Skip to main content

Quebec artist Gaëtane Dion sells elegant paintings of nature and colourful illustrations of female faces. Even though she sells her paintings in her studio, her work can also be seen all over the internet.Roger Paquette/Handout

The career of Quebec artist Gaëtane Dion might be considered a roaring success: Not only does she sell her elegant paintings of nature and colourful illustrations of female faces from her gallery-studio in the Eastern Townships, but her work can also be seen all over the internet. Numerous online galleries and art blogs include her in their pages, you can browse through a book devoted to her art, reassemble one of her works as a digital jigsaw puzzle and, until recently, you could even order up a Gaëtane Dion reproduction printed on canvas to look like a real painting. Only trouble is, Dion herself did not authorize any of these uses and makes no money from them.

“It’s shameless,” Dion said, describing multiple websites that appear to have lifted samples of her paintings and drawings from her own site. “It’s a theft.” Some simply use them to pad their content and attract eyeballs; one that was offering reproductions of her images on paper or canvas took down her work in February after an artists’ rights society sent it a legal letter.

Canadian visual artists say this kind of piracy is rampant in their field, where unscrupulous operators offer framed reproductions, digital “paintings” and T-shirts featuring artworks to which they don’t hold the rights. Sometimes the original artists are credited; other times watermarks and signatures are removed.

“It’s whack-a-mole. It’s all over the place,” said Toronto copyright lawyer Paul Bain. “There are micro aggressions all over the internet and you can’t police them all.”

A painting by Gaëtane Dion.Roger Paquette/Handout

Museums have a simple solution: Most post low-resolution reproductions of the artworks in their collections specifically to discourage unauthorized reproduction of copyright works. (In Canada, images by artists who have been dead more than 50 years are in the public domain, a number that will soon be updated to match the U.S. standard of 70 years, so people can reproduce these works however they want.) But for living artists or commercial galleries trying to sell contemporary art from their websites, images need to be large enough that they are enticing and, as the copyright holders, it is up to the artists themselves to police infringement.

Indigenous artists are particularly hard hit with numerous examples of pirated art showing up on the T-shirts sold for Orange Shirt Day, a problem that became particularly acute last year after the discovery of unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, which brought added attention to the Sept. 30 event.

“I started to use social media as a marketing tool; that’s how I share my work. I have to post it,” said Hawlii Pichette, a Mushkego-Cree illustrator from London, Ont., who has seen images from the free colouring pages she provides for teachers used on T-shirts. She says she is aware of nine different online stores that have stolen her work. “I have to watch like a hawk.”

Individuals often say it is just too much work to chase down all the violating websites, most of which operate off-shore, and send them legal take-down notices. Advocates for artists’ rights are discussing other solutions, asking if the blockchain technology behind the NFTs so hyped in the art world could actually help artists control their imagery by including digital signatures.

“I’m bullish about the technology and what it can do,” said Roanie Levy, president of Access Copyright, a Canadian organization that licenses authors’ and artists’ work. “But I am also very cautious that the technology be developed in a way that is respectful of creators so it doesn’t run away and we wind up having to put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

In theory, artists can indicate that a file containing their work, whether it is digital art or a reproduction of a physical piece, belongs exclusively to them by registering it with a time stamp on a blockchain, a tamper-resistant database. That is the technology behind the headline-grabbing NFTs, which some artists and musicians have been selling for millions. (NFT stands for non-fungible token. Fungible assets, such as currencies, are divisible and interchangeable; non-fungible assets, such as real estate, aren’t. The tokens apply the uniqueness of non-fungible collectables and original art to digital files, which could actually be reproduced ad infinitum.)

But NFTs can be expensive to mint, and require some know-how. Worse yet, many are already subject to their own ownership disputes as unscrupulous players flood a booming market. Artists complain that OpenSea, the largest NFT market, is filled with examples of plagiarism or outright piracy, where sellers offer NFTs of art to which they don’t own the rights. In the music industry, where artists are looking at NFTs as a way of raising money from fans, there have also been multiple complaints. In February, a new platform called HitPiece was offering NFTs of what appeared to be recordings available from streaming services, to the outrage of musicians who had never been asked to license their songs for this use.

“Blockchain is not a magic bullet, particularly when you are dealing with piracy. There will be a need for artists to continue to be vigilant to see if their work is being used without authorization,” Levy said.

To help artists, Access Copyright worked with the Canadian Artists Representation, Copyright Visual Arts and the Regroupement des artistes en arts visuels du Québec to develop a platform called Imprimo, where artists can catalogue their work, their exhibition history and their biography for a small monthly fee. It gives the artist two levels of blockchain protection, registering both their claim to an artwork and a digital signature, a system that lets artists authenticate their works so buyers know they are getting authorized examples. A QR code links to representations of an art work and a timeline shows its journey – the all-important story of its provenance as it changes hands.

All these security features may not stop piracy of images lifted from other sites. What they do, however, is help build a marketplace where consumers would consider authentication registered on a blockchain as a basic requirement before buying any art.

Not everybody is convinced the system will work. Lou-ann Neel is an Indigenous artist and arts administrator from B.C. who has also seen her work show up on orange T-shirts with neither her permission nor her signature. She is skeptical that Indigenous artists will join the platform and mainly wants to see tougher laws.

The Canadian Copyright Act “has no teeth,” she said. “People can be told to stop but there are no repercussions.”

Meanwhile, Lucinda Turner, a Vancouver activist, would like to a see a registry specifically devoted to Indigenous art. She is not Indigenous but has worked to combat foreign knock-offs of northwest coast carving, and thinks blockchain might be particularly useful in the secondary market, reassuring buyers they are getting the real thing. She trawls the internet looking for unauthorized uses of work by 40 Indigenous artists she has volunteered to represent, and sends out take-down letters under the terms of the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Last summer, after the discovery of unmarked graves at the Kamloops residential school and in the lead up to Orange Shirt Day, she was sending out as many as 30 letters every day. “I’m struggling to keep up but I feel compelled to do it,” she said.

On the other side of the country, Dion can empathize as she takes a break from chasing after infringing websites in Spain, Denmark and Russia, and prepares for her new exhibition at the Brompton cultural centre in Sherbrooke, Que. There, at least, she can trust that nobody will lift her paintings off the walls.

Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.