Hello Dear Readers,
Stealing ideas and art-theft are terrible things for any creative. Unfortunately, they tend to happen to all good artists and more often than we would like to admit. We have seen it happen to people we know, but never in our wildest dreams, we would expect that some vile person would try to do this to us. Well, you must have guessed already: our number just came up.
This Saturday, we have been contacted by quite a few people who asked us if we were taking part in the Malta Street Art Festival. We said we weren’t . Rita was not even on the island as she was spending a weekend in Wales. I planned to sort out materials for upcoming blogs. So, none of us was even aware that Malta Street Art Festival was taking place!
But the fact that we were not in Valletta didn’t mean a thing. Because The Cat Shop apparently was. It also miraculously changed profile from artisan artworks to cupcakes and games.
I was appalled – it was more than obvious that somebody was using our name. But the rest of the news was even more shocking. Not only somebody took our name, they also claimed they were the original Cat Shop and we were the imposters! This apparently happened the previous day (Friday), so I had to put my work away, packed my cameras and headed to the capital to check what was happening.
To cut long story short, I found a stand of Neko Maid Café – young girls dressed in matching cosplay uniforms, playing games and handing out cupcakes. I spoke to some of them and learned that the entire project was organized by an Italian girl nicknamed “Luna”. She was doing similar outings in Italy and she just recently relocated to Malta. There was also a boy dressed in a tux with whom I spoke. From him, I learned that they not only been using the name “The Cat Shop”. They were telling everybody they were the original Cat Shop. I also seen people from Neko Maid to take photos with people wearing cat ears and there was a talk about a guest book where people could draw cats.
My heart sunk because what they were doing was not just taking our name, they took our entire strategy. No small wonder people were confused and were asking me if we were selling cup cakes.
You may find it a small issue, but truly, it is a huge deal. Let me tell you about The Cat Shop. It started five years ago (2010) at Earth Garden Festival in Ta Qali, Malta, where Rita was selling her paintings and I did an art installation. We sold few pieces (all of them showing fantastical cats done by Rita) and got a lot of attention. We have been coming back each year with a new idea. We have a unique set up with rattan boxes and a table, we have a guest book and we encourage people to draw in it, cats or whatever – to keep the creativity going. We wear cat ears and often allow people to take selfies with them for fun (even if they are not buying anything). This year, we wore identical outfits and told people that we planned to change into Victorian era clothing starting next year. We teamed with a great British photographer and acted his Cat Assistants. Each of those elements is unique to our stand. But this is not all. As The Cat Shop got bigger and more recognizable, we had to adjust ourselves. We got a VAT number, we have a VAT book in case somebody wants a receipt, we organize drawing workshops for kids. Each festival we speak to hundreds of people, we scan our guest books and put them on our blog. It is enormous work load for weeks before and after the festival.
I don’t know what Luna from Neko Maid Café is trying to achieve. But to think that somebody came to our stand at Earth Garden just to copy our entire marketing strategy for their own gain is chilling. You know – The Cat Shop was not set to earn a profit. It was set up to offer kids a place they could draw and be creative. We do sell – don’t get us wrong, but it is always just to cover our stand fee and maybe have a return on our materials. Five long years of trials and errors to build our “brand”, to be recognized in Malta and somebody just takes it all from you and calls you an imposter!
The entire affair made me really sad, and I wanted to let people know what was happening. I made a post on my Facebook protesting that Luna was stealing from us and misleading people. This is what I wrote.
I tagged The Neko Maid Café, letting them know their behaviour was unacceptable. This is a reply I got.
What I want to do now, is to take it bit by bit – to show you Dear Readers, to what extent art theft and idea –theft can go.
Luna begins that they are not using our name. But I was there on Saturday and heard them say they were The Cat Shop more often than they were mentioning their own name. That is one thing. Another is that coping our entire business strategy is just a top of a cat tail!
We want to quote something the creator of Neko Maid Cafe said in her statement. IN case you missed this bit:
“Our logo (…) I did it taking from internet, as everybody else in this world I think, a real photo of an headband with cat ears. If anyone will come to me and say that to take a picture from Google and using it to do something as logo or anything is a crime I will respond with that person”.
Now, See the logo of the Neko Maid Cafe. The chibi cat girl image is from anime series, which title I could not track as we speak. But I will. The cat bell comes from DiGi Charat series. The image of the hair band is somebody`s actual photo. Copy righted materials – all of it, found on Google. Luna obviously is not aware of copy rights and that she has to have a written permission from the creator of said artwork if she plans to use it. Unauthorized usage of somebody`s work is opening yourself to a criminal liability. Also argument that something was found on Google is irrelevant. Luna – please get it. If something is on the Internet, it doesn’t mean you can use it. Especially for your own financial gain. Most people do their own illustrations, works and if they have to use somebody`s materials, they at least give a link.
Next thing. Neko Maid Café is using original artworks and fan arts (also found on Google we suppose) to promote Luna`s Facebook page. This is again, unauthorized and can cause you legal issues. I don’t think that Kyoto Animation is aware that you use pictures from K-On series. On the side, this anime is about a band, not maids. The irony.
But hey, original or not original stuff – doesn’t really matter. You also did flyers using somebody`s fan arts. Did you get their permission to do so? Where are the links to artist`s page?
Luna is also hardly ashamed to use photos from existing businesses. Like this one from Butler`s Café which is a real life café in Japan. Why leave a link to the original page: http://www.butlers-cafe.jp when you can just steal a photo from them? So much easier.
And what about the cupcakes photo that you have been using? The ones here belong to Kate from NYC, who used to run a Tumblr Holy Cupcakes. Take a photo, crop it badly and nobody will notice?
I have a bad feeling about the design of the cupcakes you were selling. I`m gonna risk a saying that you probably found the designs on the Internet as well and pass them as your own. After all, you took so many things from so many people and don’t even realize this is utterly wrong. Where do the design come from? Aubergine Chef? Bake Happy? Cake Central? It would be nice to know!
Now the outfits. This is how Neko Maid Café describes what Maid Cafes are, on their own Facebook page:
The Victorian outfits! And this is where they got their own costumes – they are ready made French Maids (Sexy) costumes made in China. On EBay they sell for 9.90 USD.
I know what you will say – you don’t have money, you start up, your helpers are just teenagers who want to do something. That is fine, but – most of the artists put a lot of time and effort into what they do. The materials cost us. If we have to go low budget, we do it ourselves. Going for ready-made cosplay costumes may save you time but – it is a cheap practice. And somebody has to call you on it. Scrooge would be proud of you, but we are not impressed.
The guest book – you say it is a scrap book now. Sure now, but it will be a full blown guest book like ours next event. Sure it is ok to ask customers for a review or a note. But asking customers to draw cats in your guestbook is our idea. Come up with something different. Perhaps ask customers to draw maids. Or cupcakes. Or hamsters. They are also cute.
I want to make another point for the end of the post. In Japan, each café has their own games and strategy, they develop it themselves. If they use a game developed in another café, they give credits, exchange banners, give feedback. This is how Japanese society work – they are polite, professional and work in teams. I am not sure if you know how it works. Things you have been doing would completely alienate you from the entire network, had you been operating in Japan. No-one would be willing to work with you. What you are doing is in itself anti thesis of what Maid Cafes aspire to.
And this is not a flame. I am just mad that you had to do this to me. Or to my sister.
**** Update 27.07.2015****
Rita and I would like to thank everybody who visited the blog, commented and shared our story. Over 200 visits in less than 24 hours. Way over the average on the blog. We would like to give a mention to Oliko (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Oliko/412150938842783) our long time friend and fellow artist, for her help in our investigation. Without you people and your kindness, we`s surely lose a lot of faith in the humankind.
We have asked Luna to reply but so far she has been silent. We would like to hear from her – plain and simple – why she steals from other people, and so many at it.
In the mean time, please keep on sharing the story, art theft is so common, that every artist should check their back. Sad but true.
We are in August now. I like this time of year. In Malta it is heavily humid and dry, but in other parts of the globe the heat will ease and the best part of summer will begin – Indian Summer. No longer scorching temperatures but not yet quite Autumn. Perfect time to grab some good iced coffee from Starbucks and write. I am hoping to tackle the back load and have more updates on the blog. I realize I must sound like a middle-aged Seattleite now 😉
It` s been a week since we have discovered we had an evil doppelganger. Truly crazy week, so much support and our stats went as high as Space Needle! Both Rita and I are grateful. We spoke to other artists, who have experienced the same thing, our blog have been shared by professional journalists (thank you Tanja Cilia!) and even Malta Dizastru TOTALI !!!!!!! gave us a mention. I thought I will put an end to this story, but not without writing another entry. Because there are points that I feel need to be brought up before we will move on.
The fact that over a thousand people read our story in just about a week proves how rampant art theft is in online community. It would be a good starting point to debate what can we do about it and where the “sharing economy” will take us in the future. How can we – The Creative Ones – protect ourselves from vile people, who take from us.
I know I should not use word “vile”, but that is what you are if you build your brand by stealing. I believe everybody deserves a chance, but then again. I have spent working on something five long years and it has been taken from me and used by somebody to make a profit. How can anyone not feel bitter?
Luna of Neko Maid Café made one big mistake. She doesn’t know me and doesn’t realize that I have a great understanding of people like her. She is not the only one that is plaguing the fandom. I`ve seen the likes of her before. I worked in manga magazines for years and attended and co-organized over ten conventions and exhibitions. So what I will do now is to list some of the characteristics of the art thief. Exposing their tactics is the best way to deal with`em:
- Silence – once you expose an art thief, they will most likely use the strategy of not confronting you. They will pretend it never happened, business as usual. Still, call them out on their actions. Even if you are the only one to do it.
- Shame – art thieves rely heavily on the fact that artists are sometimes vulnerable, scared or confused. Or worse, artists are good people and will be scared that by exposing the thief, they may harm them. Internet backlash is very real. A story gone viral can turn real mobs on a person. I myself had doubts if I should expose Luna because I was afraid she may be mistreated by other Internet users. I was also shamed by the fact that my work was abused. This is normal. If you have such doubts, stick to the middle of the road. Expose the thief, but you don’t have to shout from the roof tops. Unless you want to. You are in control and you decide how much coverage you want to give to the issue. And don’t be too hard on yourself – being good is not a bad thing.
- Indifference – art theft happens because there is lack of control tools. Neko Maid Café appeared on Comic Con stand at the Malta Street Art Festival by just sending an email. Nobody from the organizers checked their website or looked into how Luna did her stuff. She was unknown. We have informed the organizers about the theft during the event and wrote them emails but they never got back to us. Thieves go where they are not known, where organizers take everybody as they come. The best way to protect yourself is to ally yourself with certain events on an annual basis. Like we do with Earth Garden. Build yourself a rotation of events, get to know the organizers and they will know you. So will the public.
- Bullying and abuse – the worst part of the art theft is that they often abuse and bully those who are associated with them. They will get involved with teens, as they are full of will to do something creative but naïve and inexperienced. Perfect combo for a parasite. Look out for the activities, where you have to buy your own costume, sell gadgets or presents and dedicate long hours to prepare events. Fans work like small collectives – whatever you put in belongs to all equally. You should be credited and rewarded in the same measure. If somebody takes credit for everything, if the money goes to the pocket of one person, if the funds that have been raised are not spent on another project – beware! People mistreated are burning out and they leave the fandom disillusioned. They lose the spark and will to do things creatively and work on their own art.
- Mind games – should be filed under abuse, but I want to make it a separate category. Often the art thief will play mind games with people that they are associated with. Have you ever been forced to do something questionable? Drink or eat something awful, declare love to a table or do something stupid in front of other people or camera? You are not playing games – you are being bullied and groomed. By the time art thief decides to kick you out, everybody else will be against you and you will be the bad one. Stand your ground.
- Be ahead – when we wrote about our experience, we got a great feedback from a friend and business owner, who also had been though the same experience. She told us not to advertise Luna, but to be ahead of her. And this is what we will be doing in the future. You see, being the creative one gives you an edge. You are the one who comes with the good stuff. You will be always two steps ahead of the trickster. Change your strategy, give new ideas a priority and take a risk. By the time the thief realizes that they have been outsmarted, you will be on two or three new projects.
I hope this post will help other artists or creative people to deal with the damaging experience of encountering an art thief. Be vocal about your experiences, believe in yourself and work on your networking. We may never stomp out the theft but being aware makes one a harder target.
That is all we wanted to say on the topic. I am going to put some Mad Season (what a great band they are!) on and head to sleep.
Rock on dear readers,