an occurrence that befalls you without your permission,” highlighting the involuntary nature of both situations.

Despite the collaborative vibe the internet often exudes, including the way it shares art, the reality is quite different. "A lot of individuals aren't aware or simply don't care that their usage of an artist's creations could be violating the artist's rights," notes Nick Eziefula, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property at Simkins, a legal firm in London. According to German copyright legislation, the moment a piece of art is created, like Jödicke's galaxy-themed wolf, it is automatically protected under copyright. Jödicke found himself in a position to issue takedown requests under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act against some retailers using US-based platforms like Amazon for selling his work. However, he soon found the task too daunting to manage.

Jödicke describes a disheartening cycle, stating, "For every single store I managed to have my work removed from, it seemed like ten more would suddenly appear." He shares a moment of near resignation, overwhelmed by the frustration of others exploiting his creations for their gain while he received no benefit.

The immense success of Where Light and Dark Meet only intensified this sentiment, leaving Jödicke uncertain about where to begin. “When unauthorized use becomes pervasive, it might not be practical to go after each violation,” Eziefula notes. “This is particularly true if the violations occur outside the artist's local legal area, or if the resulting harm is negligible.”

Frequently, the harm caused is considerable—not only does it redirect earnings away from creators, but it also weakens their brand identity, complicating their appeal to prospective customers. There's a common sense of ownership over digital art discovered online, leading to animosity towards artists asserting their rights. However, this very sense of entitlement was what led Jödicke to take a stand and push back.

In 2020, Jödicke experienced a bit of serendipity when Aaron Carter, a pop musician and sibling of the Backstreet Boys' Nick, utilized one of Jödicke's artworks, named Brotherhood, to advertise his fashion line on Twitter (now called X). The artwork, conveying a similar essence to Jödicke’s depiction of a cosmic wolf, features two lions clashing heads, one depicted in white and the other in black, with their manes intertwining into a heart shape. Jödicke, feeling aggrieved, publicly addressed Carter on Twitter. Calls for acknowledgment or the removal of the content are often ignored. However, in this instance, Jödicke managed to elicit a reaction.

"Carter responded to Jödicke's tweet by sharing it and commenting, 'you should have considered it flattering, dick someone who admires ME sent this to me,' as detailed in a court document from August 2020. 'Here we go again, the response is no, this picture is now public, and I'm utilizing it for promoting my apparel brand… looks like I'll be seeing you in small claims court for this nonsense.'"

For the first time, due to Carter's comeback, Jödicke found himself with choices. The public aspect of their interaction attracted intellectual property attorneys eager to take his case, and, after observing others profit from his creativity for years, Jödicke decided to confront Carter's challenge.

Following a year-long legal battle in the US District Court located in central California, Jödicke achieved a settlement amounting to a modest five-figure sum for the infringement of his copyright. This experience was eye-opening for him. "I had never truly experienced any form of justice," Jödicke shared. "This significantly inspired me to pursue further legal counsel and explore what actions I could take against the widespread theft of my artwork." (Carter passed away in 2022.)

This case was a unique violation involving a clearly recognizable violator. However, tackling the extensive distribution of his artwork across numerous merchandise items would prove to be significantly more difficult. His victory over Carter, nonetheless, made him noticeable to Edwin James IP, a company located in the UK. The company reached out to Jödicke, proposing to lend its expertise, particularly in halting the activities of counterfeiters in regions with less stringent copyright laws, such as China.

Edwin James succeeded on behalf of Jödicke by utilizing its network of international researchers. Sarah Vaughan-Jordan, the firm’s client relationship manager, explained that this team diligently searches the web for proof of counterfeiting activities. Once they gather sufficient evidence, they pass it on to attorneys operating across various global jurisdictions. These legal partners proceeded to block accounts, imposed restraining orders on sellers located in the US to ensure the removal of Jödicke’s artwork, and secured financial restitution for the piracy in legal proceedings.

Jödicke mentions that it appeared not all were conscious of their copyright infringement, or they pretended not to know. "A good number of the sellers we took legal action against would contact me through my social media, saying things such as, 'hey, you just filed a lawsuit against me, but I had no idea it was your artwork.'” When WIRED tried to get in touch with many of these sellers, it found that most had disappeared, and the handful that were still accessible didn't reply to WIRED's inquiries for a statement.

Vaughan-Jordan points out that despite the firm handling numerous claims from artists that are quite comparable in magnitude lately, the case involving Jonas represents the most significant instance of dealing with counterfeiters that Edwin James has successfully concluded so far.

One year into Jödicke's legal battle, Edwin James delivered the initial sum of reclaimed money to him. James is reluctant to disclose the total amount he has managed to retrieve. However, Jödicke mentions that the impact has been transformative. "Thanks to this, I was able to purchase a flat in Berlin and essentially eliminate any financial concerns I had for what lies ahead," he remarks.

Artist Jonas Jödicke discovered unauthorized reproductions of his creation, Where Light and Dark Meet, on a variety of items including hoodies, mugs, pencil cases, and even toilet seats.

Jödicke is nowhere near done. “Up until now, we've taken legal action against more than 4,000 stores. And they're still discovering additional ones, meaning it's far from over,” he states. At the same time, he's been vigilantly monitoring the efforts of artists to safeguard their creations against the unauthorized use by generative AI. Although he's holding off on initiating any lawsuits himself until the outcomes of current legal challenges against AI firms are determined, he notes striking similarities with the unauthorized reproduction of his galaxy wolf artwork.

"Bill Goodwin, a trademark lawyer at Ward Hadaway in the UK, highlights a concerning reality: the foundations of our intellectual property regulations date back more than a century. He believes that these laws have failed to evolve in tandem with the swift advancements in technology witnessed over the past twenty years. Furthermore, Goodwin points out that the rise of artificial intelligence will only exacerbate the problem."

In the United Kingdom, the necessity for a work to be created by a human to qualify for copyright protection is not as stringent as it is in the United States, where only creations by humans are eligible for copyright. (The European Union has comparable rules to the US.) However, this doesn't imply that artificial intelligence is completely free from regulatory oversight.

"According to Vaughan-Jordan, the current legislation comprehensively addresses copyright and violations of copyright. Therefore, if an individual violates someone else's copyright, whether through AI or any other means, the existing laws are equipped to handle it," he notes. "However, the intricacies and upcoming legal precedents will play a crucial role in shaping the future landscape."

In the near future, the outcome of prominent lawsuits, including those involving The New York Times against OpenAI and Microsoft, as well as the collective legal action against Midjourney and Stability AI, could set a legal benchmark for how courts address the issue of artificial intelligence systems being trained on pre-existing art.

Jingna Zhang, a photographer based in the US and the creator of the anti-AI application Cara, is a primary claimant in the lawsuit. She recently triumphed in a legal battle over copyright infringement when another artist replicated her artwork. Following this victory, her focus has now shifted towards artificial intelligence.

Zhang believes that individuals exhibit a combination of arrogance, unawareness, and aggressiveness towards artists, echoing the current climate surrounding general AI. He points out that the widespread availability of pirated and free content online has led some to overlook the fact that actual individuals are behind the creation of art. These artists and their professions are responsible for delivering the entertainment and artwork that enrich our daily lives, emphasizing that creating art constitutes legitimate employment.

By initiating these lawsuits against AI firms, individuals such as Zhang aim not only to achieve victories similar to those attained by Jödicke but also to push for legislative reforms that will more effectively and precisely regulate a domain that technology intellectual property law has not fully addressed yet.

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