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Painting copied! Does it matter?

Imagine some unscrupulous artist copying Van Gogh's paintings in late nineteenth century when he was recuperating in the asylum. Could it be possible?

Perhaps the answer is a resounding 'NO', unless the fraudster was a crazier chap than Van Gogh himself.


Because at that time, Van Gogh was another failed painter in the heartland of Europe. He was the rule, not exception. Nobody bothered to pay a single penny for his paintings. What was the point in copying something that was not in demand at all?

Hence, Van Gogh did not require copyright or NFT for his paintings. Neither did Gauguin. Even Manet or Pissarro did not fear being copied. Of course, there was no copyright or NFT at that time. But no part of art history claims that any of them were deeply worried about his artworks being copied randomly. They were busy with developing their style. It kept their plates full.

After all, most of them rolled out paintings that did not attract buyers.

A thief steals what is valuable. What nobody wants is not wanted by the thief either.

Same is valid for art and literature.

The works of a genius had always come with a tag of newness, regardless of the century. And, something new is not easily noticed by the viewers. We like to think that our attention is drawn to the new, but in reality, when we visit the supermarket of life, we keep hunting for shapes and sizes familiar to us. This is because the neurons in our head are already tuned to the old ones. Responding to a new stimulation requires energy to overcome the inertia.

Just recall the statement we all make often, just like our parents did, 'The songs of the past were must better than today's. Modern music is more of noise.' The same sentence will be repeated by our children when they will hit their forties.

The reason is the same. The neurons in the head are used to the upcoming soundwaves of the old songs. A new tune catches them by surprise. The neurons need to sit up and decide how to respond.

So is the case of a new style in painting. It is not easily noticed and hence ignored unconsciously by the crowd as long as possible.

Hence, the genius often consumes her entire life struggling to establish her claim that the style she adopted is great! And during this period of struggle, there is no value of the works done in the new style. Hence no thief casts even a furtive glance at her pile of canvases. Hence, nobody bothers to copy.

But, what happens when the world of art sees the novelty in them? There are buyers and the prices shoot up. There is demand. And then emerges the forgers from their holes. But that usually happens in either of the two situations. If the artist becomes extremely famous in his or her lifetime, like Picasso or Hussain did, or long after their death like Vermeer.

There is another possibility. If someone is painting run-of-the-mill images, then there is a risk of being a victim of the fraudsters. Because such images are known in the marketplace of art and there is already buyers for them. Hence, such images have some value like commodities in the grocery stores. Say for instance, it is like that of a packet of Tata Salt or a shinning pack of one kg Kohinoor-Basmati-rice. A duplicate pack will always trick the buyer.

But this poses a fundamental question.

Do run-of-the-mill paintings qualify as testimony of creativity? Are not they duplication of protocol and convention on first place? Hence, if such works are copied, it is only the theft of the labor cost. There is no element of idea in it or any element of originality in it.

To sum it up, there are two kinds of artists who should worry about being copied.

Those who began to get recognition already for their unique style or message and the others who roll out commodities.

The struggling genius has no threat. One may ask, how to know if one is a genius. The fact is, every genius knows his or her worth. If not, then Van Goghs of the world would not pursue their passion throughout their lives without any commercial return.

All that I said is applicable to paintings in physical form. Digital art is a different ballgame due to its susceptibility to copy. Protection makes a lot of sense in case of digital works right from the beginning.

I shall end this article with a statement from the famous author, Jeffrey Archer. When he had visited Mumbai some years ago, he found hawkers selling pile of duplicate prints of fast selling books at the traffic signals. One such hawker knocked the window of the car he was traveling in, and tried to sell his own books to him. He later said, 'I am glad that duplicate copies of my books are being sold at the traffic signals in India. It means I am really famous and my books are in very high demand!'

Well, I still search for my own books at Park Street, Kolkata or at the traffic signals of Mumbai. I am yet to locate a spurious copy of my own novels. The day I find, I shall not file a suit but celebrate!

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