Large companies have an army of lawyers; small freelance’s best defense is obscurity. How do middle companies fight theft?

Can you spot the difference between these two sheep?


And now:


Text right below: “It’s necessary to credit the author.” The irony.

It’s the 21st century and people are still stealing sheep from each other. A hundred years ago you could take your father’s gun and demand your livestock back. What have we got now? The DMCA.

But that’s just one icon, right? Believe it or not, there were times when people did not steal from us at all. For 12 years, we were a small design company whose main defense from theft was our utter obscurity.

One day, we stumbled upon a guy whose life goal was to destroy as many watermarks as possible. He used a few of our icons as a finished “de-watermarked” result.


This is our very pathetic parody of his original ad.

We were very flattered, even though we had never used watermarks.


His original website is long gone. Almost certainly he’s still alive and well somewhere on Fiverr.

Having no experience in this field whatsoever, we did what most people would do. Nothing.

For years, we adhered to this behavior model, silently drawing our icons, believing that the world was full of good people and that bad people didn’t use Google.

Until one day when we ran into a certain website that curated the work of other designers. The website was using our icons with no license or credit.

We thought it was a mistake. The service was created to help other designers promote their work. We reached out via twitter and got an answer: “Hi, please contact our support email”.

We did. We sent a few friendly messages throughout the month.


Nothing. Designers, our own kind, ignored us. No license, no mention in credits, no reply. They just took it. That was the breaking point.

Disconcerted and angry, we had no idea what to do. We just wanted to make it right. Of course, there is no better way of making things right than by starting a war. And a war starts with…


First, we needed to know who was using our icons without a license or giving credit.
Googling our own icons and using “similar images” wasn’t much of a help so we uploaded 655 of our icons into a specific service.


8,770 websites were using these icons.

That’s good, we were expecting that. Our model allows people to use icons for free, just don’t forget to credit us. So many people use our icons. The question was, how many of them were stealing?

They say ignorance is bliss.

  • 900 cases of stealing
  • 3 icons stolen on average per case (that ranged from 1 to 50)
  • about 10% of websites used our icons illegally (the number was consistent for other packs we’ve uploaded)

We saw the problem. Now we needed a weapon.

Weapon of Choice

Our only weapon was email. We were sending three types, with different results.

Friendly: friendly tone, no mention of DMCA, no claims:

Hi! We’ve noticed you were using our icons on your website {url} – We weren’t able to find a backlink to us or license associated with your address. Perhaps, it was a mistake or something. Please, can you help us find it? If you used them without knowing, that’s fine. Just remove them and we’ll be ok.

Icons8 team.

Efficiency: 0 / 10 people replied

Diplomatic: neutral request, DMCA mentioned:

Hi! We’ve noticed that you are using our icons on your website without providing a backlink. Please provide us with your license ID or remove the icons from your website. Otherwise, we’ll have to initialize a DMCA takedown.

Icons8 team.

Efficiency: 1 / 10 people replied

Villain: contact website host, DMCA infringement, license claim.

In this scenario we contacted the host of the offending website and notified them about the infringement. Then we scheduled 3 letters to the infringer, like these: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd.

Efficiency: 10 / 10 people replied

It seems whoever said “kindness goes a long way” wasn’t drawing icons.
We were sending 20 evil messages a day. 20 is almost the same amount of icons we were drawing daily then.

Stuart Crawford, graphic designer and founder of Inkbot Design, had similar experience:

“I’ve had everything from the most common being a logo design stolen, often blatantly, to fortunately less common, full portfolios and complete site replication with details changed to the ‘offenders’. It got so bad that at one point I had a monthly DMCA takedown session scheduled where I’d email the copyright thief a warning that I was aware of what they were doing, then email their web host in an effort to get it removed. Unfortunately, the success rate was slim, but when it worked, at least I felt I was helping their (my) potential clients from being scammed.

Overall, it happens on a daily basis with designers getting their skill and work disrespected by either clients looking for a free design, or other unscrupulous designers passing it off as their own in order to try and gain a client – usually on the crowdsourcing sites or freelance hubs.”

Friendly Fire

In our righteous anger, we hurt some of our own very loyal people.

Some people obtained our icons through other design agencies, some simply used another account. In any case, it always ended up as a painful experience for everyone involved.


A quick guestimate (900*3 /365) tells us that 7 icons were stolen daily on average. And that’s just out of the 655 icons we looked for. We’ve never had the courage to check our whole library (at that time, 10,000 icons), but it’s safe to say that icons were being stolen faster than we were drawing them.

This whole messaging campaign lasted several months. It was a digital massacre.

The war had no end. We were winning battles but felt as if we were losing the war. There was no joy and no consolation. Only unpleasant, painful experiences day after day. Exhausted, we decided to stop.


In 70% of cases, only a single icon was stolen.

There is quite an old justification: “It’s just one …” It’s just one logo, just one module, just one website.

The same was true many years ago, before the Internet. It was just one apple. Just one sheep. So what did the Internet change? It’s still just one icon. But now it’s thousands of thieves. With each of them taking just one icon, a whole icon library, several years of work, is scattered across the Internet.

There is another justification, popularized nowadays.

Generated with Pedro from Roller brush icon

Generated with Pedro from Roller brush icon

Like any overused phrase, this one has been interpreted in so many ways that now it has lost its essential meaning if there ever was any.

Jacob Cass, graphic designer and founder of Just Creative, stopped using this logo since 2012:

just creative design

But these guys haven’t:

stolen logo

It gets even funnier as Jacob continues:

“Some people stole my biography. Someone even stole my home office photo and photoshopped their name on it. ”

Great artists steal – now it’s just a stylish excuse.

The truth is, we all steal from someone. Our video tutorial on how to initiate a DMCA takedown was recorded with pirated software. We’ve purchased it since then. When? Right at that moment, we stopped justifying ourselves. Nobody forced us.

Force didn’t work in our “war” either. It’s not all about money- and time-wise efficiency. It’s the emotional connection that made this whole experience disgusting.

We sent out our last letter in April, 2015.

Earlier we estimated that 10% of users stole from us. That means 90% didn’t. One thing we can do for sure is to thank these people. This article is a tribute to the honest people from us creators. Thank you.

plato cite

Generated with Pedro from People icon

Now that we have a lot of free time not chasing thieves we conduct interesting experiments, like Can You Get a Decent Design With Only a Photo Reference?

If you’re not a big fan of experiments, maybe you’ll be interested to learn What are the Risks Involved When Setting up an Internal UX Team?

About the author: Andrew started at Icons8 as a usability specialist, conducting interviews and usability surveys. He desperately wanted to share his findings with our professional community and started writing insightful and funny (sometimes both) stories for our blog.

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