So you've found a villan. Someone out there online is claiming your work as their own. Maybe even selling it! The anger wells up in you and your first impulse is to dismantle this thief all over the internet. Please don't! Take a breath and think it out.
The phrase "cease and desist" gets thrown around a lot but let's get real. Lawyers and lawsuits cost money (a quick search says between $100-300 for starters). Plus, seeking legal action can get slippery because you can then be sued in return. Is it worth it? What happens when the plagiarist lives in another country? Righting this wrong isn't always easy and there's no guarantee that you'll even get satisfaction.
The Small Fish:
Most people who plagiarize artwork don't even realize they're doing it. I like to take this approach when I find that someone has used our work on their Etsy t-shirt shop/small business logo, etc. A polite email explaining that the image is our original artwork usually does the job. If it doesn't, then further action might be required. In the age of social media shaming, calling the offender out online is one of the last things I'd recommend doing. It can be a last resort, but remember that people's careers and lives can be destroyed. Make sure the punishment fits the crime. Read these cautionary tales before uncorking a genie that can't be put back in its bottle.
The Big Fish:
Our standard approach when dealing with a "bigger fish" (domestic or foreign) is to try and turn the situation into an opportunity. We contact these businesses and say "Hey, obviously you like our work. Why don't you pay us to make something new for you? Can we develop a fruitful long term relationship?" Since most people don't like to admit they've done something wrong, it's almost human nature, we've found that it's best to sidestep a confrontation. Rather than fighting to be right, leverage a way to make more money together. Turn it into the famous win/win.
The Annoying Fish:
These examples don't really cover all of the plagiarist experiences we've encountered. Some fall in-between and they're probably the most frustrating. There is at least one guy that, despite being contacted numerous times, continues to sell our repurposed artwork. For years. We've gone so far as to contact the different vendors that he's used to sell prints and asked them to take his artwork down. Some comply, others don't. So, in the end, we try to live with it and let go. Some fish are small but annoying.
Ultimately, your art is driven by ideas and design and illustration are very public mediums. People can connect with it and deep down that's what you hope for as a creator. In this age your work can not only reach people but be distilled from an idea to a meme. Not because it's shallow, but because it's so easy to proliferate. I do think "ownership" of your own work is important, it just takes on a different value when it enters the world. Be fearless when it comes to creating and sharing your artwork, but be savvy when someone infringes. Make relationships whenever possible because being a creative is a business.
So, breath in, breath out, and make some money :)