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Artists are provoking Nintendo and Disney to sue bots that steal artwork

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Why everyone is tweeting, ‘I want this on a shirt!’

close-up of Twitter icon on an iPhone Twin Design/Shutterstock.com

This week on Twitter, a handful of artists have been asking their followers to tweet replies to their designs, requesting a flood of comments specifically saying, “I want this on a shirt!”

Each of these threads has garnered hundreds of comments from seemingly enthusiastic fans clamoring for prints of new artwork. However, the artists aren’t eager to promote original designs. The idea of the meme is to test how bots use social media to swipe designs from artists to sell on companies’ own marketplaces, and to apply pressure to their businesses using outside forces.

These artists have discovered that if a piece of posted artwork gets a specific set of replies on Twitter such as “I want this on a shirt” — and if the shirt doesn’t exist on the artist’s own online shop — bots designed by aggregating retailers will download the image and upload it to their own online stores within minutes. Typically, the marketplace will grab text from the tweet to construct search engine-friendly links that eager fans might look for.

This has become a well-known fact among the art community on Twitter, and this new meme puts the theory to the test. In wading through this grassroots effort, I came across a simple test of the phenomenon — which, unsurprisingly, ended up being sold online as a shirt a few moments after the tweet in question went live.

With the theory confirmed that bots would post artwork from independent artists without their consent if certain key phrases were invoked on Twitter — regardless of how damning the content was — other artists decided to see how far they could take it. The next step was to see if they could bait the bots to infringe on the copyrights of some of the biggest companies in the world, like Disney and Nintendo.

Despite the unmistakable visage of Mickey Mouse and the accompanying text, this shirt also made it onto an online retailer’s shop. The choice to slap Walt Disney’s creation on a bot-shirt is especially cheeky when you consider Disney’s 90-plus-year battle to bend copyright law and protect its intellectual property. (The company will lose the copyright to Mickey in 2023 unless existing laws are changed.)

As the word spread about this phenomenon, the open-door marketplaces saw a deluge of copyright-infringing apparel hitting their stores.

It’s unclear how the stores will clamp down on the shitposting activity, but one thing is certain: Supply and demand is alive and well. We’ve seen it with artists filling the void with Baby Yoda plushies before official merchandise hit pre-order.

Getting your original artwork taken and sold without your knowledge is frustrating. But now these artists are fighting back against this system and using it against itself. Whether or not these larger brands will crack down on this issue is unknown at the moment, but for independent artists, taking down stolen artwork is an immense hassle.