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When Art & Law Collide: Dealing with a Copycat

When Art & Law Collide: 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 lawyerside 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.

copycat artist rachael grad art

The Painting Backstory

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

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 Backstory

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 only wanted the information to copy the painting herself for her own living room!

So 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, start a lawsuit, etc. You know the drill.

3. Writing. The writer in me wanted to create an imaginary story where the copycat got punished 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.

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.

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 reassuring because we all know that copies are sometimes better than the original! The artists were also banking on karma so if she copied me, she was setting herself up for lots bad artist-karma.

Lawyer Response to Copycats

The Lawyers unsurprisingly were all in favor of protecting my artwork and reminding the copycat of my copyright ownership to the work. 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. A few lawyers 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.

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.

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. One suggested that I ask the copycat to send me a photo of her copy so that I could feature it on my blog. I thought this was a cute idea but don't want to encourage her copying behavior.

Overall, I felt frustrated by the situation and am looking for your feedback! Which of the ideas would you follow? Do you like the writer, artist or lawyer response to a copycat? What would you do in my situation? 

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