ARTISTS' RIGHTS — Stand up and be counted
by Helen Goga

Without a doubt, the most exhilarating moment that wire-art jewellers share is when they have developed a technique or new jewelry design — something unique — that sets them apart from their peers. After all that mulling over, constructing, reconsidering and reworking to finally create what has been seen in their mind's eye as an outstanding idea can only be described as an exceptionally electric experience — ranking right up there with life's most memorable moments. Bursting with excitement, the natural instinct would be to share this accomplishment with their fellow artists.

But that wasn't what they did 10 years ago. At that time, wire-jewelry artists were known to be highly secretive and extremely protective of their new creations. As they tell it, other unethical artists would circle their showcases just to view their work. These disloyal artists would then scurry home to — what some now call "reverse engineer" — copy the new jewelry design with the sole purpose of laying claim to it.

Being professional, well established wire-art jewelers, my former partners and I decided it was time to change the status quo by promoting our art form, so we introduced The Wire Artist Jeweller magazine - a publication that caters exclusively to our fellow artists by placing the focus on celebrating our collective talent and creativity. Though this magazine is no longer published, we are rightfully proud of how we helped build a sense of community for wire-art jewelers and how that generated interest for wire jewelry in other publications. So it is understandable we would become incensed after recognizing that there are still those who blatantly steal others' original work.

After I talked at length with artists who have been ripped off in this way, all of them stated they were disgusted and outraged that others had taken credit for their hard work. While some eventually became resigned, stating that "blatant copying is rampant and happens to everyone", others just can't let go of the indignity and are prepared to reclaim what is rightfully theirs, thereby being placed in the position of having to defend their own work.

Because I have learned the hard way that silence is tacit agreement, I applaud the efforts of the latter group. For that reason, I, too, am committed to act upon copyright infringements and will pursue those who abuse my published material and jewelry designs. Taking this commitment a step further, I will also defend those jewelry designers who contributed to The Wire Artist Jeweller, will inform my fellow artists when I recognize infringements made upon their work, and will even speak out for those artists who are no longer with us.

One such artist who can no longer speak for himself is Tom Phelan. While he was alive, he watched as he lost credit for a wonderful ring design for both cab and faceted stone (commonly known today as the Standard Form Ring, Classic Cabochon Ring, Pharaoh's Ring and Faceted Prong Ring). At a time when wire artists did not share their jewelry designs, Tom luckily registered a patent in 1947 for his ring and published a project booklet, Webs of Gold and Silver, in the late 1950s. I'm amazed at Tom's insightfulness because he tucked a small picture of this patent within this booklet. This small picture — of what looked like a drawing — compelled me to examine it with a loupe and then squeal out (with delight) to my husband, Alan, who was then able to research the document number at the United States Patent Office. (See patent document.)

Tom's project booklet taught his method (the one we still use today) as well as the technique to make the female version using a faceted stone (Pat Capotosto did her version of this one in the July/August 2004 issue of The Wire Artist Jeweller). After all these years, Tom now has a chance of getting his name reconnected to his clever design. In light of the fact that so many artists have gone on to do numerous variations of this ring design, you can see what an impact he has had on future generations. It is most disheartening to see how Tom's name became disassociated from his design and that it is now considered "public domain" (with no one questioning who the originator was). I did not know Tom but I am sure he would have regarded his jewelry design as the high point of his life's work. It is time to give Tom back the credit he so rightfully deserves.

The process of losing credit for one's creative work was much slower in Tom's era than what we can now see in real time on the Internet where, in just a few short years, you'll see several less-than-honest artists laying claim to the same work — making it difficult and confusing for the viewer to distinguish who was the original designer. Lately, because of this brazen activity on the Internet, my former partners and I have been dealing with several artists who have either blatantly copied projects from The Wire Artist Jeweller magazine and prepared tutorials or — even though they took their own pictures and made slight changes to the original jewelry design — have not substantially changed the wording or the design enough to safeguard themselves against a lawsuit.

The infringements occurred because these artists did not ask for written permission to use another's work. Make no mistake: you must ask the copyright owner or someone acting with the owner's authority — such as a publisher — for that permission. Failing to do so will expose you to legal action. Other "copies" we've seen on the Internet have been made by artists who mistakenly thought that they could use the original work if they gave credit, and that this would constitute permission; others thought that if they used only a small portion of the original work they could proceed; while even others thought they didn't need to ask the originator's permission because they were going to adapt the original jewelry design.

Some of the projects that have been plagiarized are jewelry designs belonging to feature artists who contributed to the success of The Wire Artist Jeweller magazine. We are eternally grateful to these wonderful people and are exceptionally protective of their work. (For clarity's sake, I should point out that all of their projects were photographed and written by myself, thus the copyright resides with me.)

Remembering how hard it was to get wire artists to open up; how isolated they were; what it took to encourage them to share with others to build a sense of community, the actions of those who have taken from others really alarm us. For, by their shameful deeds, they have in effect proven to all jewelry designers that it is best to protect and remove from prying eyes our most privileged work. In essence, they will shut down our community and return us all to the dark ages of secrecy and protectionism.

It is time to be vocal and clean up this mess or talented artists will no longer share their work. Unless we're ready to take a stand, showing these copyists that piracy is not tolerated and that there will be consequences, there's no real motivation for them to stop. Unlike the recording industry that responded by calling in their lawyers, many wire artists do not have the financial resources to pursue those who copy their work — but, as a group, we can raise awareness, bring this problem to the forefront and work together to find a solution. If not, it's shame on us for not speaking up and for letting people who steal, win! "What can we do?" you ask. How about a grass-roots movement that follows some basic principles? Here are a few suggestions for the groundwork:

  1. Speak up when you know you've seen someone's work ripped off. Let the artist know you know whose work they've just represented as their own. And report the theft to the original designer.
  2. Currently, so-called artists are selling tutorials on web-sites that also benefit financially from the sales of tutorials based on stolen work. Report this copyright abuse to the web host. Ask what they are going to do about the copyright infringement. Don't be fooled by their "take down and put back up" policy because they will only remove the offending tutorials when they are informed that a lawsuit has been filed. Knowing many artists would not take this extra step, the web host continues to benefit from the sales of plagiarized jewelry designs. Are you prepared to ban their site if they aren't willing to respect copyright laws?
  3. Should the brazen thief be so bold as to publish a tutorial in a magazine, inform the publishers of the infringement and ask them what steps they will take to correct the transgression. If the magazine publisher is not prepared to act, remind them that you represent loyal readers who would lose faith in their publication if they fail to act responsibly.
  4. If you know you have bought a tutorial from someone who has taken credit for another's work, demand your money back. If the offending artist isn't able to profit from the theft, perhaps refunding the money will curb their desire to take from others.
  5. When presenting your re-creation — or version — of another's work, ask the originating artist for their written permission to do so. And always give credit to the jewelry designer (even if the artist is no longer with us).
  6. Should your work be a variation, make sure you get the originator's permission and be sure to give credit. With your integrity intact, others will respect you and, contrary to what you may believe, not think less of you (and your work) because you are willing to admit that others have inspired you. Remember that, as the Internet is easily accessible and highly visible, sooner or later many other artists will figure out where you got your jewelry design or idea from.
  7. If possible, when your work has been plagiarized and the offending artist will not respect your objection, hire a lawyer who specializes in copyright law.

As a member of the wire-jewelry community, I ask that you do not abdicate your responsibility. This is your community, too, and you need to be diligent. With our collective actions, we can make a difference.


All your questions answered...

Clarifying the legal issues
Although attorney Lloyd J. Jassin is not my legal counsel, he has extensive knowledge in the publishing industry, lectures frequently on copyright issues affecting creators and has an excellent website: www.copylaw.com While visiting this site, click on the Articles navigation button where you'll find "Ten Common Copyright Permission Myths" highlighting several points that are simply not understood by some within our community. Lloyd has also co-authored the bestselling book, Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide for Writers, Editors and Publishers (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.), available at bookstores or on his website.