The Fashion Blogger’s Guide to Fighting Billion-Dollar Bullies
Joe Jarvis conducted an interview with us prior to this situation taking place. This week he shares his story and great advice on fighting big brands as an independent fashion blogger.
By Joe Jarvis, co-founder of Someone Else
A billion-dollar clothing corporation once demanded that I “unpublish” a story on my website, Someone Else. As a corporation spokesperson explained to me, multiple internal departments needed to review and approve the story—after which point, presumably, they would allow me to “republish” my own content, on my own website. This was, the spokesperson reminded me, the arrangement that I had agreed to.
Except that, in reality, I had agreed to the exact opposite.
Months earlier, I had approached a clothing designer I wanted to profile. The designer happened to work at the corporation. The corporation itself did not interest me, but the designer needed corporate approval for the profile. I eventually heard that the relevant PR people approved the interview, but they wanted to see the final story prior to publication. I refused, saying explicitly (and in writing via email) that I would not share the final draft. Surprisingly, the designer told me that the corporation accepted my terms.
After 11 months of calendar conflicts, the designer and I finally met for the interview. I wrote the story. I shared it with the designer, who loved it and offered to cook dinner for the photographer and me. Two days later, I received the “unpublish” demand.
Here’s the thing: I’m not in the PR business. I don’t care about getting free clothes or being an “influencer.” Since 2015, I have spent my savings traveling the world to produce stories for my obscure blog because it helps me maintain good mental health. Someone Else is my baby. It’s a quixotic money pit of a baby, but it keeps me alive and engaged. Also, I don’t like bullies, and I had the distinct feeling that my baby was being pushed around by a billionaire bully.
In a doomed attempt to diffuse the situation, I went into my CMS and removed the one (1) mention of the corporation’s name from my story. (Remember, the story was always supposed to be about the designer, not the corporation.) I actually thought this would placate the corporation. I figured that some internal PR folks were simply obligated to scrutinize all press mentioning the organization’s name. My story was completely positive and aspersion-free, so they had nothing to object to besides the name inclusion, surely.
Boy, was I wrong.
I sent my antagonists an update about the deletion. I also quoted from 13 months of email, laying out the facts of what their colleagues had agreed to, and what I had specifically refused to do. A spokesperson emailed back, dismissing those facts and demanding that I remove all photos of the corporation’s clothing, which were taken by a Someone Else photographer and which had been provided by a company representative for the express purpose of being photographed. The spokesperson’s proposed logic for the takedown demand? The clothing in the photos was copyrighted.
That just about did it.
Clothing, famously, cannot be copyrighted. So now, in addition to bullying me, the corporation was treating me like I was stupid. Rather than eat that double shit sandwich, I went into action. Below you’ll find notes on my subsequent experiences, and what they taught me about fashion copyright, self-advocacy, and living with anxiety.
Ask for Help
I didn’t know where to start, so I reached out to a family friend who works with doctors, lawyers, and such folk. This friend didn’t know any copyright lawyers, but she started Googling and giving me names—which, yes, I could have done myself. One of those names brought up a website for a retired copyright lawyer. Let’s call the lawyer Sally. When I saw Sally’s photo, my jaw dropped. I had actually met her years ago, through mutual friends.
At this point I went onto LinkedIn, a social platform that I’ve never considered as a difference-maker. But when I searched for Sally, I saw that we shared a connection, a man I knew personally (rare for LinkedIn). I texted this guy about my situation, and he gave me Sally’s number and email. Then I posted a general update on LinkedIn, explaining my situation and asking my network for help. I quickly heard from a connection whom I’ve only met once in person. This connection introduced me to “Larry,” a practicing copyright lawyer.
Now I was getting somewhere.
I called Sally, who referred me to an organization called Lawyers for the Creative Arts (LCA). Everyone in the Chicago creative industry should know about LCA. It offers pro bono and sliding-scale help to artists who face legal challenges. After filling out an online application, I received a call from my assigned lawyer in a few days. We talked about all aspects of my situation, for about 20 minutes. The lawyer reassured me that the corporation had no case, and she agreed to represent me if I received a cease-and-desist, which she doubted would happen. This conversation cost me nothing. Whatever city you’re in, look for an organization like LCA. For instance, I just Googled “detroit lawyers for creative arts” and found Lawyers for the Creative Economy.
Wanting to do my due diligence, I also spoke to Larry, the other copyright lawyer, whom I’d met via LinkedIn. Larry repeated what I’d heard from the LCA lawyer: The corporation had no cause, no case—and yes, Larry would be happy to represent me in the event of a cease-and-desist, although he hoped the corporation’s lawyers had better things to do. The corporation was, Larry said, just “waving their big corporation stick.” A bonus: Larry is also a blogger. He writes about copyright law, so he completely identified with the plight of an independent writer getting pushed around by corporate workers who should know better.
Tell Them What You Want
Social media encourages us to constantly posture as though we have everything under control. I didn’t have that luxury with this situation. When I posted on LinkedIn, I described what was happening and what I needed. I even used ALL CAPS unironically to let people know that I was genuinely SHOOK. When I talked to Sally and Larry, each of them asked what I wanted. I had no idea what legal services I should ask for, so I told them in plain English that I wanted peace of mind. Specifically, I said, “I want someone who has my back.” I wanted someone to advocate for me. If I received a cease-and-desist, I wanted to be able to forward the document to my advocate and not give it another thought. Both Sally and Larry agreed to back me up. I also asked about next steps and fees. I wanted to know exactly what the road map looked like if the corporation wanted to press.
As a result of being open and candid, I now have two lawyers willing to take my case. Without a doubt, I prefer to avoid court. But I also can imagine the absurdity of the corporation telling a judge that a positive story about one of its employees by an obscure blogger has caused damage. Imagine the traffic that such a situation could drive to Someone Else and the specific story in question. That level of Streisand Effect failure might even transform Someone Else into an entity that corporations actually need to fear.
But no matter what happens, I’m no longer afraid. I live with a great deal of anxiety. I could have alleviated the initial rush of discomfort by caving in to the corporation. Instead, I accepted the pain of seeking help when I didn’t know what kind of help I needed. Instead of thinking that lawyers are too expensive and confrontation with executives is too overwhelming, I stuck up for my little website, and I came through with newfound confidence.
In other words, I’ve already won.
Conclusion: Don’t Take Any Shit
I hope you never need to follow the advice I’ve laid out here, but if you do, be brave, be shameless, and shout for help. When help comes, follow up and be thorough. When I first started seeking help, I had no idea that I would reconnect with Sally, or that she would put me in contact with LCA. When I posted to LinkedIn, I couldn’t have predicted the path to meeting Larry.
My advice is just start moving. Things will shake loose in surprising ways. Remember that corporations rely on us being scared. The easiest way to not be scared? Be prepared.
CHECK OUT SOMEONE ELSE, A DIVERGENT FASHION JOURNAL. YOU CAN REACH JOE AT JOE@SOMEONE-ELSE.US.