This article is by Clint Watson, former art gallery owner/director/salesperson and founder of FineArtViews. You should follow Clint on Twitter here.
An artist (Let's call him "Leonardo") recently wrote to me for some advice about a situation he's facing.
It seems another person is painting "copies" of Leonardo's artwork and passing the copies off as original, without attribution.
This happens from time to time. As someone who's been in the art business since 1989, I've seen it more than once.
Here's the part that surprised me: Leonardo confided in me that,"This is one reason why there are still artists who do not want a website or a Facebook page for fear of exactly this happening to them..."
Wow. Those artists might as well say, "Don't market your artwork because you might encounter problems."
Look, let's have a honest talk. Success is great. But success does bring it's own set of problems. You can't avoid those problems, unless you decide to simply pursue your art as a hobby with no ambition for marketing and selling your artwork.
When you are successful, there will be no shortage of people who underestimate the hard work you've put in. You'll deal with criticizers, copycats, scammers, spammers, and complainers. This is nothing new.
Such copycat "artists" think it's some sort of shortcut to copy other people's compositions. They've always existed. Back in the days before the Internet it happened all the time. The "cheaters" found images in art magazines. They called art galleries posing as customers and asked for photographs. They snuck cameras into galleries and took unauthorized photos. Some even had the guts to contact the artist directly and ask for photos and/or brochures.
Things are actually better now because of the Internet for two reasons:
1. It's easier to find out when somebody is copying your artwork
2. You can use your Internet "publishing power" to fight back
Seriously, if you're not setting up a website or a Facebook page out of fear that someone might paint a copy of your artwork, then you are shooting yourself in the foot. That's the exact opposite of what you should do. I suggest that the best defense is a good offense.
If you find yourself in a situation of having someone blatantly copy your art, then do this:
Tactic 1: Call the person. Identify yourself. Chances are there will be a moment of awkward silence as the copycat freaks out that you're actually on the phone. Then you can simply tell the person you want them to quit copying your art and that you want them to take it down. You can come from the angle of "perhaps you didn't know what you are doing is wrong." (some artists actually don't know that it's wrong). I know an artist who handled it this way and it worked for him on the first phone call.
Tactic 2: If Tactic 1 doesn't work then move on to tactic 2: setup a blog on your website. Post your original image with an image of the copy. Proceed to make it clear that you are the originator of the idea and that the other person copied you. Clearly, if someone is having to copy you, they are obviously not as talented as you. That means they will always be playing "catch-up." Write in a light hearted, funny tone. Then continue, in a amused tone, as if you are the teacher and the copier is a talent-challenged student, to provide a critique of the copy. Be complete with what the copier did wrong, how they could improve in the future. After all, copying is a time-honored learning technique. You are obviously the master artist in the situation. And as the person who was copied, entitled to critique the copycat.
Then proceed to tell everyone you know about your blog post. You will have an opportunity to promote your artwork, while at the same time making it clear that you know what's going on. Spread this information via email newsletters, Facebook, Twitter, and through whatever other channels you utilize.
If the copycat is lazy enough to steal your composition, chances are, he'll move on once you turn up the heat.
But in the meantime, you'll drive more traffic and potential buyers to your own website. And then you can send him a thank you note.
Software Craftsman and Art Fanatic
1. This situation is real, but names have been changed.
2. I am not a lawyer and cannot provide legal advice. While we, in the art world, seem to have a unwritten code of honor that condemns such behavior, the copycat artist may not be actually doing anything illegal. Copyright law is pretty complex, but it can not be used to protect ideas (If an idea could be copyrighted, we would be having our lawyer send a letter to everybody who started an "artist portfolio website service"). What I believe can be copyrighted are unique expressions of an idea. If the copycat took a photo of one of Leonardo's paintings and then used the photo to make and sell prints, that is likely a copyright violation. However, if the copycat is actually painting copies, he may be able to claim that his work is simply a unique expression of the same idea. Or even a "parody" of the same idea. If you think your copyrights are being infringed you should definitely talk to a a lawyer.
3. If you want to sell your artwork, you have to show your artwork. The more you show your artwork, the more likely you are to be successful. If you are determined to stamp out all possibility of being copied, then it's simple: Don't ever show your art to anyone. Period. And don't complain when it's not selling.
4. If you do publicly critique the copier, you better be darn sure that you are truly being copied, preferably with a way to prove it, if possible. A good way to prove it is to be able to show that you posted your images online first.