Ontario artist accuses Urban Outfitters of stealing whimsical designs

An Ontario artist said she was left feeling "ripped off" after Urban Outfitters reneged its offer to partner with her on a collection and instead created similar products of its own.

It's far from unheard of for big businesses to be accused of copying independent artists' designs, so Lee Meszaros, of Hamilton, said she was initially wary when the retailer reached out to her in April 2019 to ask if she'd be interested in working with them on a line of floral resin goods.

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"My fear all along, since I got their initial email, is that once you're on their radar, you can either play along or get ripped off and have nothing to do with the process," the 36-year-old said in an interview earlier this month.

So Meszaros, whose line is called Eau Claire Resin, decided to respond to them. She said she did research for the potential partnership and sent it to the company explaining her process. She calculated how much it would cost to produce the items, and looked for new moulds she could use to create products in different shapes and sizes than what she was creating for her own shop. She also sent over samples of her products.

Her work turns the whimsical into the practical. To create her ashtrays and paperweights, Meszaros picks flowers she grows herself or finds in public spaces and painstakingly arranges dozens of them into "a little world" as she encases them in clear resin, she said.

After initially putting in a preliminary order and receiving the samples, Urban Outfitters decided not go ahead with a partnership, according to emails from July 2019 provided to The Canadian Press. They wrote the items would cost too much for its clientele.

When Meszaros saw the items resembling her floral creations on Urban Outfitters' website in early March with prices that started around $30 — less than a third of what she would have needed to charge — she was left reeling.

She decided to go public, posting screenshots on Instagram of her correspondence with a person who described themselves as an assistant buyer for the retail chain.

The post stirred up a firestorm of angry supporters, who bombarded Urban Outfitters' social media posts with comments pointing out the similarities.

Urban Outfitters did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but in an email to Meszaros said its products had been in the works since April 2019 — the same month the company reached out to her about a partnership.

"Out of respect to you as an artist, we have immediately removed the products in question from our website and stores," the email dated March 3 reads.

"Why would they take them down just to be kind to me?" she said. "That doesn't make any sense."

Meszaros said that even though the products are no longer available, she still feels she's owed something for the work she put in and the products they put out — a consulting fee, at least.

For now, Meszaros is considering how to better protect herself in the future.

"I need to stick with my gut feeling of working with independent retailers who actually care about me and my work," she said.

Allegations of American retailers stealing or imitating artists' work are very common online, but the frequency of the phenomenon is difficult to track, said Susan Abramovitch, head of entertainment and sports law at Gowling WLG.

"I think it happens a lot. It's probably more often than I or you realize," she said. "People do come to me often, and often they don't have the resources to engage me to investigate and see if they're actually valid claims or not. But artists putting their wares on the internet obviously makes it easy to rip stuff off."

Aside from keeping designs off the web — which would also cut off a significant marketing opportunity for small artists — Abramovitch said there are several ways to protect work, including various intellectual property laws.

But she said the best option would be to come to an agreement with a retailer before sending any samples their way.

"Ultimately, why rely on interpreting intellectual property statutes and how they apply when you can make things clear in the beginning?" she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2020.

© Copyright Humboldt Journal

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