Should plagiarist pay all artists he stole from?
If there is one thing that I’ve learned over the past six years of running Plagiarism Today, it’s that deviantArt is one of the most dedicated and united communities when it comes to fighting plagiarism. Few communities have shown the heart and the unity on this issue and none that I’ve seen have been as quick to rally to stop art theft.
Whether it’s the formation of anti-plagiarism groups, of which there are now several,dealing with uncooperative hosts, or tackling commercial infringement of the community’s work, deviantArt has always been there.
However, of all the cases I’ve tracked and even worked with the dA community, the most recent scandal, the Art4Love case, is perhaps the best example of it. deviantArt is a site that does not tolerate artistic plagiarism and is at war with the site’s former owner and artist, Chad Love Lieberman
The story, however, is a bizarre one and a case of an investigation that is still struggling to discover how deep the rabbit hole goes.
About the Art4Love Scandal
A week ago, Art4Love was a thriving art site that sold paintings by a previously well-respected artist named Chad Love Lieberman. The site sold a variety of paintings supposedly from the artist in a price range mostly between $199 and $1,000.
However, that began to come crashing down when artists at deviantArt caught wind that much, if not all, of the paintings on the site were ripped off from their community. What started as a trickle of plagiarism reports quickly, through community digging, grew into a torrent, now at a reported 300+ alleged infringements.
The scandal quickly grew to also impact other sites Lieberman was also involved in. This included MarkYourSpot, allegedly a direct copy of Art4Love, OfficeBrokers and LifestYle Brokers, both sites where Lieberman is, or at least was, listed as an associate.
The scandal also began to impact other names associated with Lieberman, this included Craig Pravda, who some believe to be the same person as Lieberman, and was allegedly a business associate helping Lieberman with his sales.
As the scandal quickly grew, it began to draw more and more attention outside of the deviantArt community. At least one news site retracted a previous story about Lieberman, and antherprinted a call to deviantArt artists who had been ripped off to have their works features after they published an article promoting Lieberman unaware that much of the work would turn out to be plagiarized.
But even as the art case was gaining publicity, others were looking into Lieberman’s text work and not only finding signs of plagiarism in his two books, but also discovering that many of his articles were also verbatim plagiarisms, mostly from the same source.
On Lieberman’s end, all the sites associated with him directly, as well as his various Facebook pages and other social networking accounts were shut. However, deviantArt members had been diligent in grabbing screenshots of the site and several had formed lengthy side-by-side comparisons of the works on Art4Love and deviantArt.
These images enabled the comparison work to continue despite the closure of the various domains.
One of the artists who had their work used, George Smith, sent an email to an address associated with Craig Pravda and received a response saying, in part:
Apologies for any issue that you may have with Art4Love from whom we licensed the images.
In no way were we aware that they misrepresented their rights to any of the artwork that was used on our site MARK YOUR SPOT.
They have stated that they sold their entire collection to a new company and that we will have to continue with our game MARK YOUR SPOT, which only sells BRUNCH CARDS, by acquiring new content or working with our own digital artists.
Finally, another of the artists involved, Alexiuss, claims to be working on and accepting donations for a class action lawsuit against Lieberman.
It seems likely that this case is far from over, though it remains unclear just how strong the prospects for a class action suit are in this case.
My Thoughts on the Matter
This is one of those plagiarism cases where you don’t need a plagiarism expert to tell you about the infringement. There’s no need for a complicated analysis nor is there need for any side-by-side comparisons. The images are the same and it’s as simple as that.
On that note, this is definitely one of the most egregious acts of plagiarism I’ve run across in a very long time. Not only due to the scope of the infringement, including hundreds of paintings, content from two books and several articles, but also the nature in how it was being used.
Given that Lieberman has posed for newspapers in front of “his” paintings and repeatedly said in the press that they were “his” creations, there’s no doubt in my mind he can be described as a professional plagiarist. While professional plagiarists are fairly common, to see one to this degree is a very rare thing.
The biggest problem with this kind of plagiarism and especially with one this large and dedicated is separating truth from fiction. Despite the diligent work for the deviantArt community, there’s a lot of uncertainty about this person, how he does business and with whom.
Plagiarists at this level rarely are who they claim to be. Though I’m not saying that any of the information that is available is inaccurate, I’m saying there’s no way to be certain it is or isn’t without an independent verification. (Note: This is why I’m not talking too much about reports he is Senator Joe Lieberman’s nephew.)
In my experience, operations like this one are typically not run like an amateur artist who got desperate and plagiarized a few pieces, but more like a criminal organization started from the ground up for the purpose of plagiarizing and profiting from others’ work. This, likely, plays a role in the quick disappearance of Lieberman and will likely frustrate any attempts to sue him.
Of course, any attempts to sue him will also likely be hindered by U.S. law. Any artists infringed, even if they are abroad, will only be eligible for actual damages (the greater of what he made or the artist lost) and won’t be able to claim the high statutory damages (up to $150,000 per work) or attorney’s fees. Even registering now, after the infringement, won’t help with damages though it will enable U.S-based artists to sue.
In short, as despicable as the plagiarism is, there may be very little that the courts can do in this case as any copyright lawyer is going to be reluctant to touch the case with a lot of up front legal costs.
In the end, the best that one can likely hope for is that the site stays shut down and Lieberman doesn’t make a return.
What amazed about this case isn’t just that it happened, but that it took so long for it to be found out. It’s not as if Art4Love was a small site hiding in the corner. It was out in the open, seeking and getting media attention all the while selling duplicates of artwork from deviantArt.
Of course, it wasn’t just images. It was also text in books and articles involved. But with so much lifted, it’s amazing that it took as long as it did, at least a few years, for the infringements to be noticed.
But while justice may be slow, it does prove that it does come, especially when you do something so broad and so egregious. There was simply no way that Lieberman would not be caught and, right now, he should be amazed that he had as long of a ride as he did.
After all, each plagiarism is like playing a game of Russian Roulette. You know eventually the odds will turn against you, but you hope it isn’t this time.
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