When Art & Law Collide: Dealing with a Copycat

When Art & Law Collide: Dealing with a Copycat

When Art & Law Collide

Welcome to a new series of blog posts “Where Art & Law Collide,” where I look at the intersection of art and law. In 2008 I stopped practicing law to go to art school. At that time I referred to myself as a “recovering lawyer.” Not to worry, I’m mostly recovered now!

Occasionally I come across interesting stories that involve artists and legal issues. In this first blog post, I’m describing a personal situation where my inner artist collided with my legal training and writer instincts.  I’d love to know what you think of this new series and my copycat story…

Dealing with a Copycat

Recently another artist actually admitted that she’s copying my artwork. I felt shocked and conflicted on how to respond to her. The artist in me felt hurt and crushed. My lawyer side was outraged and ready to get all legal on her a$$. The writer in me sensed there might be a good story in this frustrating situation. Here’s what happened.

The Painting Backstory

No Copying Artist at Easel Dealing with a Copycat Rachael Grad Fine Art
When Art & Law Collide: Dealing with a Copycat

My painting was hanging in a public place. A “potential buyer” contacted me, asked me tons of questions, and requested that I email her information. She wanted a photograph of the painting and detailed pricing options. When I followed up with her she admitted that she was an artist herself. She had wanted the detailed information so that she could copy the painting herself for her own living room!

Shocked and confused, I decided to take a step back from my conflicting feelings. I asked for advice from 3 very different communities of friends: lawyers, artists and writers.

Before consulting lawyer, artist and writer friends, I felt my options were limited to:

1. Hibernating. The artist in me was ready to hide myself in my studio and never share any artwork again.

2. Suing. The lawyer in me wanted to make threats, write scary letters, take a moral stand, start a lawsuit, etc. You know the drill.

3. Writing. The writer in me wanted to release my frustration by creating an imaginary story where the copycat was exposed for her bad behavior.

Artist Response to Copycats

The Artists who gave me advice were outraged but somewhat helpless in the face of a copycat. A few reminded me that copying artwork is part of learning and very common in art school. This copying is usually limited to masterpieces and not of fellow artists’ work.

Copying for Personal Use

Many artists regularly copyright their artwork, but the copyright can only really be enforced if the copier is profiting from the copy. So if the copied artwork is for personal use, like my copycat’s piece for her living room, there’s not much that can be done to stop the copy. Or be compensated for it.

Appeal to the Artist in the Copycat?

The Artists encouraged me to send her a reminder of my copyright and appeal to her artist-side. They felt that her copy would likely not be as good as my original. This was not reassuring because we all know that some copies are better than the original.

Rely on Karma

The artists were also banking on karma. Their theory is that if she copied me, she was setting herself up for lots bad artist-karma. Also not reassuring to me but perhaps I should follow this advice and trust the universe.

Lawyer Response to Copycats

The Lawyers unsurprisingly were in favor of protecting my artwork and reminding the copycat of my copyright ownership in the work.A few lawyers recommended sending the copycat a warning letter. One suggested a licensing arrangement but I doubt the copycat would agree to that. I didn’t see much point in wasting time and money on formal legal action.

Include Warning Language on Artwork

Lawyers familiar who have also delved into creative pursuits advised me to write “all rights reserved” along with the copyright symbol on the back of my artwork. That may help in other situations but unlikely to do anything with a copycat who doesn’t even own the original art.

Richard Prince & Instagram Copying

At around the same time this was happening, an interesting story hit the news about the famous artist Richard Prince making tons of money by copying other people’s Instagram photos. Apparently his work falls under the “fair use” exception of copyright and is completely legal.

So if it’s ok for Richard Prince to copy, I didn’t think I’d have much of a case against my copycat and her living room piece. Incidentally, the artists who were copied by Richard Prince are now selling their own photos for $90 versus Prince’s $90,000 price.

Writer Response to Copycats

The writers had by far the most creative ideas. They saw this story as fruit for great publicity, a novel or at least a decent blog post.

Use it for Publicity

One writer suggested that I ask the copycat to send me a photo of her copy so that I could feature it on my blog. He thought this would be generous and highlight my artwork as great if people want to copy it. I thought this was a cute idea but have struggled with whether I want to actually implement it. I don’t want to encourage her copying. From dealings with the copycat my instinct is that she wouldn’t be receptive to me featuring her copied artwork.

Write Then Move On

Overall, many writers and some artists advised me to consider it a compliment, laugh about it and move on. My husband, who works in music and is used to copyright infringement issues, agreed with this approach. In his blunt way he told me to get over the copycat and forget about it.

What Would You DO?

Overall, I felt frustrated by the situation and am looking for your feedback. Which of the ideas would you follow? Do you relate to the writer, artist or lawyer responses to a copycat? Or are you like my husband who told me to forget about it and move on? Let me know in the comments!

Related Stories:

Creativity Takes Courage Quote Henri Matisse

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