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"I kept toying with him until it became so absurd," Richmond recalled.
Richmond and two friends also made fake names and email addresses and pretended to be from a fictional company Pinup Fantasy that was interested in commissioning Xun's work. They tricked Xun into sending photos of himself with Richmond's knockoffs and at one point even had him sign a copyright form stating that the works were his originals.
In the first email response to Michaels, Xun said he has "been experienced in gay man oil painting more than 28 years" and that his inspiration comes from "MY observation,Reading and imagination [sic]." Enclosed were 21 jpegs — all identical reproductions of Richmond's works with his signature carefully removed.
The undercover operation offered a rare insight into the world of Chinese copyright violations, providing Richmond with shocking details on how someone overseas can steal his intellectual property, mass produce the artwork, and profit tremendously.
International theft cases are virtually impossible to pursue, and even bad press is not much of a weapon, since these individuals can hide behind obscure eBay ads that offer very little information about their business.
After a string of negotiations with "Pinup," Xun offered to produce 260 pieces for $63,000, the emails showed. What's more, in one early email, Xun said he had, in only two months, sold 130 versions of the knockoff, for which he was charging $399 each. If he was telling the truth, that's more than $51,000 he had already made off of Richmond, just for one of his paintings. And given the short timeframe Xun presented for bulk production, it is likely he had some factory-style operation, Richmond said. The painting that arrived in the mail had subtle differences in brushstrokes and came without a frame, but it was otherwise nearly indistinguishable from the original sitting in his studio.
Richmond eventually revealed his identity to Xun in a final email and never heard from him again. He did not pursue legal action at the advice of multiple attorneys and copyright experts who said that a lawsuit would be a losing battle. Xun did not respond to my request for comment at the email address from which he originally corresponded with Richmond.
These mass-produced Chinese knockoffs can have a serious negative impact on an artist like Richmond, who sells an original painting like the one in question for more than $2,000, or five times the price of the illegal replica. Richmond's case is also likely not the most common form of international copyright theft; I interviewed a diverse range of crafters — potters, jewelers, fashion designers, candle makers, and more — who all had their designs stolen and shipped overseas for mass production.
Whitney Smith, an Oakland potter with a studio in Lake Merritt, said she was shocked to discover in 2009 an exact replica of one of her unique vases on sale in a small gift shop in San Luis Obispo. She later learned that the design came from Amscan, Inc., a wholesale and retail company headquartered in Elmsford, New York.
"This was a really specific piece," she said, noting that she quickly located the item online and saw that the company was even photographing it in the same way as she did. "It's like someone is stealing something right from your brain."
In the gift store that day, she picked up one of the vases, a miniature version of hers, on sale for $7.95. She was, as the time, selling hers for $140. At the bottom of the knockoff was a revealing and upsetting stamp: "MADE IN CHINA." After a lawyer friend sent Amscan a cease-and-desist letter, the company removed the vase from its website and product line. Amscan did not respond to requests for comment.
Jamie Spinello, a jewelry designer and former Oakland resident who now lives in Austin, said that, since October of 2013, she has had about eight of her designs ripped off by four corporations, including Nasty Gal, Charlotte Russe, and Fashion Destination, which sells products on Amazon.com. She shared incriminating evidence of these companies selling necklaces nearly identical to her own originals. She crafts her works by hand in her garage studio and sells them online — with prices that reflect the time she puts into each individual work.
Spinello was appalled last fall to find through reverse image searches that these companies were selling illegal reproductions of her designs. She and her attorney said it's clear that some of the knockoffs had originated with a Chinese manufacturer and then cheaply made their way into these American retail and e-commerce stores. In the case of one of the designs that had apparently been sold in bulk, she sold her original version only three times — one to a friend of hers.
"I'm not a well-known designer," she said, noting that her necklaces have been featured on design blogs, which is likely where the infringer found them. In an email Spinello's attorney shared with me, Nasty Gal's senior counsel Pooja Teckchandani said the company had no role in creating the design but refused to provide information on the vendor responsible. Teckchandani offered to share this information along with data on the company's sale of her necklace — only if Spinello signed a release agreement stating she would not pursue legal action against Nasty Gal.