Copy rites


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, friend and fellow painter Melissa Jean wrote to tell me that Chinese websites and are offering to hand-produce forgeries of our paintings — along with the works of thousands of other artists, alive and dead. If your work is online, there’s a chance you’re listed there, too, along with Munch, Botticelli, Pissarro and Goya.


Young women making copies of paintings in Mainland China

What’s an artist to do about the anxiety that comes from being stolen from? A disregard for the integrity of creative ownership intrudes with a special kind of betrayal. Artists lay it on the line, risk all and operate to honour imagination. It can be too much to also have to fight for global decency. Meanwhile, the economics of creativity are broken. We can blame the digital age, or the Internet itself, but behind the screen are individuals capitalizing on demand for fakes and the ease of access to other people’s ideas. Even if forgery is as old as painting itself, our times have made it a worldwide phenomenon.


Art copyists in China have created hundreds of thousands of paintings over 10 years, claims

Last year, creative technologist and writer Rex Sorgatz purchased a fake Vermeer and a fake Van Gogh online for $135, including shipping. He then interviewed the Chinese website owner who sold them to him. Sorgatz wondered if the painter even liked Vermeer. The dealer-in-forgeries revealed that over 5000 skilled Chinese painters are working full-time in a workshop in Xiamen, painting hundreds of Western reproductions per month on demand. A lot of fakes stay in China, but just as many go to Europe and America, and Florida is a hotspot. Their top seller is Monet.

“I respect all the original artists, though their works are different,” said the forgery dealer. When asked if the reproductions were good enough to be mistaken for real masterpieces, he replied, “No, it is impossible. No one can do it. Even the original artist can’t do it.” He insisted, even so, that great works of art belong to humanity, not just museums and rich people.


Copying room at the Da Fen Oil Painting Village in Buji, Longgang, Shenzhen, China, employing over 5,000 artists



PS: “Painting is an awkwardly intimate art form, quite different from the mechanical printing press or an MP3 anonymously shared across networks. A painting has within it the traces of its own production, the labor in a brushstroke. The hand of the creator is visible in the work itself.” (Rex Sorgatz)

“Saying that ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ is a pithy contrivance to help us cope with grief.” (Peter Bray)

Esoterica: Ten years ago, Dad wrote to you about Chinese website Archworld and their business of printing reproductions on demand. He personally contacted the website and requested that 120 images of his paintings be removed. Taking up the issue with the Canadian Trade Commissioner for Visual Arts, he pointed out that China signed on to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works on October 15, 1992, protecting the copyright on works from other signatory countries in the same way it protects the copyright of its own nationals. Archworld may be down, but a dozen sites have taken its place. We may each take action to protect what is right; however, consider this: Theft is but an ugly facet in the diamond created by making art in the first place. W. B. Yeats, when asked to say something about the poets who made a living by parasitizing him, replied, “Was there ever dog that praised his fleas?”

If you are interested in exploring more strategies for stopping online art forgery, you’re invited to contact artist Steve Coffey.

The current Canadian Trade Commissioner for Visual Arts in British Columbia, Canada is Paul Roch.

And the Copyright Policy Branch of the Department of Canadian Heritage welcomes feedback.


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'Parkview 3 - Earth Light Series by Carol Nelson, Colorado, USA

Parkview 3 – Earth Light Series

mixed media 24 x 24 inches
by Carol Nelson, Colorado, USA


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