Here we go again

If you haven’t already heard, there has been yet another major copyright infringement story hitting the news .  This time it involves a number of artists including Lisa Congdon whose artwork was allegedly ripped off by a wholesale company called Cody Foster and used for folk-style Christmas ornaments without their permission or awareness.   You can read about the story here.   It appears this Cody Foster company has been stealing from artists for years and getting away with it.  Fortunately- or unfortunately for them, Lisa Congdon has an epic social media following and isn’t going to let them get away with it this time.   Not only is she ‘lawyering up’ as she calls it, but she is also getting a stunning amount of media attention on the infringements and by the looks of it, Cody Foster is losing many of its big name retail clients as a result.

To be honest, Lisa Congdon makes me feel a little ashamed.   I feel that perhaps I should have been more outspoken with what happened to me and how utterly wrong it all was.   I think partly why I didn’t go into too much detail was because of how widespread and complicated it got.   Also the company that actually did the initial ripping off was not American- it was Chinese.   It’s kind of hard to get the media all riled up over another knock-off factory in China that goes by five different names.

What I found to be the most troubling in my situation aside from the obvious thieving was the common attitude that I deserved it because I have a website and I sell my work online.  It was also mingled with ‘don’t bother fighting it- you won’t win’.  This came through loud and clear from all sorts of people- including a couple artist friends of mine (they are no longer friends).  The belief was that I put my work ‘out there’ and of course it will get stolen and used for profit.  Never mind the laws that should protect you- just move on and ignore it.

Perhaps one of the darkest times came when a shop in my own city of Stratford, Ontario started carrying the knock offs.   Having them removed wasn’t easy or pleasant.  This is an independent store with a long history in my city- not a chain store.   The owner’s attitude was not remotely reflective of a community-minded business person.   She was particularly concerned with being able to supply affordable artwork to her customers.   I should have told her that images stolen and repainted in Chinese sweatshops is not art.  It is despair stretched on a piece of canvas with a $17 price tag.

In the end, I did have to ignore some of it- but I pursued litigation where I could afford it.  I was happy that I did it.  I feel like I stood up for myself- and in a way stood up for other artists because the more of us that make a fuss,  the less common this will hopefully become.   Ignoring it is not the answer- it is the problem.    This past year I feel as if I took a crash course in copyright law and I’ve learned and experienced quite a bit as a result.  I’m going to do a follow-up post in the next week detailing some of what I learned in hopes of helping anyone who might find themselves in a similar situation.

Copyright Infringement Update

I know that several readers were very interested and concerned with my copyright infringement situation and so I thought I would give an update.  As most of you can imagine the past few weeks have been bizarre.  Most of my time has been spent talking with lawyers, talking with retailers and distributors, and talking with many people who have been reporting the copies of my work.  There were actually six images of mine that were copied as you can see in the visual (my originals are on the left, knock offs on the right).  And believe it or not, there are even knock offs of the original knock offs.

I have discovered the main source.  They have come from a factory in China that specializes in reproducing artwork for mass distribution- much of which is hand painted which I won’t even comment on at this point.  For a short while I was naively optimistic that I would be able to put an end to it as several emails were exchanged between myself and the factory producing the work, but that hope has pretty much faded.  The fact is that these factories in China are under no obligation to respect the copyright ownership that our western laws protect- even though their actions place any retailer or distributor selling their products at risk.

And so what will happen next is what I’m trying to work through.   I have been fortunate and much to my surprise, received a great deal of free legal help and I’ve learned more than what I ever thought I would need to know about intellectual property theft.  Some people have asked why this isn’t a criminal investigation- myself included, and it likely can be turned into one if the copies continue to be made and continue to appear in the western market.

So why are they appearing in North American stores (not to mention UK/Europe and Australia) especially when everyone involved- from the manufacturer to the distributor to the retailer are actually liable.  Why are they taking the risk?  I would expect that the little independent shops are simply unaware of where the products are made and what lurks behind it all, but the bigger chain stores who know the manufacturers, for them it likely comes down to volume and profit.   You simply can’t buy 300 large hand painted images for a $35 a pop in North America these days.

I was very grateful for all of the emails and helpful suggestions as well as legal advice.   But I should mention that not everyone was sympathetic to my problem.   These comments were not published on my blog.  One person told me to drop it because it’s a part of the job.  Just like how a police person could get shot on the job, I should expect to be copied.  Which is true, but does that mean I shouldn’t investigate it and try to stop it?   Another, much more disturbing and more personal sounding comment came through within a few hours of my first post about the infringement.  This person told me to just ‘Let It Happen’ (a phrase that my husband and I have adopted as a sort of perverse mantra) and that I was just angry because someone else was making money off my art and I wasn’t- followed by a few other ugly remarks.  Yes, well- of course I’m upset about that.  It’s illegal.  Also,  I do sell reproductions of my work and license my images and it’s insane to think that I’m competing with cheaper versions of my own work.  It’s damaging to my business and I’m a very small business- almost a micro business.   However, we managed to find out that the comment was sent through a phony hotmail address, but was delivered from a mobile account that just happened to be registered in the same name as one of the directors heading up one of the companies that had been publishing and distributing the knock offs overseas.

And so as you can imagine, I can’t ‘drop it’.   If I did,  I would expect that the copies will simply multiply and more images will be stolen.   I am still in the stage of locating the various retail establishments where these items are being sold.  If you happen to spot one of them, please send me an email (anonymous if you wish) and a snapshot of the item in the store is very helpful too.  My only real recourse is through the retail stores and distributors that are selling the items.   If they stop buying them, the manufacturer will stop making them.