You see that photo? I would bet that the majority of you know whose it is without having to read the author’s name.
Bill Gekas' beautiful images of his daughter are so recognizable by now, and not just by us on 1x, but by so many people around the world. His style is that unique and that exquisite, which is why his photography has won numerous awards, been printed in countless international publications and received worldwide attention for many years.
That’s why it’s so hard to imagine that someone would copy one of Bill’s photos — so precisely in fact that it looks like it came out of a paint-by-numbers kit — and then try to pass it off as his own. What’s even more difficult to believe is that the artist didn’t stop there: He actually entered the painting into the 2015 San Diego County Fair art competition, which does award prize money.
And a few days ago he won 1st Place Best of Show in the Fine Art category!
ABC 10News — KGTV in San Diego first reported the "controversy" yesterday (July 2, 2015). It's a very interesting story — check it out. See for yourself how closely the painting resembles Bill’s photograph.
Fair judges investigate fine art contest winner © ABC 10News — KGTV San Diego (July 2, 2015)
Kinda brings back memories of good ol’ Richard Prince, doesn’t it?
Thanks to San Diego photographer Erika Thornes, the issue was brought to Bill’s immediate attention by text, and she also notified ABC 10News. Erika and Bill have been friends via Facebook for over three years, and she was shocked to discover the painting was in the contest. She has participated in the fair’s competition for the past few years and has won multiple awards. So, as she puts it, she has "a vested interest in making sure that the winners are legitimate.”
Photo of painting entitled Girl with the Blue Scarf by Jackson Rios © Erika Thornes
I know that Bill has been through this before. Not long ago I saw a "painting" that he discovered on Facebook. It was so identical to one of Bill’s photos that the artist had actually included the faint 1X watermark in the top-right corner. I kid you not!
That’s one that would break the dial on any Laugh-O-Meter.
So I checked in with Bill earlier today to get his reaction and see what he does when his work is so blatantly copied. I also wondered how he manages a situation like this when it happens so far away from his home in Melbourne. Here’s what he had to say:
Bill, this isn't the first time this has happened to you. How does it make you feel?
It's not the first time and probably won't be the last either. When it first started happening a couple or so years back, it was upsetting, but over time I've become desensitized to it. It’s just another grievance I have to deal with accordingly.
This artist never contacted you about painting your photograph. As far as the law is concerned, can someone actually copy your work without asking?
They can't do it unless they get permission, and if they do it, their work has to be different enough. There are certain legal and ethical guidelines that we usually must follow.
So this artist entered a dead ringer for your image into a competition and won. Now that the judges know about it, what has been done other than taking the work off the wall?
From what I know, it's now been disqualified and prize money won't be awarded. The organizers have to protect and safeguard the reputation of the competition.
Have you been in contact with the San Diego artist, Jackson Rios? What has he said about this?
I haven't been in contact with the artist, as the onus here lies with the exhibitors at this stage, being the San Diego County Fair. It could be that the artist simply isn't aware of international copyright law.
How many times has this happened to you over the years? Have you ever had to sue anyone?
Honestly, I've really lost count — countless times! I sort of expect it now and usually know how to deal with it. I haven't sued anyone yet, but currently I’m investigating another painter from the UK who’s copying my Cherries and Pears photos and calling them interpretations of his past — seriously! Fortunately, most of the countries where I find these copyright breaches are also signatories to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, which makes legal challenges an easier prospect.
Would you say this is a similar situation to the recent Richard Prince appropriation scandal?
Richard Prince... I wasn't that lucky to be caught up with that one! (And Bill signed off there with a smiley wink.)
Erika Thornes has done extensive research on the matter of entering copied work into a competition. She suggested to the fair organizers that, in the future, “they should be running software to check for copyright violations on their entries.” Unfortunately, she says she got the impression that they dismissed the idea as being “too tough” to pull off.
And I thought it was all about the pears. Hmph!
Enjay Santos works in technology for Getty Images these days, but he previously worked in copyright compliance for both Corbis (early 2000s) and Getty Images (2005 – 2013). With Erika’s idea in mind — Is there software available that could be used to prevent copyright infringement in a competition such as this one? — this is what he told me.
"There are a host of technologies that could help. They all involve a visual search algorithm that indexes the original work, but this would be most effective for direct infringement. If a derivative work is created, there may be enough change in the new piece that the software won't pick it up. Companies I've worked with are TinEye, LTV (probably no longer in business), Digimarc and PicScout.
"But the fair may not have a budget to use these technologies because it costs a truckload to index and match. In my opinion, the fair’s best bet is raising the profile of its contest so more citizens like Erika and the original artists themselves can intervene if something like this happens again. Not ideal, I know, but the costs in operating an index and crawl are so high, and the results aren't necessarily 100% guaranteed. It may not detect all infringements."
And so the copyright infringement saga continues…
Where the painting used to be at the San Diego County Fair art competition
At least Erika’s fast thinking motivated the San Diego County Fair organizers to remove the painting and disqualify it from the competition. The wall remains bare where the painting once was, and the empty space has now been filled with a recycle bin.
Today I noticed a comment on Facebook beneath this recycle bin photo: How appropriate.
How appropriate, indeed.
Video courtesy ABC 10News — KGTV San Diego
Many thanks to Bill Gekas, Erika Thornes and Enjay Santos for all of your great input.