Merch by Amazon (MBA), the company's platform for print-on-demand clothing, is supposed to make it easier for artists to monetize their work. The artist uploads a design to MBA, then when a customer decides to buy, say, a T-shirt with the design, Amazon handles the printing and shipping.
"We sell your designs as Amazon products, reaching millions of customers worldwide with no upfront investment or costs to you," Amazon's website reads. MBA is a ballooning space, with YouTubers making guides on how to best use the platform for maximum side-hustle profit, and artists being attracted to the possibility of tapping into Amazon's massive customer base, which is potentially much larger than other similar dropshipping and print-on-demand services.
But that streamlined and low-cost process has a flipside. MBA is awash with scammers downloading other people’s designs, sometimes from different sites such as Etsy or sometimes just other MBA listings. The scammers then sell the designs as if they are their own, and Amazon does much of the rest of the work for them. The problem is so bad that artists are pooling their efforts in Facebook Groups to try and get the offenders banned. Whereas illustrators need to create their own designs and upload them, scammers don't even need to make their own; they can just use the platform to steal others' work in a bid to make very quick and easy money.
"I have now concluded that Merch by Amazon is a platform that makes it easy for others to steal copyrighted designs from independent artists. Amazon knows this but is not doing enough to protect the artwork," Yat Yee Tam, an illustrator and designer who constantly has to battle scammers on MBA, told Motherboard in an email.
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Jonah Buckley, another MBA seller, told Motherboard that, though he has worked with various print-on-demand websites, "the majority of my stolen designs evidently come from Amazon." He added he can tell the scammers are taking his designs because the pirates' images look like they are ripped from t-shirt mockups that show up on Amazon rather than an originally uploaded design.
Buckley said he has even caught scammers taking a specific listing from one site and porting it over to MBA.
"Earlier in the year I did an experiment by only uploading a design of mine to Etsy via my printing production partner. It was for the Juneteenth celebration in the U.S. After a few weeks I searched Amazon, and there it was," he said.
The scammers are successfully selling the ripped-off items. Buckley said the scammers generated around 20 sales from that Juneteenth design. In a Facebook post in a Group where artists discuss the scamming problem, Tam said the pirates uploaded her designs for a lower price than the original. (MBA sellers earn royalties on each sale, after tax and Amazon fees).
MBA users can also leverage third-party research tools that scrape Amazon and provide insights on what sorts of designs are selling well. One, called Merch Informer, promises to let users "Jump on trending and evergreen niches before anyone else," according to its website. Merch Informer offers archives of what sort of design was popular at a particular time of the year, potentially letting artists, or scammers, upload designs that may sell well.
Merch Informer also offers a browser extension to more rapidly upload designs to MBA.
"I believe these sites may have also contributed to the piracy. However, Amazon also makes it incredibly easy to steal images from their site," Tam said. Amazon doesn't watermark designs.
It's unclear if the scammers themselves are using automated means to either download or upload stolen designs. In Facebook posts, some artists suspected the use of bots in part due to the speed at which scammers can rip-off their work, though.
"Merch by Amazon is a platform that makes it easy for others to steal copyrighted designs from independent artists."
Both Tam and Buckley said they have reported pirated designs to Amazon, and the company has, eventually, removed them. But the results can be mixed.
After Motherboard contacted Amazon for comment and flagged two pirated listings of Tam's designs, the company removed them. Up until that point, Tam had not been successful in getting Amazon to take them down.
But in response to takedowns, some pirates are then filing their own counter-claims, according to posts in one Facebook Group.
An Amazon spokesperson told Motherboard in an email that "We have robust vetting procedures in place for participation in Merch by Amazon as well as pre-publishing moderation to prevent infringing content from ever being published. If we find, or anyone reports an infringement that we did not identify, we move quickly to take it down, investigate and remove the item from Merch, and pursue the appropriate legal action."
When making an MBA account, "Applicants will be required to input their contact and bank details, complete a tax interview, and submit a profile for verification before being accepted into the Merch by Amazon program," the spokesperson added.