Naples artist Elaine Murphy would love to see her art appreciated all over the world.
That doesn't include, however, being hawked on a website in China without her knowledge and permission, and at one-twentieth the price she charges.
The figurative abstract artist got a shock last month when a British collector alerted her that a company with a Chinese address had Murphy's name listed in a roster of artists whose work it purports to sell. The website's paintings also include works sold under the names of masters such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Claude Monet and John Singer Sargent.
"I couldn't believe it," Murphy said. "I had no idea who these people were and how they reproduced my art."
What's worse is that the facsimiles of her work were being sold for far less money than it cost her to create the original. An 8-inch by 10-inch rendition of any one of her works, done in oil, was $20. Supersize that to 48 by 72 inches and the price, again for an oil painting, is $180. The original, at about 35 by 42 inches, sells for between $3,000 and $4,000.
The paintings aren't a sampling of her style with details changed, Murphy observed: "No, they're exact replicas. Nothing has changed. They're even signing my name to them."
While representatives for two local sellers of fine art, Harmon-Meek and Marianne Friedland galleries, say it's a rarity, it happens, and the artist has the burden of stopping it. That can be like stamping out a brush fire in the middle of a dry field.
"You may be able to get the company to take down their listing of your work, but within days they're open on a new site with it," said Jeanne Seewald, a partner in the Naples office of Hahn Loeser and Parks LLP, who is a certified specialist in intellectual property law.
"If you keep following them and making them take down their copies of your work, they may decide it's too much of a hassle to be reproducing your art. That's your best chance."
The crimes fall under "intellectual property" theft. But international prosecution, even in countries with which the U.S. has treaties, seems to be up to the individual, with limited government resources devoted to larger cases. The FBI, which may investigate forgery cases in its cybercrimes office, doesn't prosecute them, according to the person responding on its press office line: That's up to the regional federal district attorney's office in Tampa. The district attorney's office, however, referred calls back to the Cybercrimes division of the FBI.
There are a broad number of references to the theft of inventions, patented processes, pharmaceuticals and Disney characters. Art cases mentioned on the cybercrimes website refer to stolen art being sold. In the alphabet soup of international intellectual property theft treaties and criminal investigation agencies, there doesn't seem to be much room for a single artist's plight.
Murphy says she contacted the FBI and was told her case would be filed, but that it could be months before it could be pursued. She also contacted the nongovernmental group, Legal Art, in Miami, and was told one of its attorneys would look into her complaint.Legal Art says it doesn't discuss individual cases. However, the organization does offer some pro bono services for members (annual membership is $30) at its Free Legal Service Nights each month.
Yet those are for people whose work hasn't been compromised yet, Murphy notes.
"I'm in galleries in New York and Los Angeles that have my images. Even if I change my images, they're out there already (in counterfeit). How can someone be protected against buying a forged work they think is mine?"
She acknowledges the road to stopping this company from forging and selling her works is going to be a slow one, beginning with a warning letter to the website host, whom she acknowledges may not be aware some of the works on one of its sites are forged.
"I hope I can be an example. Maybe we can stop this from happening to other people," she concluded.
STAY AHEAD OF COUNTERFEITS
Hahn Loeser and Parks LLP, which has offices in Naples and Fort Myers, and is headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, has attorneys who specialize in intellectual property rights. Attorney Jeanne Seewald of its Naples office offers this warning: “If you’re going to put your art out on the Internet, it’s going to be hard to keep people from copying it because they know all the tricks.”
Slow down forgers
Copyright your work and note that on your website.
The online filing fee is $35.
Don’t permit enlargement of images. Keep them small and low-resolution.
Add a copyright watermark across larger images.
When you spot a forgery
Find out what agreements the home country for the website has with this country.
Get photos of the website, and your own, showing the duplication.
Find out what server is hosting the website and ask them to take it down — but without accusing that party of being in collaboration. The host might not know the work on one of its websites is an unauthorized copy.
If the unauthorized art isn’t taken down on request, it might be time to call in a lawyer. Seewald recommends finding an attorney who is board-certified for intellectual property rights law. That might be its own chore, she said: “There are only 128 of us board-certified in Florida, out of 93,000 attorneys.”
The U.S. government offers information summaries about intellectual property theft, covering all areas of reproduction, at www.stopfakes.gov/us-gov-agencies.
The National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center also will take warnings to a regional level. There will be an “Intellectual Property Rights Road Show” Aug. 28 in Orlando. See protectipr.eventbrite.com.
For those who want to copyright their works, filing online can be done at www.copyright.gov.