As It Happens

'It has been a battle': Montreal artist says her designs were stolen by online companies

A Montreal artist who says foreign companies are ripping off her work and selling it online for as little as $5 a piece is warning consumers and artists alike to be wary.

Ishita Banerjee warns artists to be vigilant about online sites that sell copied work without permission

Montreal artist Ishita Banergee says foreign companies have been selling her work online without her permission. (Submitted by Ishita Banerjee)
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Transcript

A Montreal artist who says foreign companies are ripping off her work and selling it online for as little as $5 a piece is warning consumers and artists alike to be wary of such vendors.

Ishita Banerjee is a painter who has been developing her cubist-expressionist style for nearly three decades. Her work is marked by bold, colourful faces, and she describes her designs as part geometric, part abstract.

An original of her painting sells for anywhere between $400 to $1,200, depending on the size, while prints of her work range from $40 to $160.

But since January, Banerjee says she has found 29 companies selling her art on the web at a steep discount — without her permission. And taking legal action against those companies has proven to be a real "battle," she says.

Banerjee says AliExpress, a global marketplace website based in China, is responsible for much of the problem. As It Happens reached out to Alibaba Group, of which AliExpress is a subsidiary company, but had not received a response as of Monday evening.

Banerjee spoke with As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal. Here is part of their conversation.

Miss Banerjee, when did you first notice that your art was being sold online without your permission?

It was January and I was just browsing the internet, looking at Pinterest, actually. 

I saw my art, but ... it was not the same images that I had taken or I had put up. 

I saw these companies called TipTopHomeDecor and other companies that were cropping up, and it didn't make any sense to me because I had not sold it to them. 

In the beginning, it was just one company. And then the more I looked, I kept finding more.

How surreal, if I can borrow a term from the art world, was that?

I couldn't believe it. I mean, for a minute [I thought], "Am I thinking correctly?"

So the companies that are using your art, does it have any reference to your name or anything like that?

Not at all. They have absolutely no reference to my name. They have removed my signature.

In some cases ... they have just simply flipped the image. 

In a couple of instances, some companies just added a few lines on top. 

But I mean, anybody who sees the art clearly can see that it is mine.

How do you think they are getting their hands on your work? Is it from your sale website?

Honestly, I have no idea, because I do all of my printing myself and I have just one local person who does it for me. They're very trustworthy and I have full control over that.

But I had noticed, say, about three years ago ... a lot of activity from these spam bots that would come to my website from China, from Russia. 

It would give me this warning saying that there's somebody on your website from Russia for, say, four hours. So in the beginning, I was a little confused. Like who would be on my website for four hours, or five hours? 

In retrospect, when I think back, perhaps it could have been that. That is my assumption.

This screenshot shows was Banerjee says is an online retailer selling copies of her work. She says if customers see art selling online for prices as low as $5, they should consider that a red flag. (Submitted by Ishita Banerjee)

How much are these other companies all around the world selling your work for?

From China they're selling it anywhere from $5 to $12, depending on the size. And these third-party companies that source from China to sell it, sell it between $20 and $30. And I'm talking about really, really big sizes. And those are not realistic prices at all.

It sounds like there's a multi-layered scheme here. Can you take me inside how you think it works?

When I first contacted this company, I thought there was just one person maybe stealing it. So I contacted this company and I asked them for the source of their files and I asked them to take it down. So then this person revealed to me that they physically did not have any product. They just are ... a shell company.

These guys are all over the world. They could be in Mexico. They could be in Aruba. They could be in Jamaica. They're in Granada. They're in Fiji.

These guys have no physical product. They have nothing to do with the shipping, nothing to do with the production, nothing to do with anything. They are just the shell companies that take the order from the customer, source it from AliExpress, and AliExpress then ships it directly to the customer anywhere around the world.

You've, I'm sure, tried to get in contact with these companies. Alibaba, for its part, is based in China. What kind of response have you received?

Alibaba does not deal with this directly. They have a completely separate platform … whenever you have an intellectual property dispute.

And the process is pretty difficult, because the minute I have to go there, I have to prove that it is my product, it is my intellectual property, I am the copyright, I am the rightful owner of it. To do that, I have to reveal my identity. I have to give them my driver's license. I have to give them my company registration number.

I don't want to reveal my identity to them. I am scared right there how much more is going to get stolen from me.

This is what I live, dream, breathe, and to have my credibility completely destroyed over this — somebody selling [my] art for $5 — it just does not make any sense to me.- Ishita Banerjee

On the other hand, I have been personally reaching out to the other companies in the hope that, you know, they will see that this is unethical and they will take it down. Some of them take it down. Some of them apologize. Some of them are downright abusive. Some of them refuse to acknowledge my mail and this continues. So far, I found 29 companies doing that, and I have only managed to successfully go after eight people.

I can hear the anger and the emotion in your voice. It's been quite a battle.

It has been a battle. It's emotionally draining. 

This is what I live, dream, breathe, and to have my credibility completely destroyed over this — somebody selling [my] art for $5 — it just does not make any sense to me. I'm angry and I'm very, very hurt.

What kind of legal recourse might you have?

I spoke to a lawyer here.

And it turns out that when you register copyright, copyrights registrations work on the basis of the country. So if I have registered my artwork in Canada, my registration rights are only in Canada. 

I would warn other artists to just protect their work, and just be as vigilant as possible.- Ishita Banerjee

So these Chinese companies completely take advantage of that.

What's your advice to other artists?

I actually wrote a blog post about this, and I was trying to tell people how to recognize whether you are buying from an unethical company versus somebody who … has licensed work ethically from an artist. 

If they are buying it ethically, they will have a licensing agreement with the artist. They will have the artist's name on it. They will have other works from the artists. They will have the medium displayed. They will talk about the artist … [and] the artists get a royalty payment for every sale that they make. But when you are buying art for $5 dollars with free shipping around the world, there is definitely something wrong there. 

I would warn other artists to just protect their work, and just be as vigilant as possible.


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Edited for length and clarity.

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