Last year, New Orleans-based artist Ally Burguieres painted a picture of a smiley little fox. It became one of the best-selling designs in her clothing shop, Cocoally. A few months later, Burguieres was surprised to find that pop star Taylor Swift had shared an image that looked exactly like the fox painting on her Instagram feed, alongside the handwritten lyrics “They are the hunters / we are the foxes and we run,” with someone else’s name signed to it.
“At first I was glad she’d posted my painting, until I realized it was a pirated copy, which a fan of both my work and Taylor Swift’s had made and posted as fan art on social media,” Burguieres tells Hyperallergic. Thus began a long saga in which Burguieres, who teaches Media Arts at Tulane University, learned how hard it can be for artists to get properly credited and compensated for their designs in the digital age.
“During and after this whole ordeal, Swift was going on about artists’ rights, how artists should get paid for their work, how art is valuable,” Burguieres says. Though she insists she has no bad blood with Swift, Burguieres was frustrated. “I kept reading these quotes and thinking, ‘I totally agree. Let’s work with each other.’”
After nearly a year of frustrating talks, Swift’s lawyers finally told Burguieres’s lawyers they would pay her a “four-figure licensing fee,” but only if she agreed to donate it to charity. “I’d be happy to donate to charity, but not because Taylor Swift’s team tells me to,” Burguieres says. Last week, Burguieres posted an open letter to Swift on Facebook explaining her frustration and her wish to receive credit for her fox design. It’s since been shared nearly 1,500 times (the full text of the letter is included below).
“I was seen as a threat from the beginning. The lawyers were saying, ‘why don’t you go after the person who pirated your design in the first place?’ But I wasn’t going after anyone. In reality, I didn’t think it needed to be that much of a problem,” Burgueires says. “It’s about artists supporting other artists. I know it’s a sharing culture now, and I have no problem with sharing artwork and having a collaborative culture as long as it’s credited. I know there’s no artist who works in a vacuum — all artists owe something to other artists. I think if someone comes forward and says, ‘this is my design, could you give me credit for it,’ it shouldn’t be that difficult to give credit.”
But the way images are shared on the internet can make their provenance unclear. There are blurry lines between “fan art” and professional art, or between a blatantly pirated design and a visually similar design. It’s often hazy what fair use in each of these cases entails. “I asked my lawyer, ‘Shouldn’t it be cut and dry? Shouldn’t we just be able to look at the law and see what it says about this?’” Burgueires says. “But social media complicates it. It’s new territory. People don’t know what the rules are.” Burgueires says she still wishes she could receive credit for her design, but is satisfied with how the situation has brought attention to issues of pirating. She’s decided to stop pursuing the case, and is not suing Swift, as some media outlets have incorrectly reported.
Because Taylor Swift is Taylor Swift, the case of the pirated fox painting turned high-profile; it’s already given Burgueires more than 15 minutes of internet fame, and may ultimately help her business (though perhaps not as much as it would have if she were receiving royalties of some kind). But most cases of this nature, such as one involving Nebraska-based design pirate/tchotchke retailer Cody Foster and Urban Outfitters, don’t attract the same level of attention in the media. In those cases, independent artists simply get shafted by lawyered-up corporations without the upside of being portrayed as underdog champions.
Burguieres’s letter to Swift reads in full:
Dear Taylor Swift:
I am a professional artist. With years of work and support from customers, friends, and family, I have built a business around my designs and am (hopefully) adding my own small form of beauty to the world. I now have three shops in New Orleans and gratefully rely on people who demonstrate that art they love is worth paying for. I may “only” have 1239 followers on Instagram, but I believe my work has value. I believe there are many others out there like me.
As a professional artist, I was astonished to see you use one of my most popular designs on all your official social media platforms as part of your promotions for 1989. While I wondered why no one had sought permission or offered compensation to do so, I recognized that such endorsement is a once-in-a-lifetime boost for an artist and can skyrocket an artist’s career. Friends congratulated me and customers expressed joy. But congratulations turned to confusion. The design was a copy, and with someone else’s name signed to it.
I was devastated, but I took solace in thinking that someone so outspoken about artists’ rights would willingly fix her mistake. Mistakes are easy to make; I thought if you only KNEW about the error, you would do what is in your power to make it right. I was wrong. My efforts to combat the pirated and unauthorized copy (and your use and distribution of it to millions of people) were noticed, as you removed the post after several days. But the copy had been shared and downloaded countless times, and it seemed neither you nor your team intended on correcting your mistake.
After months of effort, I received an offer from you and your team that mentions no credit to me as the artist of the design, but does include payment of a “four-figure” amount, with the stipulation that I must donate it all. Taylor, as a professional, would you agree to such terms from Apple, or Spotify? My work is my living—it is how I pay bills and support my family and employees. Many of your fans are professional artists, and support themselves and their families with earnings from their intellectual property. Would you really profit from and distribute a copy of their work to millions of people, and then tell them they don’t deserve professional recognition or compensation?
I don’t know what will come of this letter, but for the sake of my own business and on behalf of independent artists like myself, I had to speak up. I have no ill will toward you, and I appreciate the theoretical virtue of your stance as a defender of art and intellectual property. I simply hope to see your actions fall more in line with the values you claim to hold.