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Art of the West

July/August 2004

Buying Sculpture?

Beware of Illegal Copies

by Bill Frazier

Copyright infringement, prticularly with sculpture, is big business. Although numerous Internet sites are devoted to such copies of artwork, the problem also exists elsewhere. Look in many galleries, gift shops, and garden décor stores. Even the casual viewer will see copies of work, including work depicted in this magazin.

While researching this topic, I visited many Web sites. Often the same site had different names and adresses, but had the same spiel. Sometimes the site presents itself as an educational locale with links to sale sites. For example, they attempt to describe the history of bronze, explain the lost-wax process, and depict historical bronze works ad statuary before launching into a sales pitch.

Copyright infringement is a financially, as well as emotionally, devastating problem for many artists. Ehile it is illegal and there are, in theory, both criminal and civil sanctions against the perpetrators, catching them and shutting them down is almost impossible.There is the isolated success, but the only successes I am familiar with have been where the copier has been caught in the United Sates.

As far as the Internet pirates go, even identifying their country of origin can be problematic. And, even if the artist can located the infringer, he simply moves his Internet site and location. Most of the copies are coming from China and Thailand, with more and more coming from Mexico and other South American and Asian countries, as well as Russia.

One painter was uniquely successful in shutting down such an operation because it operated in hie home state. He was able to obtain a judgment against the infringer, but the villain has no attachable assets. Because the infringer was in the same state as the artist, however, every time he marketed another copy, the artist brought a contempt of court action, which brings with it criminal sanctions such as fines and jail time. This solution so far seems to the exception.

Education might be the best solution. Potential buyers need to be made aware that such bronzes probably are worth their weight in bronze only and have no more intrinsic value than a boat anchor. For those buyers simply wanting a relatively nice-looking and cheap lawn or garden ornament, this might make no difference. But for the buyer who is seeking artwork, information is important. Art magazines, galleries, and artists should join together to inform the art-buying public about this problem.

Effeorts could be made at the Congressional level to enact stricter enforcement of copyright laws, treaties, and conventions for the protection of original artwork and artists. Enforcement could be strengthened at the customs level with greater authority to confiscate copies and infringements. Such a structure is in place, but as far as I know it has not been adequately funded.

These are the same customs laws that are used to try to intercept fake Rolex watches, blue jeans, and other designer and labeled consumer goods. Lobbying for such Congressional enactments and funding might be a good project for national arts organizations such as Americans for the Arts and National Endowment for the Arts.

Copyright infringers and pirates have no lack of source materials. It is readily available on artists' Web sites and in magaziens, brochures, and through photographs that can be taken surreptitiously at galleries and art shows. There actually are even computer programs out thre that can be used to create three-dimensional images from two-dimensional photographs in a brochure or Web site. Paradoxically, such a computer program would be legal, but use of the program for its designed purpose, without the artist's permission, would be illegal.

Unfortunately, many buyers don't care about this problem because they are simply looking for something cheap to use as a decoration, but anyone really interested in art and the arts will want to help to find a remedy for this poisoning of the market. Consumers and collectors must educate themselves about what they are buying and from whom.

Bill Frazier is in private practice in Big Timber, Montana.

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