In January 2015 I created my very first illustration ever.
A client reached out to me to have a logo designed for her natural hair salon. She wanted a mascot style logo in the vein of the Bendel Girl illustrations. I told her that I was not the best at illustration, but I would give it my very best try. She agreed to take a chance on me, and for three weeks I worked and applied various methods of trial and error, went through several proofs and revision cycles until finally, we achieved something that she was happy with.
Due to some issues (I’d just had a major surgery and was working while recovering and preparing to return to my super senior semester of college), I never received full payment. And initially I was OK with that. After all it was my first illustration. I didn’t even think it was all that great. I chalked it up as a loss, put the fifty dollar deposit in my gas tank and prepared to resume classes, and didn’t think anything of it.
I didn’t even hear much from the client again after that. She reached out to me to ask me to remove her from my portfolio while she went through the trademarking process (I declined of course, knowing my rights). I was amazed that she thought enough of my work to protect it. It was the first time that had happened to me as a designer. She told me the staff had affectionately named her “Coco” and she made t-shirts and other merchandise featuring my design. It was so popular she decided to trademark it so she could have more control over her brand.
I don’t think either one of us realized the damage had already been done.
Fast forward to the spring of 2017.
I’d finally graduated from college and was job hunting, aiming to continue my career as a graphic designer. I’d started out as a design hobbyist and developed a passion for design and typography. That led me to enroll in college to obtain a degree so that I could be more hire-able. I wasn’t having much luck and was becoming discouraged. One day I took a break from filling out job applications to scroll through my social media. I clicked on a post in a natural hair group and when I went to respond, I was surprised to see my artwork staring back at me. That first illustration, now decked out in AKA colors, pearls and ivy leaves, was someone’s profile picture. I forgot all about whatever I was going to post and sent her a message, asking where did she find that image. She told me she’d copied it from a soror, because she thought it was cute. She had no idea where they got it from. I thanked her and went to the tool of choice for a task such as this: Google Image Search.
What I found was even more surprising.
Several hundred search results all showing my image altered in some way or another. Most commonly they altered the text on her t-shirt and changed it to some wording of their own. One site had decapitated her and used her head as part of their logo. Another designer had the nerve to showcase her as their “logo design of the month” in his design portfolio. That annoyed me the most — another DESIGNER took my work and claimed it as their own. That was a violation! They broke the design code of ethics.
Most of them however were versions of the AKA version I’d spotted on Facebook. And although I didn’t know it at the time, that was my first introduction to Casey Kelley. More on who that is later.
Finding this out simultaneously validated and infuriated me.
My initial response was awe. Again this was the VERY FIRST illustration I’d ever done. I thought it was nothing special at all. And I know that as artists (who are sensitive about our sh*t) we can be our own worst critics. But here were several hundred pieces of evidence that I had indeed, done a good thing.
After getting over the awe the next feeling was sadness, followed immediately by anger. As I mentioned I’d been looking for a job since graduation and money was tight if not scarce. I was even losing confidence in my abilities as a graphic designer. Each and every one of those unauthorized uses was virtually, money taken out of my pocket. For every one that was a commission lost, the opportunity to be paid for my work when I could have used the money the most.
The next thing I did was reach out to my client to ask her if she knew this was going on. And she did. She’d been dealing with it for the years prior to me finding out. The logo had been used as an app icon, sold on merchandise on print to order sites. She’d gotten many of them shut down and said it was overwhelming to manage, and from my own research I was inclined to agree. After talking to her, I went back to my browser and screenshot every instance, then went to each site and let fingers do the talking. I reached out to the offenders and explained the situation. Some were understanding and removed the offending images. I know some people are not aware of how trademark works and mistakenly believe that if it shows up in Google, it’s fair game.
Some didn’t go down so easy.
Mr. “Logo Design of the Month” blocked me when I commented on his Instagram post and also on Facebook when I did the same. I had to report his images to get them removed, and I tagged my friends in on to amplify the effect. Some were not even worth the trouble — Coco had made it all the way to Nigeria, and I was already aware how little trademark matters there. They have Beyonce on loaves of bread! If Beyonce couldn’t stop it, then I wasn’t even going to try. Another, on Etsy insisted that my image was nothing like hers and refused to remove it, so I had Etsy take care of that for me. Another insisted that she owned the image as she bought it off a rhinestone pattern site and she sent me receipts. I tried to explain to her that you can’t legally buy stolen property but I ended up reporting her images and blocking her cuz she wanted to argue.
I successfully got many of them taken down. And after that it became a practice to do a Google image search every so often to check for new offenses. As time went on there were less and less. I never found the origin if the AKA themed edit that inspired it all and was almost certain that I never would.
Fast forward to May of 2017. I came home from one place or another and as was my habit, opened my laptop to check Facebook. And what did I see? There at the top of my newsfeed was Coco, on a tote bag, advertised as being for sale by Blended Designs.
I did what had now become routine — screenshot and file away, then clicked on the ad to visit the page. I contacted the page via message and explained the situation, something I’d become well versed in over the last few months. I contacted my client again who told me she was tired of these notifications and was considering giving up the fight as it was to big and too costly to fight. I still asked for her help, since she held a federal trademark. We both contacted Casey Kelley, owner of Blended Designs and let her know we would appreciate it if she stopped selling the unauthorized reproductions. We each had our own conversations. When I spoke with her she told me she’d hired a student to design the artwork for her and assured her it was genuine and original. She showed me contracts and told me how she was so upset because this was her best selling item, and she would possibly have to lose all her inventory, which she had just ordered about 5,000 units in preparation for Essence Fest. I told her these things happen, and asked for the designer’s info. She said she would get it to me. I asked her if she’d send me a bag and she said she would. She also admitted to being the originator of the AKA version of Coco. My initial impression was that she was nice and well meaning, like many others. And I offered to design a custom piece for her (for pay of course) if it would help. She said she’d get back to me. My client offered to let her license the image for a fee and Casey told me she was appalled at her greed.
Well, she does have legal rights to the image so…
After that conversation I didn’t hear from Casey for a while. Then about a month later she popped up telling me something about sick children and being busy tending to them. She told me she couldn’t send me a bag because she felt that my client would sue her (she said she wouldn’t). She’d pulled the items from her inventory and pulled out of Essence Fest. And she said she had to allocate funds to pay me for a custom design, or something to that degree, and she’d be in touch.
That was the last I heard from her. My gut said don’t trust it so I followed her page. A few weeks later she had restocked with new items in a brand new collection. She’d been edited, but she was still Coco. I could tell just by looking at her — I spent a month working on her, a week just working on her hair alone. I knew every curve and path of my design and even with the minimal edits she was visibly MINE. I got mad. This woman had lied to me and was still selling my artwork.
I contacted my client again who informed me that she was no longer interested in fighting it, it was too expensive. She offered to split the cost with me but being unemployed I couldn’t afford to split anything. And was legally advised not to, as she had the most paperwork. So now I was in this alone, to protect my work and try to get restitution. Some people told me it wasn’t worth it to fight it, just let it go — but I couldn’t. She was like my child, born from my brain and my heart, via my passion for design. I had to protect her.
Almost a year has passed since then, and I have been spreading the word about Coco and my fight to reclaim what’s mine. My friends and family all know the story and many fight along with me whenever they can. Most of them have been blocked from Casey’s social media. And any new comers who comment and call her out get their comments deleted and they get blocked as well. Casey Kelley has expanded her product line to include HBCU inspired designs, Divine Nine Greek org inspired designs, and even named some after her friends and family. She released fanny packs recently. And karma is beginning to pay her a visit or two — on an Instagram post she has the audacity to complain that her bags are being bootlegged. Really? Complaining about copyright infringement and artist rights when you are BLATANTLY violating mine? GTFOH.
My mother and sister went to a family reunion last summer and spotted Coco on a bag at the airport and sent me a pic, I got angry. This week my sister sent me a text with a pic of a bag with her edited version of my design featured in the December/January edition of Essence Magazine. I saw it and burst into tears.
I’ve watched videos where she claims she started her business to empower little Black children, and put faces like theirs on merchandise they could identify with. She says she wants those little children to follow their dreams. But what about my dreams? Ever since I discovered design all I wanted to do was be a designer, and create things that made the world beautiful. I didn’t get into it for fame, but I surely didn’t get into it to be stolen from, lied to and taken advantage of either. What about my dreams of being paid for doing what I love most?
And what kind of example is she to these children she claims to want to empower? And how are you empowering Black people while stealing from one to make a profit? She’s been on The View, and Good Morning America, featured in Forbes Magazine. On The View she donated $20,000 to a charity. But she can’t give me a dime for essentially creating one of her best sellers.
ME, the artist who created the design her customers love and fawn over, is trying to get by as a freelancer, while she’s selling my artwork for $75 dollars a pop and laughing to the bank, with not so much as an acknowledgement.
Please do not support this woman’s business. She is stealing from a Black female artist and hurting the artist community.
She’s gotta stop it. This is so wrong.
If every person who bootlegged Coco had paid me for my work, I could support myself, pay my bills and be stress free enough to be able to continue to create art.
I haven’t created many more illustrations since, despite overwhelming demand. I can’t really justify spending hours on new illustrations when I have to work for other clients or do odd jobs to keep my bills paid. I have been unemployed since graduation in 2016, so my priority has been looking for work.
For fellow designers — please verify rights to images you find while researching. They don’t just appear magically in Google for your use. Be kind to your fellow artists and use licensed and/or credited images in your work. Imagine how you’d feel if your work was used without your permission, and honor your craft by being ethical.
For anyone else out there please know that there are people behind the cute images that you right click and save on the Internet. Artists work hard to make these things and deserve compensation so that they can continue to produce things for you to enjoy. Show your appreciation whenever possible, and support artists of all kinds financially when you can. We do this for love but we also need (and deserve) to be compensated for our expertise.
One of her slogans is “representation matters.” In this case the representation that matters is going to be legal representation. And I am hopeful that one day soon, me and Coco will have justice.
This content was originally published here.