Early in my career, I had two experiences with suing people who stole my work. Neither instance turned out well.
I approached a local kitchen supply store about improving the ads they were running in magazines and newspapers. The owner sounded interested and wanted to see some ideas, which I naively agreed to work up without a contract. I sketched out a few ideas — literally just ink sketches on paper. He asked if he could keep them overnight and show them to his staff, which I also naively agreed to.
He never contacted me about them after that. Each time I tried to contact him, he was conveniently unavailable.
A couple of months later, I began seeing those preliminary sketches showing up in newspapers and magazines. He literally just used the rough sketches as his ads.
I immediately contacted an attorney who said it was a slam-dunk case and to just file a simple small claims court lawsuit, which I did. On the court date, I showed up, but my attorney said it wasn’t necessary for him to be there. The thief showed up with his attorney and argued to the judge that I had just walked into the store and given the sketches to his client as a gift.
The judge said he was sorry my sketches were used without my permission, but he still ruled in their favor for some inexplicable reason that made little sense given that the judge agreed with me.
I learned my lesson about not having a contract, so a few months later I was doing work for another client who was starting up a business. Contracts were signed and I started the job — logos, signage, brochures, stationery, etc.
Three or four months went by with no payment, so once again I headed to small claims court — this time positive that I would win. A summons was served on this client to appear in court. He never showed up and the judge ruled in my favor, which I subsequently found out meant close to nothing.
He still didn’t pay me, so I headed back to court to get an order to obtain the money directly from his bank account. The judge issued the order, but the bank said he had closed his account and reopened it under a different name, so they refused to pay.
I headed back to court, and the judge issued another order. Long story short, I never did get paid. The guy was a professional con artist who had dozens of legal judgments against him and had been conning people out of money for years with nothing but unenforceable legal judgments against him. He finally declared bankruptcy, the court erased his legal debts and he started over in another series of con schemes.
Always get a signed contract, but also realize they’re still no guarantee of getting paid, so always get a deposit before doing any work. Then always get paid in full before turning over any work — even to the point of refusing to leave preliminary sketches or comps with the client.
The courts can’t be depended upon for help. The person with the most money who has hired the most expensive attorney usually wins.
The courts can deliver judgments, but those judgments are often worthless when rendered against professional con artists.
Thieves and con men always have the upper hand and almost always get away with it. There are just too many loopholes they’ve learned to exploit.
Do everything possible to avoid getting lawyers and the courts involved. The hassle, expense, anxiety and results just aren’t worth it most of the time. No matter what, you lose.
Ninety-five-plus percent of people are honest and good, but accept the fact that there are thieves and scum bags in the world looking for vulnerable victims. In today’s digital world, online thievery is commonplace and, from a practical standpoint, it happens and only so much can be done to protect oneself from it. As a side thing, I design typefaces/fonts. I’ve completely lost control of some of my earlier fonts, which I regularly see used, but for which I haven’t been paid. I no longer worry about it since there’s really nothing I can do about it other than send cease and desist orders to the slimy free font distribution websites who routinely ignore those orders.
You’re basically on your own and can’t depend on anyone else to come to your rescue — not the police, not the courts, not attorneys, not anyone. Trust your gut and immediately walk away from people who seem a little off, iffy or give off the wrong vibes (the signals are usually there). Check everyone’s background before agreeing to do work. Always get deposits from new or small clients. Do everything possible to make it difficult for opportunistic thieves to steal your work, but also realize that in today’s digital age, it’s going to happen and that getting too upset over it will not solve the problem — it’s just another unfortunate cost of doing business.