This is not how I expected to be spending the day.
I see a Tweet that accuses some guy who calls himself “Van Renselar” of plagiarizing from my favorite photographer, Zhang Jingna. I follow the link, and sure enough, there are at least two images that are clearly plagiarized. I tried posting a comment pointing out the plagiarism, but for some reason I was unable to. So I wrote an email and sent it to two of the contact addresses given on the site. I CC-ed the e-mail to Jingna and her agent. Jingna herself just posted about the little drama that ensued, so I won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to say, Mr. Brian Walker, “Artist Relations,” of DiscoveredArtists.com, tried to shoot the messenger.
An alert commenter pointed out another obvious rip-off of a photograph of the famous Chinese actress, Zhang Ziyi.
To eliminate room for doubt, I superimposed “Van Renselar’s” images on the original photographs. Judge for yourself.
In the image below, “Van Renselar” stretched the model’s neck and changed her face, but the dress and hair are identical. (NOTE: I was initially under the impression that this portrait of Zhang Ziyi was also taken by Jingna, but that is not the case. Does anyone know who owns the copyright?)
This sort of plagiarism is rampant these days, but what makes this particularly egregious is the fact that DiscoveredArtists.com is actually selling prints of the stolen work. Perhaps it was concern for his bottom line that led the the site’s representative to respond by accusing me of “virtual harassment,” calling me “immature” and “an amateur” in the process, rather than comparing the works in question, removing the fakes, and apologizing to Ms. Zhang.
I would appreciate an apology, but their top priority right now should be removing the material from the site, apologizing to Ms. Zhang, and refunding the money of any poor suckers who may have forked over US $390 for one of those prints.
UPDATE: Mr. Walker has apologized to Ms. Zhang and also to me. DiscoveredArtists.com has also removed Van Renselar from their online catalog. According to Mr. Walker, neither of the Renselar pieces based on Ms. Zhang’s work were ever sold through DiscoveredArtists.com. So, kudos to them. But Renselar is still peddling his knock-offs on his own site. Why not drop him a line and let him know what you think of his “original artworks,” as he calls them? While you’re at it, you also might want to check his catalog to see if he hasn’t borrowed from you as well.
SECOND UPDATE: Van Renselar has removed both the images from his website. He apologized to Jingna, saying that the photo was on a CD-ROM given to him by a “friend,” who assured him that all the material on the CD-ROM was public domain. Sounds a bit far-fetched to me, but I have no proof to the contrary, and the important thing is that he removed the material and apologized. Mission accomplished…?
THIRD UPDATE: With Van Renselar’s permission, here is his response to Jingna, followed by my e-mail to him and his response to me. I thought it was only fair that I include his side of the story. First his e-mail to Jingna:
From: Van Renselar
Date: Tue, Jan 4, 2011 at 7:24 PM
Subject: Van Renselar painting
Hello Zhang Jingna,
First of all let me offer my sincere apologies – and an explanation – you are owed one after all. This matter first came to my attention earlier today and I have acted as swiftly and decisively as I can to remedy it.
A fellow artist gave me a CD of images assuring me they were all public domain. I now know that was not true but at the time I took his word for it. One of the images caught my eye and would fit in well with a painting I was planning, so I took the figure from it and painted it again for insertion into my own picture. Believe me, it was never my intention to use a copyright picture and I absolutely would not have used it if I had suspected it was.
The picture has now been removed from my website. I will try to track down any other places it might possibly appear on the web and get it taken down. If you should encounter it anywhere else, please let me know so that I can try to get it deleted.
I am very embarrassed that this should happen and I can assure you that I will be very much more vigilant in the future about using reference images from unverified sources. Please let me assure you that I have never received any money from anyone for this picture. It will never appear again in public.
I would not be the first artist to use photographs for reference material, but when I have worked from photos, they would be only public domain or photos I’ve taken myself. This time I was badly misled and I therefore got it wrong. I’m angry too, because it means I wasted over 4 weeks of my time painting something I can never show. But that’s probably my own fault for not double checking what I was told.
None of this was mentioned to me by discovered artists.com so I didn’t know all this was happening. I am sorry if the man there was rude to you – especially unfair as you were the injured party. I don’t really know the company and I have no power (or say) in how they deal with third parties. I believe I am no longer on their site, although they haven’t notified me yet, not that that matters anyway.
I very much regret that my work has caused this upset and offer my apologies once again. Having been ripped off myself twice in the last 10 years I can easily imagine how you feel.
And here is my (extremely diplomatic) e-mail to him…
From: Matt THORN
Date: Wed, Jan 5, 2011 at 1:05 PM
Subject: Regarding “Tuesday’s Child”
Dear Van Renselar,
I am pleased to see that you have removed “Walls and Lies” from your catalog. You should also be aware that “Tuesday’s Child” is also a misappropriation of a copyrighted portrait of the famous Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi, also taken by photographer Zhang Jingna. I hope you will also remove “Tuesday’s Child” from your catalog and the banner of your top page. It is my understanding that you used these images in the belief that they were public domain photographs, and that the error was an honest one. You might want to look through your body of works to see if you may have accidentally used other copyrighted materials in ways that do not constitute Fair Use.
Please note that I am not writing as a representative of Ms. Zhang, but merely as an admirer of her work and of art in general. If the problem with “Tuesdays’ Child” has already been brought to your attention, I apologize for the redundancy.
With best wishes for the New Year,
Faculty of Manga
Kyoto Seika University
…and finally, his response to me:
From: Van Renselar
Date: Wed, Jan 5, 2011 at 4:58 PM
Subject: Re: Regarding “Tuesday’s Child”
To: Matt THORN
Hello Matt Thorn,
Thank you for your email. I have already written a full apology and explanation of my mistake to Zhang Jingna (pasted below) and emailed it to her. Could I ask a favour of you – I don’t know if the email address I used was correct or not – firstname.lastname@example.org – but if it wasn’t could you let me know her proper address or forward this email to her.
I am happy to comply with all the points raised in your email. My website has now been revised and I will spend the rest of this day checking if they appear anywhere else – and then deleting them.
I wish that somebody (probably discovered artists.com) had brought this to my notice as soon as it was spotted then this could have been dealt with sooner, avoiding the rancour that ensued. Several people have sent me hate-emails, having clearly made up their minds about my criminally foul intentions before hearing what I had to say. I have responded politely to every one sent, no matter how abusive their email was.
I now have to unpleasant task of dealing with a friend whose ‘gift’ dropped me in this s*** in the first place.
PS. I am happy for you to put the full contents of this email online if you choose to.
And that is–hopefully–the end of that 24(?)-hour drama.