Oh Plesiosaur out to fight the fakes with counterfeit cataloging site pintheft.com
Serena Epstein is asking the public to help her stop art theft.
The enamel pin artist, 30, known for her small business Oh Plesiosaur, recently launched pintheft.com, a website that spreads awareness about counterfeit pins and encourages responsible shopping. It’s also a resource for artists who have had their work stolen, and a community space where they can feel supported.
“It’s so overwhelming, you don’t know how to start and have no idea what to do. From my own experience, I knew that just sending a cease and desist letter wasn’t going to be enough,” she said. “It’s complicated; it’s really complicated. I gathered the information myself and put it on the website.”
A stolen, or counterfeit pin is an unauthorized replica of an original design. Epstein said copies are often quite easy to spot because they are usually low quality, line for line recreations of existing artwork.
“Someone finds the pin on Pinterest or Instagram and just traces it to make a really ugly copy,” she said.
“They are soft enamel (raised metal borders, with a dip around the edges where the recessed enamel begins) and generally really poor quality. Because of the poor quality, and because all of my genuine pins are hard enamel, these are easy for me to spot and easy for me to teach my customers to spot.”
A pin that normally would cost $10-$12 is typically sold from anywhere between 50¢ and $2 each, and the quality is definitely reflected in the price, Epstein said.
It’s not unusual for these illegal copies to pop up on big, highly trafficked, online international marketplace websites, like AliExpress, Alibaba, DHgate, Wish, and Amazon. Chinese etailers have a long-documented reputation of copying intellectual property and is the number one source of counterfeited goods, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The problem compounds on itself when resellers outside of China place listings on websites like Etsy, Poshmark and eBay.
When these designs are stolen, the artists are completely cut out of the equation; the actual designers see none of the proceeds from these sales.
Part of what makes the issue feel insurmountable is the fact that many vendors don’t realize that the pins they’re selling are counterfeits, Epstein explained.
Pintheft.com describes the issue as a lose-lose-lose scenario—for customers, artists, everyone. Customers think that they’re buying an original product, but end up with a low-quality copy instead. The counterfeits prevent actual sales to artists, and artist’s time and money is further wasted fighting the infringement. According to the International Trademark Association, $460 billion worth of counterfeit goods were bought and sold in 2016. This includes a seemingly endless list of common household items in addition to pins and patches, like electronics, eyeglasses and sneakers.
So how can it be stopped?
The best way to fight art theft is to report it, Epstein said. Often, many retail sites implement a multiple-strike policy against sellers that eventually results in accounts being removed. Instead of contacting the seller directly, Epstein encourages artists to report sellers to the websites where they are listed. Reporting counterfeits through those official channels is the only opportunity artists have at justice, since trying to use legal action against to protect copyright against big companies is difficult for independent artists. Reporting thieves to retailers is one of the only ways to stop them, because otherwise there aren’t consequences for repeat offenders.
“The more artists that report them, the more likely they are to be shut down.”
Pintheft.com attempts to streamline the process by cataloging all known counterfeit designs, which Epstein hopes the public will come to use as a resource in determining the difference between which pins are authentic and which are knock-offs. Artists can register at the site to upload images of their original and its illegal copies.
“No one can report or take down a listing except for the intellectual property owner,” Epstein explained.
Users can then search for a pin design by title and artist to learn more information about it, like what kinds of materials it’s made from, if manufacturing of the item has been discontinued, or its known authorized sellers, for example. From there, it’s a simple button click to either report a counterfeit copy or to buy the original directly from the artist.
“If a customer is browsing Aliexpress or Wish or sees it in person, they can look it up and report it,” Epstein explained.
Art theft is personal for Epstein
Epstein’s pin designs are nature- and science-inspired, topics that she is especially passionate about. Since the artist first began selling her pins in 2016, she has had eight of her designs stolen, the first one within months of her first pin release.
“My red cuttlefish (no longer in circulation), Sloth (no longer in circulation), Terrarium, Pizza Cat, Dino Beats, Whale Shark, Plesiosaur, and Whale-derness. The first counterfeit appeared in 2016. I discovered the latest one just two weeks ago, and the one before that four weeks ago. The frequency seems to be increasing, which has me pretty worried.”
Since then, Epstein has become committed to conducting searches for enamel pins online, using creative search terminology, and reporting every single shady design she finds. Depending upon how busy she is, Epstein will conduct her “sweeps,” as she calls them, on a weekly or monthly basis.
She says she has reported at least 300 counterfeit listings in the past year. Since the first appearance of her latest counterfeit, less than two weeks ago, she has found and reported 23 listings of that pin design alone.
“I’m really gung-ho about reporting everything that I find because these people are committing a crime,” Epstein said. “Even though I do regular sweeps and my followers are great at letting me know when they see copies, it never stops. It’s like playing the worst game of whack-a-mole—they just keep popping up.”
The process is personally taxing and time consuming for Epstein, who has come to use an elaborate personal system for documenting every counterfeit copy that she finds online.
“I basically have to search AliExpress, Alibaba, Wish, eBay, Amazon, Etsy, Poshmark, and Google Images for counterfeits of my designs. I record every counterfeit listing in a spreadsheet, and I keep a collection of commonly used keywords for each one,” she explained.
Epstein has come to be very creative with her search terminology, which can make a difference in discovering new counterfeits. When she finds a new search keyword that works, she adds it to her list.
“After I’ve collected several dozen URLs—more, if I haven’t looked in a few weeks—I use each website’s individual reporting system to report those listings. The companies that own the website take a few days to process my infringement report, and then the listings are finally removed and the sellers are issued official warnings.”
Finding and reporting counterfeits take time away from creating new art, and leaves her feeling drained and angry, she said.
On a more objective level, she said, Epstein feels the impact of her work being stolen on her pocketbook.
“It affects my business and affects the businesses of others in my industry. Art theft reduces sales, causes brand confusion, and wastes a ton of my time, all of which costs me money.”
Emotionally, though, however, she summed up having her work stolen in a single word: disempowering.
“My art is part of who I am, and there’s a story behind every piece I create,” Epstein said. “To have someone take a piece of art, without consent and out of context, and then profit from it for months or years on end—that’s an awful feeling and really disempowering. I never want to feel that, and I never want anyone else to feel it either.”
In late June, Epstein launched Pintheft.com over the course of three days. The final straw that drove her to take action, she said, was coming upon counterfeit pins at AliExpress that were unlike any she’d ever seen before—they were made from hard enamel and were high-quality replications, comparable to the quality of her own Oh Plesiosaur pins.
“It was difficult even for me as the original artist to spot the differences, so I imagine it would be pretty much impossible for anyone else to identify it as a counterfeit from appearance alone. These shops were selling high-quality counterfeits of many other artists I know, not just my pins,” she said.
“If we delay too long reporting them, my worry is that the marketplace will become overrun with these fancier copies and create even more brand confusion and lost sales.”
Empowering other artists
Helping other artists protect their work has become a personal passion and mission for Epstein.
She said this loyalty began while conducting her “sweeps.” She sometimes comes across counterfeits of fellow artists’ work and always contacts them and shares URLs to the fraudulent copies.
“The only way artists have any agency to fight counterfeits is to report them and by joining together and spreading the word,” she said.
Epstein said she knows personally of artists who have stopped making and selling pins because the cost of theft is too much.
“I don’t want anyone to feel like that’s their best option. They make really beautiful things and I don’t want them to stop.”
As Pintheft.com grows, Epstein plans to highlight personal stories from artists who are battling their own counterfeit cases on the website.
As of July 17, 41 artists have registered themselves and uploaded their original and stolen designs at Pintheft.com.
Natelle Quek, 31, of her business Natelle Draws Stuff, was one of the first artists to put her stolen work up at pintheft.com. Quek, who is based in Gainesville, Florida, describes her work as a quirky combination of everything she loves about nature and animals. She has had six different designs stolen since she first started selling her pins in February of 2016.
“I think Serena’s website has the potential not only to act as a really good information source for people wanting to learn more about counterfeits, but also discover artists that they might now have come across before and show some support,” Quek said.
Counterfeit Fact or Myth, according to Serena Epstein, Founder of PinTheft.com
• My business/social media following is too small for counterfeiters to notice and steal my designs.
MYTH—Businesses of every size have had their pins counterfeited.
• My designs are too complex to be counterfeited.
MYTH— I’ve seen some VERY complex counterfeit designs. It’s a slight deterrent because they’re more expensive for counterfeiters to manufacture, but it still happens.)
• My own manufacturer is responsible for the counterfeits
MYTH—Counterfeits are usually made by poorly tracing a design found online, and then manufacturing the pins from that trace. Counterfeits usually have noticeable differences from the originals, both in line detail and quality. They’re also usually a different size from the original, which means they were not made from the same pin mold.)