“Antwon Rose, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Trayvon Martin.” A total of 16 names from top to bottom, spelling out the acrostic in bold letters on bright white boxes; the front design of the shirt, a simplistic but impactful illustration of a black-and-white fist inside a circle, front and center on the wearer's chest.
Omololu’s contribution to the Black Lives Matter movement, he discovered, would be his creativity. But this design wouldn't remain solely his for long. It was eventually copied and replicated by a company without Omololu's permission.
When he launched his T-shirts, Omololu posted on Facebook that he had been looking for a way "to support the fight against the social injustices we've been witnessing (and living) for awhile," and now, he had a way to raise money for both his own Black-owned business and worthy Black organizations.
“This is, like, bigger than me if that makes sense,” says Omololu. “I was trying to figure out a way to help out, and I didn't want to make money off of this cause and just go to my pocket, I wanted to do something with it.”
He first created his design in Adobe Illustrator and shared it with some close friends, who quickly threw support behind him, including Mount Washington photographer Sarah Bader, who immediately volunteered to do a photoshoot for him so he could have professional photographs to use for marketing when putting the shirts up for sale.
“I just really wanted to help him out,” says Bader, who took photos of Omololu and model Amina Jones wearing the shirts. “He was so excited about it and one of the first things I said was that, 'I’d love to take the T-shirts and be able to volunteer my time so that you can have awesome photos and be able to sell the product.'”
On the sponsored post was Bader's photograph, with Omololu and Jones posed side-by-side in their T-shirts. In the photo, Omololu posed from behind, showing the back of the shirt displaying the names of Black people killed in police custody, with letters used to spell out an acrostic. But the back of the T-shirt was Photoshopped with a new design: the names now changed slightly from Omololu's original list — Antwon Rose was not listed, for one, and some names were misspelled — and the "Black Lives Matter" acrostic had been changed to "We Can't Breathe." The simplistic black-and-white fist design on the front of the original shirt Jones was modeling, now Photoshopped with a new redesigned much larger fist.
"I thought it was kind of, you know, low of them to steal an idea at a time like this," Omololu says softly, "especially when, like, the whole point of me creating this idea to begin with was to help out."
Omololu, Bader, and Jones weren't sure what to do at first. So they commented online that the image was stolen on the post in hopes that it would be taken down. But both Omololu and Bader say the page deleted all of their posts, and that they were soon blocked from the page.
It didn't stop with just one page, either. The photograph and copycat design also started showing up for sale on additional Facebook pages, sponsored Facebook posts, and websites, including but not limited to Naptural Loves, Peace Love America, and Black Girls Are Beautiful.
If you visit the websites listed on the "About Me" sections of these Facebook pages, they all have the same mailing address listed as a location in Indianapolis, which is also the same address listed for TeeChip, a print-on-demand platform launched by L.A. T-Shirt company OoShirts, Inc. in November 2019.
It's one of those sites that allows anyone to set up a personal store where they can upload an original design onto a T-shirt (and a large number of other merchandise like bags and mugs) which they can then immediately post for sale. TeeChip handles the printing and shipping, and the customer makes a small percentage of profits from each sale.
It’s similar to CafePress, which became popular back in the 2000s, but on a much larger scale with the addition of more easily available, and more affordable, advertising opportunities for small business owners on online sites like Facebook. (Small businesses accounted for $70.7 billion in sales for Facebook last year, according to marketwatch.com.)
When Pittsburgh City Paper contacted TeeChip for comment, after sending screenshots of sponsored Facebook advertisements and an active link to one of Omololu’s apparently ripped-off T-shirt designs advertised for sale on napturalbrand.com, the company sent the following form letter response:
“Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention. As requested, we have disabled access to the content.
TeeChip is a user-generated content service. The products available on TeeChip are designed, promoted, and offered for sale by users of our site, not by TeeChip itself. TeeChip respects the rights of IP owners and requires that its users do the same.
TeeChip utilizes a combination of multiple measures to prevent intellectual property infringement, including requiring all users to certify that each item they upload to TeeChip is non-infringing; expeditiously removing infringing content we are notified about, and terminating the accounts of repeat infringers.
Occasionally, infringing content may appear on TeeChip despite our efforts to prevent it. In these instances, we rely on consumers and rights holders like you to report suspicious activity. A copy of our intellectual property policy is available online at https://teechip.com/ip.“
The "intellectual property policy" TeeChip references at the end of its response above links to its DMCA, aka digital copyright law, section which is placed on the bottom of its homepage right above its "Contact Us" link. (It's much harder, however, to find information on how to report a copyright violation, if any at all, on one of its sellers' sites like napturalstore.com.)
And copyright violations are growing. According to a March 2020 article in Wired, the rapid growth of print-on-demand companies like TeeChip, Redbubble, and Zazzle has “brought a wave of lawsuits by copyrights holders ranging from independent graphic artists to multinational brands."
OoShirts, Inc. and TeeChip are also currently facing a lawsuit filed this April on behalf of comedian Jeff Dunham. According to MyNewsLA, cartoon images of Dunham’s well-known ventriloquist characters are being sold on merchandise on the OoShirts, Inc. and TeeChip websites.
And just as Omololu’s situation was amplified because of how personal the Black Lives Matter movement means to him, Dunham is facing an ethical battle as well. His characters are being sold on COVID-19 face masks, which he claims have “led to fans questioning why he is trying to make money off a pandemic” and “is causing great harm to his reputation and his brand,” according to TMZ. (It's worth noting that Dunham's brand and ventriloquist puppets have been accused of being built off of racist stereotypes.)
The lawsuit is seeking $10 million in damages. (City Paper reached out to Dunham for comment, but was told the comedian was not available.)
“Unfortunately, artists have their work infringed upon all the time, and in the age of internet and Instagram, photographers can be especially vulnerable to exploitation and theft of their work because it is so easy to copy, manipulate, and distribute someone else’s images,” says Blair Preiser, a litigation attorney with The Lynch Law Group in Cranberry Township, just north of Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh artist and designer Amy Garbark, who sells designs on merchandise from her brand garbella at local stores and festivals, as well as on her online store, says she has been the victim of copyright infringement multiple times over the years, sometimes “a copy of my design with small tweaks” and several times “an exact copy.” She said she tries at first to reach out via email if it’s a small business or an individual designer, and that she’s usually able to resolve the issue. If not, her next step is sending a cease-and-desist letter.
Preiser also recommends reaching out to the offending party as a first step, and if it’s a company, trying to find the legal contact so the letter “goes to the people who can actually do something about the problem.” She adds that if one can afford it, “having a cease-and-desist letter come from an attorney on attorney letterhead is often the best way, short of filing a lawsuit, to get an infringer’s attention.”
“I used to stress about this kind of thing and get really frustrated,” Garbark says about finding copycat designs of her artwork. “Over time, though, I assess the situation and if the other person/business does not want to cooperate, and they're running a small-time operation with very few sales, then I just try to move on. However, when a large business or corporation does this, it's a lot harder to ignore.”
In one instance, Garbark says one of her designs “with a very, very slight variation” ended up being sold at a major retailer in dozens of stores, with "thousands more units slated for production" by the time she found out about it.
“Many customers and several retailers/shops that carry my designs had reached out to me with confusion about the design and/or congratulating me for getting my design into a huge national retail chain,” she says.
Garbark says she had registered copyrights for the designs in question, and she was willing to work with an intellectual property lawyer, even though it was very expensive because of the “actual and potential” damage to her business. “However, at a certain point in the process,” she said, “I was out-lawyered, out-moneyed, and out-numbered.”
Preiser acknowledges that litigation is “expensive and infringers often know that artists are either unlikely to have registered their works in advance, or unlikely to have the funds to fight the unauthorized use, or both.”
As of press time, at least one TeeChip seller, Naptural Store, is still selling Omololu's knockoff acrostic shirt featuring the names of Black men and women killed in police custody on its site for $24.95.
"It's so disheartening," says Bader, "especially when Moya is donating half of the proceeds to charity and the other half is going to a Black man."
Omololu says he plans to continue selling his Black Lives Matter T-shirts, printed locally at North Side's Armory Print Works, as long as he's able for the foreseeable future.
“When it comes to copyright disputes, first and foremost, there is a big difference between owning a copyright and owning a registered copyright. An artist automatically owns the copyright in a work upon creation. However, an artist can only sue for copyright infringement if they have a copyright registration. Although a work can be registered at any time, even after infringement, there are significant advantages to registering works in advance of a problem like the potential to recover statutory damages and attorney’s fees.
Photographers, specifically, are able to register their works in bulk. Up to 750 published photographs or 750 unpublished photographs can be registered with the Copyright Office for a single registration fee, and their website at www.copyright.gov gives a lot of good step-by-step information on exactly how to do that.
Photographers also should not be putting their work out into the world without some sort of notice that they intend to enforce their intellectual property rights, whether a copyright is registered or not. Many people think they need to have a registered copyright to use the copyright symbol ©, but this is not the case. An artist should always include a © and their name to alert potential infringers of the artist’s rights. This can be done via watermark, through a photo’s EXIF data, or otherwise. This won’t stop someone intent on stealing a work, but may act as a deterrent to unknowing infringers, and for registered works, can come in handy in proving intentional infringement.
If the artist’s goal is simply to remove copyrighted images from an infringing website, there are companies that specialize in Internet Takedown services. However, this may not be an artist’s ideal solution because those images may simply appear on another advertisement on another site, forcing the artist to begin the process again.
It is important to remember that every case is different. Even if an artist does not plan to file a lawsuit, it is a good idea to consult with an attorney regarding the artist’s best options. Many communities and bar associations have organizations or committees that will help match local artists with attorneys, and subject to certain income limitations, some organizations like Pittsburgh’s Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts may be able to help an artist find a lawyer to help pro bono.”