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Creators turn to public shaming to seek compensation from brands they say don't credit them

The tide is turning in favor of creator pay, but is calling out brands for using allegedly plagiarized work actually helpful?
Illustration of a rollerskating TikTok dancer surrounded by money bags as a dancing Fortnite character hands her money bags.
Nick Little for NBC News

Designer Cecelia Monge found herself in a spat with Converse after she accused the shoe brand of using her designs, which she submitted in 2019, in its national park collection.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence, and it’s kind of just unfortunate when larger companies ‘borrow’ from smaller designers,” Monge said in May in a TikTok video, which amassed 22.8 million views. Converse denied the accusations in a comment on a post on Diet Prada’s Instagram account. 

Monge, who didn't respond to a request for comment, and the shoe brand, which also didn't respond to a request for comment, never partnered up.

But months later, in October, Monge was presented with a new opportunity: creating a collection of apparel using her original national park-inspired patterns in collaboration with the underwear brand Shinesty. The collection is nearly sold out.

While some creators may seek legal retribution for work they believe is stolen, few have the resources to go after well-known brands. Calling out brands online, however, is free. 

And that's why many creators, like Monge, are increasingly using social media to call out brands that they say aren’t properly crediting and compensating them. 

Copyright laws regarding creative work aren’t always clear-cut, and people who post online risks their work's being plagiarized and distributed without credit. Large companies have long had the upper hand in working with creators, especially those who have smaller platforms.

The tide is turning in favor of creator pay, but is calling out brands for using allegedly plagiarized work actually helpful?

It depends, said Evan Morgenstein, the CEO of the influencer talent agency The Digital Renegades, which manages partnerships between creators and brands.

“Brand to consumer [marketing] is dead.”

Evan Morgenstein, CEO of the digital renegades

Publicly shaming a brand may be tempting because consumers tend to trust other consumers more than they would a large company, Morgenstein said.

“Brand to consumer [marketing] is dead,” he said. “If you’re a brand, you can’t advertise to consumers anymore. It has to be consumer to consumer, which is why brands want to start in communities, and hopefully people in the communities talk the product up.” 

Public snark can pay off, sometimes

Public snark can sometimes end up leading to a productive partnership, one that benefits both brand and creator. 

One of the higher-profile instances occurred in 2020 with Epic Games, the parent company of the game Fortnite.

Epic Games ended up working closely with the actor Ana Coto, who went viral in early 2020 with a roller skating routine to the song “Jenny From the Block.” Coto had posted a side-by-side video of her original TikTok video from March 2020 with a clip of Fortnite’s nearly identical dance emote Freewheelin’, which was added to the game that summer.

“Flattered but no dance credit?” Coto captioned the TikTok video. 

A week later, Fortnite attributed the dance as having been “inspired by” Coto, who eventually worked with the game to create another skate-themed emote. 

Epic Games had been criticized in the past, and even sued, for using viral TikTok dances as in-game emotes without crediting the original creators who choreographed the dances. Although Epic Games last year began crediting emotes to creators, like “Renegade” choreographer Jaliaiah Harmon, other TikTok creators still accused Fortnite of using likenesses of their work without permission. 

Now, however, the company is reported to directly pay creators to use their viral dances, and it includes attribution on the emotes’ listings in the game’s online shop, Billboard reported last year.

Coto didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Epic Games, which declined to comment, referred to previous comments it has made to Billboard.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a choice we’re making to correct a past mistake,” Epic Games' head of partnerships, Nate Nanzer, told Billboard in March of the move to paying creators. 

“When we were thinking about this program, honestly, it wasn’t even a question," Nanzer said. "We were like, ‘Of course we need to compensate the creators.’ We wanted to make sure that we could tag them in the posts [and] work with these folks from a marketing perspective, as well, and make sure that we’re giving them proper credit.”

Some creators end up taking legal action

Some creators prefer to stir the pot when it comes to calling out brands.

Since it launched as an anonymous fashion account in 2014, the Instagram account Diet Prada, for example, has acted as an online whistleblower bringing attention to the injustices of the creative industry.

The account, which has 2.9 million followers, is known for shaming both luxury fashion brands and fast fashion chains for copying the work of lesser-known marginalized designers. 

Diet Prada’s approach to seeking digital justice has been criticized as bordering on sensationalist and in poor taste — the account known for canceling others was canceled for criticizing Kanye West’s Yeezy collaboration with the Gap with statements referring to his controversial political stances.

The post, which Diet Prada apologized for and deleted, failed to acknowledge Mowalola Ogunlesi, the Black female designer leading the collaboration. 

Diet Prada declined to comment for the story.

Other creators, like Amina Mucciolo, end up resorting to legal action.

Mucciolo, a Black artist who goes by studiomucci on Instagram and Twitter, is known for their whimsical, rainbow-emblazoned personal style. Their apartment, which they named Cloudland, featured pastel cabinets, vibrant furniture and a smattering of rainbow accents. 

In 2019, Mucciolo’s followers pointed out the similarities between their apartment interior and that of Lisa Frank’s ’90s-themed pop-up. Mucciolo was invited to preview the pop-up, which was across the street from their apartment in a building owned by the same management company that owned Mucciolo’s. The pop-up was eerily similar to Mucciolo’s apartment, down to the nearly identical layout. 

Mucciolo alleged on Twitter that they and their partner were evicted from their apartment after the dispute with Lisa Frank when their landlord refused to accept their rent.

The same year, the toy manufacturer MGA Entertainment released an LOL Surprise doll that bore a striking resemblance to a hairstyle Mucciolo wore in a 2018 Instagram post. They refrained from speaking out about it until Bratz, which is also owned by MGA Entertainment, posted in support of the Black Lives Matter movement last year.

Mucciolo told Los Angeles Magazine in 2020 that they found the post hollow and that MGA Entertainment didn't provide them with proof that it began developing the doll before Mucciolo’s Instagram post. 

Mucciolo declined to comment.

Representatives for MGA Entertainment and Lisa Frank did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

MGA Entertainment tweeted in June 2020 that it wanted to “clear the air” regarding Mucciolo’s allegations.

"We've seen the allegations and we take this seriously. We apologize for the delay but felt it was important to review the timeline and facts internally," MGA Entertainment wrote. "Rainbow Raver was designed by one of our talented Black designers, a now successful fashion entrepreneur, who has confirmed the doll was not based on Amina Mucciolo."

A month later, Mucciolo announced in a blog post that they were taking legal action against MGA Entertainment. They said they were able to hire a lawyer with support from a crowdfunding campaign.

"MGA is using this historic fight for Black liberation to sell toys in one breath and then to bash and discredit me in another. All because I tried to highlight that they were guilty of the very injustices done to Black people that they proclaimed to stand against," Mucciolo wrote in their blog post.

"And while it’s common knowledge that large companies routinely steal from indie artists, it happens to Black creatives more than you could possibly imagine. But because of racism, when we speak up about these things, we are routinely not believed, silenced, or worse!"

Over a year later, the experiences have left Mucciolo discouraged.

"I tried to stand up for myself, and I don’t regret it," Mucciolo wrote in a blog post in September. "But it took so much from me and it continues to drain. Ultimately I can’t afford to fight for past Amina anymore, I have to fight for this one. And that means using everything I have to survive and keep making art."

Mucciolo wrote later that the statements "I’m not famous enough to convince a judge” and “I didn’t invent rainbow hair and clothes" were "[a]ctual things said to me by my lawyers well after they took on my case."

"The truth is we are not out, but we are definitely down," Mucciolo wrote. "We need support and help in all forms, I don’t like admitting this. I have been shamed and experienced bullying, harassment and severe scrutiny every time I talk about my experience or ask for help. But I’m still here, and since you are too, I’m committed to be honest."

Shame posting has a line

Publicly raising concerns about similarities between creators’ work might be justified, but rage posting can jeopardize any chance that a brand will rectify a situation by working with creators in future collaborations, Morgenstein said.

He advises creators to avoid posting anything vitriolic against brands.

A public takedown wouldn't be likely to catalyze change beyond burning bridges, Morgenstein said, citing the massive corporation Proctor & Gamble as an example.

If the company used a creator’s work without permission, seeking legal counsel would be more effective than inciting a campaign against it. 

Bad press won’t take down such a large company, especially if it’s fleeting.

“And everybody’s like, for two days, ‘Proctor & Gamble, hashtag Proctor & Gamble [expletive] you.” Morgenstein said. “Then after that it goes away. And if there was any legitimacy to it, it would need to be addressed. ... You've got to go after it legally, because there is no other recourse. You can’t ruin a brand through social media.”