Artists, Copyright, and Urban Outlaws


By: Justin Beattie

Toronto artist Alicia Nauta at work screen printing.

Toronto artist Alicia Nauta at work screen printing.

Hipster clothing retailer, Urban Outfitters, has drawn attention from the US arts community for its recurring theft of jewelry designs and other artwork. Last week, the retailer’s unethical practices ventured into the Toronto arts community, and approached local Graphic Artist Alicia Nauta with an offer to retail her work.

Featured over a year ago in the Village Voice, the clothing retailer manufactured one-to-one reproductions of a series of pendants without any consultation from designer, Chicago artist Stevie Koerner. Along with a Navajo-themed liquor flask, this is just another example of unethically sourced products on Urban Outfitters’ shelves.

On Tuesday, September 11, Urban Outfitters contacted Alicia Nauta, OCAD University graduate and resident artist of her Murdertides blog, offering to mass-produce three pieces of her artwork to be sold as wall-art. This would seem like the big break she had been waiting for, a multinational company offering to license her work so it could be sold in stores across North America. But the offer was a pittance: one dollar out of the $24 price tag slated for the 600 reproductions Urban Outfitters planned to make. Naturally, she declined the offer.

This is well out of line with what artists, even emerging ones, should expect to receive in compensation for licensing their work. If Nauta had awarded Urban Outfitters a full license, the company could to continue to reproduce her work indefinitely without offering any further financial compensation. Better than stealing, but not by much.

What was even more troubling to Nauta was that the initial email from Urban Outfitters included three copies of her prints sourced from her Blog, obtained without her prior authorization.

According to Kathryn Adams, a freelance illustrator and Business Practices instructor at Sheridan College and OCAD U, “That would be like walking into a shoe store, taking the shoes out of the store…wearing them home… then calling the store and saying…you know, I really like these shoes, so I’m going to give you ten bucks for them even though they’re marked in the store…at $200.”

Adams noted that taking an artist’s work without asking is a common business practice among many larger retailers. In Canada, the copyright for artistic work is automatically awarded to the creator, requiring no further action on the part of the artist. However, without any kind of regulated registration process, proving ownership of the art is difficult at best.

Adams suggests registering work with the U.S. Copyright Office for a fee of about $50 per item as more secure proof of copyright should legal proceedings begin. While not an insignificant cost for emerging artists like Nauta, this is a small amount in comparison to the legal fees required for an artist to pursue a copyright claim in civil court, which can often amount to more than the artist would be awarded in settlement should the case eventually prove successful.

Since these cases are dealt with in civil court, it is up to the artist to prove that it is indeed her image used without her consent, and requires no action on the part of the offender. What is even more concerning for Adams is that unlike the United States, where legislation mandates certain levels of compensation, Canada has no standardized awards for successful cases. When artists’ claims are successful, they often receive no more than they would have originally charged to legally license their work.

Unsurprisingly, financial barriers faced by artists attempting to pursue a case of copyright infringement in court often prevent them from ever doing so. Adams notes that large companies, like Urban Outfitters, with their formidable financial resources are aware of this advantage.

For large companies, appropriating work without consent proves to be a more cost effective business practice when compared to ethically licensing work from artists.

While organizations like Access Copyright Canada offer advice and support to artists trying to protect their work, Adams concludes that, as it stands, the legislation simply isn’t there to lend the advantage, or even a level playing field, to individual artists.

While Nauta took the opportunity to remind Urban Outfitters of her copyright and their past transgressions against other artists, she received only a cordial but evasive e-mail in reply. Should they choose to use her work without her consent, the advantage still belongs to them.

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