There are unfortunately countless examples of companies, both large and small, using artists' work without permission or pay and turning a profit on their backs. I'd venture to say the practice of expecting artists to work for free is as old as art itself. Perhaps some Neanderthal 17,000 years ago went to their grave still awaiting their payment for those cave paintings in Lascaux.
Melon Notebooks, a stationery company based in Egypt, has come under fire for using artwork by artist Qing Han, aka Qinni, who unfortunately passed away from cancer at age 29. The popular DeviantArt creator, whose Instagram has over two million followers, was beloved by a large online community. On December 28, Qinni announced on her IG that she had been diagnosed with stage 4 fibrosis sarcoma and had a year to a year and a half left. Unfortunately, her battle ended much earlier, possibly owing to a pre-existing congenital heart condition.
Within a day of the announcement of her death by friend and fellow artist Courtney "Seage" Howlette, Melon's Instagram put up a collage of Qinni's art as an in memoriam. Though it seems like a sweet gesture from a manufacturer who was in collaboration with the late artist, that doesn't appear to be the case. According to people who were close with Qing, the company reproduced her work on their notebooks without permission or payment.
"And for all Qinni's fans we appreciate your love but we have the permission," Melon's caption reads. They purport to even have evidence of that permission in the following grid post, which includes a screenshot of DMs exchanged with Qinni in January 2019. However, the messages definitely do not connote permission to use her artwork for commercial purposes.
Quite the contrary, Qing seems to demur their request to use her art, saying, "Let's put this on the back burner for later then lol happy new year." Now that Qing is gone, those messages appear to have been her final words on the matter. Saying "let's revisit this request at a later date," does not equal permission. It's not a no, but it's definitely not a yes.
Further complicating the issue and drawing ire from Qing's supporters is the fact Melon reportedly has sold a notebook featuring one of her most famous illustrations since at least 2018 without permission or payment. "I've already sent these guys a message along with a lot of other people and some other personal friends," wrote Courtney on February 11. "I'll be ramping up the warnings if they don't take this down. She did not agree. You're all correct," he confirmed to a concerned fan.
As actually mourning seems impossible in this situation, ive been fighting. I've already sent these guys a message along with a lot of other people and some other personal friends. I'll be ramping up the warnings if they don't take this down. She did not agree. You're all correct— Seage (@Seageart) February 12, 2020
Comments have been disabled on Melon's Insta and their website appears to be defunct, at least for the time being, but their Facebook page is full of accusations of theft, as well as attempts to generate sales directly from the recent death of an artist who has not received and now cannot ever recoup royalties for her work.
It doesn't seem to be an isolated incident, either. Even Melon's logo belongs to someone else — an Indonesian entertainment company — as pointed out by astute observers on Twitter.
The conversation Melon posted as "proof of permission" also appears to be the first overture the company made with the artist, although they have clearly been using her art since at least July 2018. And according to her FAQ on Tumblr, Qinni only allowed reproduction of her work for personal purposes and only with a credit.
"You cannot use it if you do not credit me and definitely not for commercial purposes," she writes (emphasis hers). What makes the situation worse is that she clearly was monetizing her work to help pay for her medical treatments, as evidenced by her bio on her Patreon page.
It's unfortunate Qing's loved ones are grappling with protecting her intellectual property in addition to their grief over her sudden passing. Here's hoping this company does the right thing, reimburses her estate for their past transgressions, and cease using artists' work without permission any payment.