Twitter Users Are Brilliantly Taking Revenge on Bots That Steal Artwork

Battling the ‘I’d love to have this on a shirt!’ bots

If you’re new to the deep, dark underworld of bots who steal art on Twitter, let me quickly catch you up.

A while ago, someone (or many someones) noticed that when creators posted art on Twitter for their followers to enjoy, lots of people would reply to the tweet saying something like, “Hey, I’d love to have this on a shirt!”

And because humans are smart and many of them are also sneaky and unprincipled when it comes to stealing other people’s creative work, it wasn’t long before people started building Twitter bots that would find all of those “Hey, I’d love to have this on a shirt!” comments and slurp up the associated artwork so they could pirate it, without crediting the original creator, and then automatically create those shirts and sell them.

If you’re an artist or a supporter of artists, you can see how this is not only annoying, rude, and often illegal, but it’s also harmful to an artist’s livelihood, especially if those folks sell their own merchandise themselves.

Aaron Reynolds (@Effinbirds on Twitter) spends a solid chunk of his time issuing DCMA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) notices to places like Teespring Support, begging them to please stop bootlegging his work, but it’s an uphill battle. Outside of taking legal action or repeatedly asking their followers not to buy from those sites, there’s not that much else creators can do.

But the great thing about algorithms like these? They’re not that smart. They’re not that reactive. And they can easily be hijacked — not for evil, but for good.

How Twitter users are hacking bootleg bots

This is where Twitter user and artist @Hannahdouken comes in. On December 3, they made a simple request of Twitter: Retweet a piece of original artwork with a phrase like, “I want this on a shirt.” The art itself as a Trojan horse of sorts, bearing the words, “This site sells stolen artwork, do NOT buy from them!”

And it took off.

In less than 24 hours, people were reporting the shirt popping up on all sorts of places. Amazon, A&H Merch, Toucan Style and many more all sported the shirt as the bots were quickly overwhelmed by floods of folks retweeting the life out of the image. (Note: If you think this is hilarious but don’t want to contribute to the problem, you can support the idea—and the artist—by getting this shirt instead.)

This idea spread far and fast, with users doing their own versions of it as the bots cottoned on to what the original artist did and blocked them. Before long, there were too many people participating and the artwork was all over the place, acting as a red flag to conscientious shoppers. Who knows how long it will last, but for now, it’s one way to see which sites rely on bots to bootleg artwork off Twitter.

It’s 2019, and the trademark of this century so far seems to be that technology provides quick ways to take advantage of folks but lacks the tools to control them. This is true of harassment, theft, deepfakes, and more.

This latest instance just highlights how much of the onus is put on end users to police the platforms and provide what justice they can for themselves and others, and how little the platforms themselves are expected to do to ensure it’s still a safe place to be.

What you can learn from the bots

Bootlegging is not a new problem, but Twitter bots are a relatively new way to do it. This whole kerfuffle highlights a few key characteristics of these thieving bots — and lessons we can all learn as we continue to automate everything.

  1. Bots recognize patterns. This is what makes them so powerful — the creator of the bot can define what constitutes a trend and train the bot accordingly. One person recommended using different phrasing — for example, “Do you sell this as merchandise?” rather than “I need this as a T-shirt,” but if people started writing this instead, the bots would just add that to their list.
  2. Bots can’t recognize quality. This is what makes them weak. Bots are smart, but not smart enough to know that they were being mocked. The bot creator wasn’t quick enough to stop the trend, and all of these sites were rapidly outed as bootleggers. My favorite example of this is when someone tested it with a truly heinous picture of Donkey from Shrek, asking followers to ask for shirts of it. It got picked up.

3. Bots do more harm to people with fewer resources to defend against them. Can you imagine if these bootleggers did this to a massive company like Disney? They’d be hit by a truck of lawyers so fast their heads would spin. People like @Hannahdouken, though, have far fewer resources to fight them. All they could do was cleverly trick the bots, and even that didn’t stop the theft — it just highlighted it.

4. Bots can easily be hijacked. All it took was a concerted, collective effort from concerned Twitter users. I’ll admit I’m not a Twitter bot expert, but I can’t see a way for them to avoid this kind of thing in the future. Where bots are weak, humans are strong — we can’t mass-trawl Twitter to steal artwork, but we can be far more intelligent about analyzing the trends we do spot.

Twitter is simultaneously one of my favorite and least favorite websites. It’s full of trolls, bots, scammers, and people who use their following to actively threaten and harm others.

But it’s also a wonderful place, where artists and creators can share their work and support themselves. I’ve made friends on Twitter, I’ve profiled fascinating accounts on Twitter, and now I’ve seen how real people on Twitter use humor and wits to trick the bots who steal from them.

Biology MSc. Psychology nerd. She/her. Get my FREE 5-day Medium Starter Kit to make money writing about what you love:

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