Zara and Gorman are the latest retail chains to be accused of plagiarising artists’ work. Why do they do it and how can artists protect their designs?
Nicola Heath

9 Aug 2016 - 9:47 AM  UPDATED 9 Aug 2016 - 9:47 AM

As an artist, walking into a store and seeing your design on sale is a dream come true. Except when that design has been used by a multinational retailer without your permission.

This happened to Tuesday Bassen, an award-winning LA-based artist whose work appears to have been copied on at least six different occasions by fashion giant Zara. Bassen’s cute designs – including a love heart lollipop, a strawberry pin, and a pennant flag featuring the word ‘GIRLS’ – appear almost unchanged on the Zara items.

Adam J. Kurtz, Bassen’s friend and fellow artist, had a similar experience. A fan spotted one of Kurtz’s designs repurposed as a pin by Bershka, a clothing retailer owned by Inditex, the same parent company that owns Zara.

“When your creative work is stolen it can feel like a slap in the face,” he says. “It's hard enough being confident enough to share anything, and then seeing it crammed onto a purse or t-shirt just feels terrible.”

The product was withdrawn from sale after Kurtz emailed the company directly, but the New York-based designer, illustrator and author was so incensed at the theft that he started the website, where he publishes side-by-side images of the original work and the Zara copies.

When your creative work is stolen it can feel like a slap in the face.

Since launching the online campaign he has uncovered another 20 artists whose work appears to have been ripped off by Inditex subsidiaries. Human error could explain one or two cases of plagiarism, says Kurtz, “but when it's over 20 times by a single company (in this case, Zara) in a single season, that's a wilful choice to stop caring about independent artists.”

Inditex has launched an investigation into the claims made against it. A spokesperson says, “Inditex has the utmost respect for the individual creativity of all artists and designers and takes all claims concerning third party intellectual property rights very seriously. Inditex was recently contacted by the lawyers of artist Tuesday Bassen who noted the use of illustrations in some badges sourced externally and on clothes in its Group stores. The company immediately opened an investigation into the matter and suspended the relevant items from sale. Inditex’s legal team is also in contact with Tuesday Bassen’s lawyers to clarify and resolve the situation as swiftly as possible. We are also currently investigating other allegations of illustrations used on badges provided by external suppliers on a case by case basis.” 

Kurtz hopes the website will help people decide for themselves if Zara has stolen artwork or not. “If they personally find Zara guilty, they can spend their money directly with the original artists instead,” says the designer, who is sure to link to each artist’s website and social media accounts. “This was a way to send some positivity to all the artists involved. We've had some very nice messages to the effect of, ‘I hadn't seen your work before so I'm at least glad this led me to you!’ That was 100 per cent the point.”

Zara is not the only major retailer that has been accused of plagiarising artists’ work in recent times. In Australia, popular fashion label Gorman is fending off accusations that it unlawfully used the work of three independent artists; Melbourne jewellery designer Emily Green, Sydney fabric designer Eloise Rapp and New York-based Amber Ibarreche.

Gorman, known for its unusual prints, has issued a statement denying the claims. Company founder Lisa Gorman told media any similarities are a product of coincidence. “I am completely against copying artists' work and it's clearly not in the interest of the brand to do so,” she said.

This is extremely typical and is a very easy way for a company to pay for art they already like, without much additional work needed.

For companies interested in legally using the work of an artist, there are a number of options available. “They can hire them to create new work as a contractor, they can openly collaborate on co-branded pieces, or maybe the simplest, they can license existing artwork for use on a specific product or range of products,” explains Kurtz. “This is extremely typical and is a very easy way for a company to pay for art they already like, without much additional work needed.”

While an artist may have a strong case against a company that steals their work, taking legal action is not always an option – a point exploited by offending companies. “As an independent artist, it can be cost-prohibitive to even find a lawyer to begin the process,” says Kurtz. “Complaining on social media to your existing audience doesn't always accomplish much.”

Many artists unfortunately find that their hands are tied due to economic constraints. “When you're a small business time is often a very precious commodity. Working for yourself means you're never not working, and dealing with something like this is a bunch of extra work nobody's asked for.”

One thing that is helpful to the plight of artists is media attention. “We hope that the coverage will remind other major retailers that just because an artist is independent doesn't mean they're invisible,” he says. “Thanks to the internet, fans can serve as eyes and ears around the world, spotting these cases and then take part in holding brands accountable.”

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