The Print-on-Demand T&C Minefield
Over the years that I’ve been hawking my artistic pussy via a number of online Print-on-Demand sites, I’ve had the occasional run in with the legal teams running the sites. It’s all to easy to accidentally infringe one of their terms and conditions as they all have various rules and regulations as to what they will and will not allow; Adult themes, Copyright infringement, Offensive material, Objectionable content, Similarity to existing designs, etc. etc. It’s a veritable minefield and not made any easier by the fact that most of these things [including ones you’d think would be clean-cut, such as Copyright] are open to interpretation and, where the law is involved, vary from country to country.
So, I’ve had:
- Amazon [US] reject for "Obscenity" a design with a raised middle finger [Yes, the same Amazon where you can buy Bear Traps and Automatic Air Rifles online].
- Amazon [US] reject, on a sweatshirt, a design featuring a quote from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This time for unspecified "Copyright" reasons—yet accept the exact same design on a Tshirt.
- Spreadshirt [Germany] reject a design containing an unbadged drawing of the outline of a 1960s Mini car because they say any drawing of any mini [even one with no identifying branding] breaches BMW’s copyright on the current version of the Mini.
etc. etc. As I said; "minefield"
In these cases, you can have a bit of a discussion with the legal team of the site in question and try and justify your design and get them to change their mind or, as I do now after several fruitless discussions of this type, just "suck it up" and upload the design elsewhere.
And therein lies the other rub.
The Civilised Approach
Although all these sites have essentially the same policies, you may find that a design rejected by one site is accepted by others or, in the Amazon case I cited above, you can have a design both rejected and accepted at the same time by the same company!
In short the whole thing is a giant guessing game and even if [like myself] you’re not trying to create deliberately infringing designs, it’s almost impossible not to occasionally fall foul of someone’s T&Cs. And most of the Print-on-Demand sites seem to tacitly acknowledge this fact by restricting themselves to either rejecting the design at upload time, or telling you they’ve removed it afterwards, for violation of the T&C in question —sometimes with a warning that repeat violations may result in your account being closed.
The Dishonest, Thieving Approach
Which brings me onto Society6.
I’ve had an account on Society6 for a few years now. They seem to be one of the smaller POD outfits. I never got much traffic through them and judging by their reviews on TrustPilot it’s probably just as well, as a lot of folks say their products are badly printed on poor quality stock.
Anyway, on 25th September this year, I received the following email from Society6, telling me my account had been suspended for an unspecified reason. Note that line near the bottom stating that, when an account is suspended, Society6 will retain [ie. steal] any outstanding commission they owe you:
As I’d not even uploaded anything to Society6 recently, I was a bit gobsmacked by this email, which arrived out of the blue. So off I went to their website to try and find out what was going on. When I logged into my account, I was greeted with a screen telling me my account was suspended [again, no specific reason given] and I was unable to access any of my other designs. They had all been removed.
I emailed Society6 straight away asking "Why has my account been suspended?". A couple of days later, I received the following copy/paste reply:
Well, at least that narrowed it down to the reason WHY my account had been suspended, even if it didn’t shed any light on which design had fallen foul of their corporate wrath. So I wrote back again asking which design they had a problem with:
- I got the following response:
The Case For The Defence
So, let’s take a look at 'Exhibit A':
OK. I’m sure there is now a large queue of you shaking your fists and shouting at the screen, asking what did I expect. This is so obviously a copyright infringement, as it uses an image from a Hollywood film?
Well, before you start building the gallows, let me make the case for the defence.
I did wonder, before I came up with this design whether it would be OK to use it and, after reading a few online guides to copyright law for artists, I thought that it should be OK, for a couple of reasons:
Derivative Work —you’re allowed to produce a design derived from an existing piece of work, provided you make a certain amount of changes. In this case, I’d added text, removed background elements, vectorised parts of the image, cleaned and repaired the image to remove marks and blemishes and also adjusted brightness & contrast etc.
As you can see if you follow the link above, the law [as always] is very complex as regards what constitutes a Derivative Work so, short of receiving a legal judgement, the best an artist can do is make an educated guess.
Expiry of Copyright —another plate of legal spaghetti. Copyright expires a certain amount of time after the death of the original author of a piece. This is why sites like Project Gutenberg can legally offer downloads of thousands of pieces of classic literature. In the case of my design, Bride of Frankenstein, the original film to which this image relates [the design is actually based on a publicity photograph, not taken from the movie itself] was released in 1935, which makes it 83 years old.
Again, my understanding of the ins and outs of copyright law is doubtless flawed here but, at the time, I thought that this placed the movie beyond the expiry of its copyright.
OK. With the benefit of hindsight and acknowledging the complexity of copyright law and my limited understanding of the technicalities, I may have committed a copyright infringement with this design. But, if I did so, it was unintentional and I did try to check I was 'being legit' beforehand. A far cry from the countless deliberately infringing designs you see online for current films, TV shows & brands, such as 'Game of Thrones', etc.
But that’s by-the-bye. The legalistic ins-and-outs are of secondary concern here. The real scandal in this is in how Society6 handles such alleged infringements.
Rather than remove the offending design and warn you not to repeat the [alleged] infringement, as EVERY OTHER Print-on-Demand site does, Society6 alone, without any prior contact with you whatsoever; locks your account, removes ALL your other designs from sale and STEALS all the commission you have built up from previous sales of ALL your designs.
An Exercise in Futility: Correspondence with Society6 Support
I contacted Society6 again stating my main reason for thinking this design was not copyright infringing:
In view of their "Shoot first. Ask questions later" approach to account management and rather than risk similar happening again, I also asked them to close my account and confirm when they would pay me my outstanding commission. I waited and waited for a response but my request obviously didn’t merit a reply from Society6. So on 6th October, I gave them a prod:
Two days later, I received the following. Another copy/paste reply of their T&Cs:
If you look at the penultimate paragraph in that screed, you’ll notice that, not content with stealing the money they currently owed me, Society6 had the effrontery to say that they had decided "for the time being" not to try and recover all previously paid commission.
I’ll just pause for a moment here to give you time to pick your jaws back up off the floor, while we reflect on the fact that Society6’s policies state that if a single ONE of your designs falls foul of their T&Cs, you not only lose the commission for ALL your other designs as well but they also claim the right to retrieve all the commission they’ve EVER paid you in the past.
Back to the support desk again, for wee me:
We’ve now reached the point where Society6 have barricaded themselves in behind their T&Cs [which they seem to think are actually the law] and just keep quoting them back to me:
I made another valiant attempt to remind them that their T&Cs do not have any legal standing outside of their company and once again asked them to undertake to either pay me the commissions that they owed me from previous sales of my designs, or to have the items in question destroyed:
As expected, Society6 refused to budge. I got a final categorical statement that they will not be paying the commission they owe me:
So, rather than waste any more time debating this with them, I bid them a fond two-fingered "You ain’t heard the last of this!" salute and retired to the pavilion:
And that, dear readers, is where things stand at the moment. I have made it —if not my life’s work, then at least an ongoing past-time—to expose Society6’s shady practices to as many people and on as many online venues as I can.
The irony is that, as I mentioned up at the top, I hardly got any business through Society6 anyway and the outstanding commission they owed me was less than US$10.
They could have just paid up, closed my account and we’d have gone our separate ways with nary a cruel word spoken. But, instead, they decided to play the money-grubbing cunts and rip me off, so that now it’s become a matter of principle with me and, being Irish, I do Thranness to Olympic standard.
This is only the beginning!
Before uploading any of your designs to Society6 be aware that:
- Entirely at Society6’s discretion, they will lock your account and remove ALL of your designs if they decide ONE single design violates their T&C.
- Society6 will STEAL all your outstanding commission on ALL your designs, if they decide ONE of your designs violates their T&C.
- Society6 claim they have the right to pursue you for the return of ALL commission paid to you EVER in the past, if they decide ONE of your current designs violates their T&C.
- In legal terms [ie. with regard to copyright], Society6 place themselves above the law. Without recourse to courts or legal discussion, they have the sole decision as to whether or not a copyright has been infringed.
- Given that Society6 will not pay commission on a design they deem violates copyright NOR will they ask for the return of items sold featuring that design, this means Society6’s T&C allow them to profit from [alleged] copyright infringement at the same time as punishing the creator/s of the [allegedly] infringing design.
If you know of any artists who sell on Society6, please share this post with them, so that they are made aware of this company’s shady underhand policies. And I strongly advise any artists reading this to think very carefully about continuing to use Society6 to sell your designs. There are many other Print-on-Demand companies out there offering higher commission rates, better print quality and treating their artists fairly. You really don’t need to continue dealing with the likes of Society6.