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The Unauthorized Pop-Up Art Exhibit: Artist Discovers Knock-Offs of His Artwork All Around OC

Wakefield Sculpture.jpgA Southern California artist, Donald Wakefield, was surprised to find unauthorized knock-offs of his art years after he created and gifted his one-of-a-kind granite sculpture to a colleague's son.  His original sculpture, "Untitled" (pictured on the far left), was created in 1992. 

   Approximately sixteen (16) years after Wakefield's creation, Wakefield endeavored to investigate whether other unauthorized knock-offs of his work existed.  He discovered that knock-offs of his work, and the work of other artists, were displayed throughout Orange County on properties developed by Olen Properties Corporation ("Olen") which is owned by Igor Olenicoff, a Russian billionaire.  In total, Wakefield uncovered at least six (6) unauthorized knock-offs of his sculptures on Olen properties.

 

As copyrights are governed by federal law, Wakefield initiated a copyright infringement lawsuit against Olenicoff before the District Court in the Central District of California. During the course of the proceedings, Wakefield testified that in 2004, he reached out to a number of developers, including Olenicoff, when looking for potential buyers of his art. His advertising materials included his website address which had samples of his art - including his "Untitled" sculpture. In defense of the claims, Olenicoff maintained he had no previous knowledge of Wakefield or "Untitled," but instead was inspired to purchase the sculptures from a Chinese artist after his trip to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The jury did not buy Olenicoff's defense and found in favor of Wakefield. The jury awarded Wakefield $75,000 for each of the six (6) known sculptures identified in the lawsuit, for a total jury award of $450,000.

In March 2015, District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford found that "there was insufficient evidence to support the jury's damages award" and, thus, eliminated the jury award of $450,000. Judge Guilford did, however, order Olenicoff to destroy the knock-offs. Wakefield appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Judge Guilford's ruling and to obtain the money award. Olenicoff cross-appealed to keep the art.

In February, the Wakefield case came before the Ninth Circuit for oral argument. Weeks later, the Ninth Circuit rendered a decision in favor of Wakefield, which upheld the jury award of $450,000 and the order to have the forged art destroyed. Ostensibly, Olenicoff's legal team is determining whether to have the Ninth Circuit decision reviewed by the United States Supreme Court.

Although Wakefield's "Untitled" sculpture may have been one-of-a-kind, his lawsuit is not. For instance, John Raimondi, an artist who resides on the East Coast, was awarded $640,000 for the unauthorized copies of his art being displayed by Olenicoff in Irvine and elsewhere. The judge in that case ordered that signage be placed on the sculptures, notifying the public that the sculptures were inspired by the artist's originals. The Raimondi case was also appealed, but the parties eventually settled the matter out of court.

If you have artwork that you would like to protect or is being knocked-off and need more information on how to begin the process, please visit the Myers Berstein Intellectual Property page.

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