We see it often...reproduction of artwork. As a matter of fact, many of these are valuable, authorized, and legitimate. But what about those that are presented as originals when they are nothing but knocked-off copies? I can clearly see the profit motive in reproducing a Van Gogh, a Jackson Pollock, or even a well-known mainstream contemporary artist. But why would one local or regional artist copy another local or regional artist? I've become the victim of such an act. A good friend who supports my art endeavors, forwarded a text to me including a screen shot of a local artist's facebook page showing a copy of one of my original paintings. She recognized it immediately. It wasn't exact but it was unmistakeably copied and it was marked as SOLD!
This was devastating on such a high emotional level. I could compare this to someone coming into my home and making off with our electronics but it is more significant than that. I could replace those things easily. They are produced in mass quantities. They are not unique. My artwork is unique. It came from only me. No one else had this vision. I have often stated that selling a piece of my artwork was similar to sending a child off into the world. Your artwork is a part of you because it emerged from you. When my artwork sells, I am happy that someone has already shown enough appreciation for it as to buy it. It's what I want to happen. As an artist, my hope is that my creation is going to a home that will care for it and love it. We create art to share what's inside us with the world. We want our art to make that transition from our care to someone else's care, but not under false pretenses.
The impact of having my creative output taken and presented to the world under false pretenses has included anger, hurt, confusion, and discouragement. I was initially shocked when I received the message and but anger followed so close on those heels that the only remnants of shock was my inability to stop my hands from shaking as I jumped on the computer to get more information on this act. It was hurtful to see my work misappropriated. I wanted to understand why. Why would another "artist" do such a thing? Could she not put herself in my shoes? How would she feel if her original work was copied and presented as someone else's work? This was the hardest and most disappointing part. Until, I realized that I could not look at my own original creation without pain taking hold of me both mentally and physically. It hurt to see the piece that had been copied. It was particularly hard since it's one of my signature pieces. It's the piece displayed prominently on the back of my business cards. It was sitting in my kitchen yesterday because I was preparing to take it with me to an arts market in which I was to show my work. I could not go. I could not imagine setting up, putting my work out, and having normal conversations with patrons. I further found that as I stood at the entrance to my art studio, I did not want to work on anything. That's the moment I decided I would not let this situation take me out of the game. I would take action, fight back, and those actions would help me to get over this faster.
What could I do? What can you do if you're ever in this situation? The first thing you can do is assert a copyright on your work. Fortunately, I had done this. In the US, we follow the Berne copyright convention. Almost everything created privately and originally after April 1, 1989 is copyrighted and protected whether it has a notice or not. A notice strengthens the protection, by providing a warning to people, but it is not actually necessary. The U.S. Copyright office would strongly encourage you to officially register your work, and so would I. Registration can permit you to get more and different damages if you find an infringement on your rights under the copyright laws. The next thing you might want to do is put the offender on notice. I notified the offender via her Facebook page that the work presented there was a copyrighted work of original art and that it was illegal to duplicate it. I further sent a more detailed message indicating what actions I would like her to take to remedy this violation. I provided her with 24 hours to resolve this before I take it further. What does it mean to take it further? Contact the legal community. Most major cities have nonprofit arts advocacy groups including lawyers. I did a search and found Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts (also known as TALA, http://talarts.org). A lawyer can take several steps to help address copyright infringment spanning from "cease and desist" notices to court trials. Visit the site listed for TALA to get more details on legal remedies. I also posted a notice to my local artist community of the occurrence. Houston is a large city but the arts community is close knit so I thought someone may be familiar with the person who committed this act. I got a response on my first posting. I show my work on a regular basis at First Saturday Arts Market in the Heights here in Houston. The person who copied my work has been known to frequent the market and had just exhibited on a trial basis the day before. If she is copying my work, who is to say what other artists' works may be at risk? It was this last notion that pushed me to really go after this.
As artists, we work very hard to develop our abilities and create unique art that will be appreciated by the world. Do we have to hide it in a closet to keep unscrupulous individuals from stealing it? It's sad to have to deal with this. I hope no other artist has to pursue this type of issue. It has left me feeling violated and, although I am fighting back, I can't help but realize that it has had an effect on the way I think of my work, especially when I think of showing my work.
Vivian Leflore Mora
Wednesday, May 9, 2012 Addendum
"All's Better, That Ends Better" - forgive me Mr. Shakespeare for taking liberties with the title of your play! I am adding this footnote because much has happened in the couple of days since I wrote the above blog. I've had the good fortune to become introduced to someone who willingly and openly chose to be accountable for their actions! The artist who created a copy of my original art piece reached out to me and asked for my forgiveness. She is an artist who had begun painting again recently. Her daughter had admired my work at a show and had an image which had been taken with a camera phone. The artist painted it for her daughter and gave it to her. She explained that the copied painting was marked as SOLD when it was posted to indicate it was not available for sale. She acknowledged that she should not have painted it and she has taken all the steps I've asked her to take to remedy the situation. In my books, she has answered for her actions and she has my forgiveness.
In the end, my only other wish is that this situation had not occurred at all, but I feel much better because I know that it is her wish also. Thank you.
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vivian leflore mora, artist/writer, and business consultant.