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The Steam Community has a problem with unethical Artwork Designers

JanniJan 19, 2018, 12:19:33 PM

You're sitting on the computer, just finishing your newest artwork. It looks okay, but you feel critical towards it; you think it could have turned out better. Regardless, you hit the publish button and wait for people to react to it. A couple of months go by and you forget about your artwork, before you accidentally stumble upon your artwork published on a social media site. It turns out, the publisher is using your artwork to promote his artwork design service, and has been doing so for months; or even years. You open up his portfolio and see multiple familiar images; your artworks, your friends artworks and hundreds of random artists artworks from the internet. What would you do? Or more specially, what can you do? 

Recently a thread on the r/Steam community caught my eye. It had an interesting story to tell; an artist claimed their artwork had been stolen from their portfolio, modified so Google wouldn't be able to find similar images and sold by a guy claiming to be an "artwork designer", without crediting them. Not only did I know instantly who the guy was; I knew he had a notorious reputation for doing that since 2016. People had been reporting him for using non-commercial stock footage in his animations, alongside the usage of stock photos and art from places like deviantart without permission, yet he had gotten away without a scratch.

I'm talking of course about the Steam Artwork Profiles community. It's a small subsection of people on Steam who actively try to make their profile look aesthetic and stand out of the crowd. I was involved with a few groups within this community, but unfortunately some of them had morally questionable, sometimes even criminal acts done towards those who disagreed or didn't want to obey them. It's one of the primary reasons why I refuse to associate with the groups within the community, despite being one of the first ones to get into the craze of Steam Artworks in 2014 with ASCII-art.

An example of what a Steam Artwork Profile looks like. 

In the beginning of 2016, I started becoming more active within the community and gained many new friends as well as acquaintances. I loved my time within the community. But as the community grew, I noticed a very concerning trend among the people calling themselves "artwork designers": some would without hesitation pick out random artworks from deviantart or Google, animate them and then sell them for money. One of them, let's call them Mr. Gnaws, was a particular eyesore. Mr. Gnaws always had anime-related avatars, and his artworks were very easy to find with a Google reverse search. He still claimed he had done all the artworks himself, and sold them for CS:GO keys. Gnaws always seemed hostile towards me; he was acting like he had the moral high ground, and I felt like there was a lot of tension. 

All the tension boiled over in late 2016, when Gnaws and I joined a competition in one of the artwork groups; he used multiple stock photos as his submissions, and only removed the watermark. I called him out on it with the help of two of my friends, and his story quickly shifted to defending himself before he deleted all his posts. Not only was it very unethical; it lead to him being reported by multiple people, yet the only ones to act were the groups within the Steam Community condemning him. No interference from Steam moderators or Valve staff.

Months go by, and I'm still keeping an eye on Gnaws. He still sells artworks freely; artworks he has taken from random artists on the internet, which he animates and sells for up to 25 CS:GO keys per piece. Artists, who have no idea their artwork is being used before contacting them. Gnaws is, purposefully, recoloring the images so Google wouldn't find them in reverse search, and even if Google did, the artworks would probably never have been visible for the artists themselves. His most recent artwork profile contains an image by the Korean artist Gpzang, who had no idea their artwork was being used when I reached out to them. Yet, Gnaws has the artwork on his profile, right under the name where he states to be an "graphics designer", and despite being reported Steam has not done anything. 

Left is Gnaws current artwork profile; you can see how many people have favorited and liked the image. Right is Gpzang's original version of the artwork. Nowhere does it state that the original artwork is from Gpzang.  

So let me dig into a possibility here: There are hundreds of artworks in Gnaws' portfolio and he's easily doing thousands of euros by doing this as his hobby. And because CS:GO keys are not direct money, it will go unreported and he will never have to pay any taxes or fees on it either.

A peek into the portfolio of Gnaws; First image is a stock photo, third image is the official image of Blizzards Lich King and the fifth is a fanart from League of Legends character "Jinx" by a deviantart user. 

And this is what scares me. Despite numerous reports, he is still using artworks from artists that had no idea about his questionable ethics, yet alone the existence of this problem - which could blow up to a serious legal issue. 

We know about scammers and gambling sites, and the dangers they bring. Most of them get banned with sufficient proof, but what about fraudulent artists? As of this writing moment, Gnaws has been banned and unbanned twice; and currently is unbanned. But I can't stop to wonder, what if: what if there's a customer of Gnaws who got the artwork, but the original artist found the customers profile and issued a DMCA, not knowing that Gnaws was the one who animated it and sold it to him for 25 CS:GO keys. The customer would have a pretty bad time; his account would probably get flagged, he would get a record of wrongdoing and he would lose money. Because Steam doesn't save your chat history, you would have no proof that you ever ordered the artwork, unless you save the logs manually. This could be a very big issue, in case you would have to go to court. 

Then there's this issue of what classifies as "your artwork". As an artist, I feel there's a clear line between "I animated this; therefore it's my artwork" and "I drew this image; therefore it's my artwork", but is the line as clear for everyone? Gnaws has vividly defended himself that he's an animator, and an artist; that he takes lifeless artworks and brings them to life, therefore he's the artist and own all copyright. The Steam Rules only state that your artworks need to be of your "own creation", which is very broad and can be challenged. Can you say with a straight face that you created the artwork, after you cropped it from a deviantart user and animated it?

Gnaws' short ban was the first of it's kind. People had previously been banned in the Steam community for other reasons, so the banning of Gnaws raises some questions. Did he get banned because he used or sold non-commercial stock footage in his animations, such as the "3D Deform - Twist" effect from Videocopilot? Did he get banned for using or selling artworks without the artists permission? Was the ban because he used a Steam background which he didn't own?

Stock footage from Videocopilot, sold under the name "drugs". 

The last question is very important: if it's against the rules to use a Steam background as your artwork, how many people will get affected by this? Will the Steam artwork community become something that's against the rules?

And lastly; will Valve crack down on these unethical, if not illegal artists? Mr. Gnaws is just one symptom of a bigger issue: in every artwork group on the Steam Community, there's at least one blacklist filled with "artists" who have scammed other people. Artists who promise artworks but never deliver, artists who dismiss their customers requests or downright scams them. The artwork market is not regulated and definitely not monitored at all, making it a terrifying breeding ground for unethical and sometimes illegal practices.

Pushback: many groups have their own blacklist for unethical designers and customers because of the lack of interference from Valve.

Part of me is astonished by the selfishness around the people involved. The other part of me is scared. So many people in the community knows what's going on, but nobody spoke up. The "co-conspirators" of Mr. Gnaws and the other unethical artists, as well as various members of the community knew what they were doing, but they all turned a blind eye and did nothing. Well, that is until Mr. Gnaws got called out on Reddit by an artist whose artwork he stole - opening a can of worms - when many members of the community, me included, reached out to them in a private mail giving them my condolences and offering help.

I know very well that I'm not innocent; I never called Mr. Gnaws out after the incident in late 2016. Partially because they have me blocked, but partially because I felt I didn't need the drama it would bring me since they became very well established, having thousands of fans because of their unethical behavior. I did however keep contacting artists whenever I could, letting them know their artwork was being used and asked if Gnaws had permission to use it. The majority of them didn't respond to me; but those who did, had no idea their artworks were being used. One artist tried to contact Mr. Gnaws about it, presumably, was unsuccessful since the artwork is still up.

Despite the artists being able to submit a DMCA claim themselves, I know not many will be able to do. And because many of these fraudulent Steam artists are making multiple artworks a day, I would never be able to keep up with the pace to report all the artworks to the original artists, nor do I think Steam could keep up with the massive amount of DMCA claims. 

So after contacting the Steam support and countless reports without any success, I think the unethical and unregulated part of Steam riddled with fraudulent "artwork designers" needs to come to an end - or at the very least, brought to attention. I hope this piece could shed light on the current ongoing issue on Steam, which is fast-tracking to become a very serious legal issue. Valve needs to step in and put down proper boundaries, so the artwork community wouldn't suffer from a few rotten apples. 

Note: I am not a lawyer. I've done a few commissions to people on Steam, but I am not a Steam Artwork Designer. All the names have been changed for privacy reasons.