Today’s day and age of commercialism is marked by ethically dubious fast-fashion markets, Ikea furniture, next-day shipping and low prices chosen over quality. Brick-and-mortar galleries struggle to gain business and no one wants to shell out hundreds of dollars on original pieces of art. In this world where cheap, mass-produced goods are the products of choice, where does that leave artists?
In the modern technological age, it would make sense that artists have more opportunities than ever to have their work noticed, yet the marketplace has just become that much more ruthless in now-worldwide competition.
Print-on-demand (POD) websites are the current popular trend in attempting to make money by commercializing one’s art. An artist can create a profile, upload their works and select the products that they wish their designs to be printed on (t-shirts, cups, calendars, classic canvas, acrylic blocks, phone cases, tapestries, etc.). Once they have their profile up and running, consumers can start buying the products. The website will take care of everything — billing, printing, shipping, manufacturing, order fulfillment — all the artist needs to do is provide the designs.
But navigating the minefield that is user agreements and design theft can be quite difficult. The good news is that most of these websites have straightforward policies that state they do not take the rights to your artwork. The artist simply grants the website a non-exclusive royalty free license to use the uploaded content. Many of these websites take copyright, publicity rights and trademark infringements very seriously, yet there is no way to completely prevent art theft. Sites like Redbubble offer options to watermark designs or to even place a translucent image over the design to deter right-click downloads. Most POD sites also automatically delete designs that they have found to breach copyright laws and notify the artist of the infringement with the option to file an “appeal” of sorts.
Society6 may take it a step too far, their copyright infringement policy teeters on the line of theft. Artists beware: any artist account to have been found offering a design that Society6 has deemed to have broken their policies will be suspended, and all outstanding commissions earned by the artist from all of their designs — not just the one(s) that infringed on copyright laws, but commissions from all uploaded works — will not be paid. All previously paid commissions may also be revoked.
As all artists know or learn at some point in their career, derivative work, the concept of “fair use” and copyright expiry issues are complex and difficult to traverse. Obviously, there are quite a few people out there that blatantly steal artists’ works, but there are plenty of real artists who mean well and just don’t understand the complexity of the laws. A design containing the shape of a Ford truck with no identifiable branding, or a quote by a long-dead author: derivative work comes with many gray areas that some sites could deem permissible while others could reject for infringing a copyright. For a site with expensive products that only allow a 10 percent commission to artists on purchases, this policy makes Society6 utterly not worth it.
Redbubble is one of the most popular of these POD sites. It is best known for their stickers and clothing, but they also offer a huge selection of products and a decent selection of artist prints, it is also much more customizable than Society6 and lets the artist set their own commissions percentage on each product. Redbubble will also push ads on social media sites with artists’ products with no cost to the artist — not a guarantee but still a potential for free marketing — yet, like with all these sites, artists need to market themselves to actually gain a customer base. With that said, artists’ commissions from Redbubble tend to stay around 20 percent in order to be competitive.
Threadless is lesser-known, but the base prices for products is much lower, so artists’ commission percentages can be much higher. Artists can make their own “store” through Threadless that they can tailor to perfection with a personal web address: artistname.threadless.com. Artists can even set their own sales. Threadless has a variety of products, but is most well-known for t-shirts.
Fine Art America is another POD site that caters more to fine art; this is where less design work is found and where media like painting and photography thrive. There is not much clothing offered; this site is where one would find more wall art, home décor and tech products.
There are countless other POD websites — Printful, Printify, Zazzle, Design by Humans, Merch by Amazon, etc. — and most of them have helpful blogs with marketing and sales advice. Some, like Redbubble and Society6, are much more simplified and user-friendly, while others, like Printful or Printify, cater to those with more entrepreneurial instincts.
Print-on-demand sites are helpful platforms that simplify the commercial process, yet are little help for an unknown artist. Utilizing social media regularly with an aggressive self-marketing campaign seems to be the only way to stay afloat. Regularly uploading new pieces of art, progress updates on pieces not yet finished, new available products or reposting old favorites are common and simple social media posts. Artists with large enough Instagram followings can easily make a living solely through selling their original work, prints and other POD products.
If you want to get inspired by looking at successful commercial and fine artists’ social media, check out these artists on Instagram: @stevenrhodesart’s hilarious retro illustrations, @visothkakvei’s intricately detailed designs, @_virginia_mori_’s creepy aesthetic, @stephenwilkes’ award-winning photography, @theworldofjamesbrowne’s whimsical children’s illustrations, @claretheresegray’s floral, patterned designs and @billsafi’s gorgeous and mythic drawings.
(For an in-depth comparison of most of the print-on-demand websites mentioned here, visit mofluid.com/blog/best-print-on-demand-sites/.)