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Left: Faig Ahmed, “Oiling” (2012) (image courtesy the artist, Montoro12 Contemporary Art and Sapar Contemporary Galleries); right: screenshot of Topman’s European store (via topman.com)

Azerbaijani artist Faig Ahmed has accused Topshop of plagiarism after discovering a T-shirt on the company’s website printed with an image that resembles his signature artworks. Ahmed, who exhibited at the 2007 Venice Biennale, is known for his handwoven carpets that feature digitally distorted versions of traditional designs; a gray top on Topshop’s men’s fashion store, now out-of-stock, also features a rug warped in a similar fashion. Available only in Europe, the shirt originally had a price tag of £25.00 (~$32) before dropping to a sale price of £15.00 (~$20).

Ahmed’s studio and his Italian gallery Montoro12 have reached out to Topman but say that its service manager has refused to provide the contact to its legal counsel. The company has essentially dismissed the issue, blaming its supplier, Globe, and neglecting further discussion, according to Nina Levent of Sapar Contemporary, which represents Ahmed. The artist’s team would naturally like to pursue charges, but legal options are very limited.

One of Faig Ahmed’s rugs that he gifted to a fan for Christmas (photo courtesy Sapar Contemporary) (click to enlarge)

“I’m not surprised [about the shirt], as plagiarism is a very common practice among such big companies,” Ahmed told Hyperallergic. “But unfortunately, the international judicial settlement costs a lot of money, and not every artist for this reason can defend their rights. One of the main points in my art is that I’m not doing it for the commercial purposes.

“I have received various invitations to collaborate with designers and large companies, but I always refuse direct involvement in the production of mass products since this contradicts the very principle of art.”

The Baku-based artist first found out about the shirt in early July when he received a Facebook message from someone asking if he had collaborated with Topshop. He does not know how long it has been on sale — and, although currently unavailable online, the item may be on racks in European stores or may even be restocked. While frustrated at Topshop’s dismissiveness, Ahmed’s initial reaction was actually disappointment as the allegedly rip-off design isn’t even cleanly executed.

“The copy was made in a very unprofessional manner,” Ahmed said. “If you will look at their design closely, you can immediately see a huge number of defects and inaccuracies.” The case is particularly aggravating as Ahmed typically donates half of the proceeds he receives from any awards or public commissions to support local artists and other charitable causes, according to Levent. He once sent one of his carpets to a 19-year-old barista who had expressed how much his girlfriend liked his work but did not have the money to gift her with one.

Faig Ahmed, “Coherency” (2016) (image courtesy Faig Ahmed Studio and Sapar Contemporary)

Ahmed’s complaint emerges the same month that over 40 artists and designers condemned Zara for stealing their designs of pins and patches. The fashion brand had responded, stating that the artists’ designs had a “lack of distinctiveness.” While those artists refuse to back down just as he intends to pursue his case, Ahmed believes such thefts will continue to emerge as companies continue to take advantage of their ability to play Goliath.

“Of course, this affects the reputation of any artist,” Ahmed said. “This gives a bad example to other large companies; they just can follow the path taken by Topshop … Since these companies have enormous financial opportunities, and recognizing the fact that the world is governed by big money, it seems to me that this was not the last case of unauthorized use.”

Hyperallergic has reached out to Topshop and Globe but has not received a response.

Faig Ahmed, “Step by step” (2016) (courtesy Faig Ahmed Studio and Montoro12 Contemporary Art)

Faig Ahmed, “Wave Function” (2016) (image courtesy Faig Ahmed Studio and Sapar Contemporary)

Faig Ahmed, “Liquid” (2014) (image courtesy Faig Ahmed Studio)

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

16 replies on “Artist Claims Topshop Ripped off His Designs”

  1. The artist’s works are brilliant and the connection between it and the Tee Shirt design is too obvious to ignore.
    This writer does think, however, that the artist is barking up the wrong tree. It would be nice if TopShop was more cooperative in addressing the true culprit “Globe”. Both they and the artists are victims of the misappropriation of the design.
    I am guessing the TopShop may not be the only business to whom Globe has marketed mis-gotten art.

    1. blaming it on a out of country supplier is a pretty common response. The reality is the repeat offenders usually have a plan of steal first, and deny later.

  2. Having had my own images, descriptions, designs and work stolen by
    manufactures and “design pirates” famous for constant and repeat
    plagiarism, blaming an international supplier is the number one go to
    excuse. Usually the supplier’s real contact info will not be provided
    without a subpoena. The second most popular excuse is blaming it on a
    foreign based contractor who no longer works for the company and the
    contractor’s contact information is unavailable without a subpoena.

    These
    companies rely on the originating artist not having the financial and
    legal resources to battle an international copyright suit. As several
    countries do not work to uphold and honor each others copyright laws,
    it’s almost a guarantee that the artist will lose. The best thing an
    artist can do these days is use the media interest to boost the
    visibility of their work in the first place.

    1. I’ve gone through a similar issue with one of the most famous couture designers in the world. I hired an esteemed copyright lawyer. Initially a settlement looked very promising. After 2 years, lots of money and threats from from the famous designer’s lawyers; on the advice of my lawyer, I settled for $50,000. Unfortunately, to settle, I had to sign a million dollar contract to never divulge the identity. of the designer. This was at the beginning of real internet expansion, very few blogs and the beginning of Facebook. TurkeyMiffin is correct! Just use the media to promote the theft of your your art and boost your visibility!

  3. This is a real problem for artists, however, in this case I think there is a bit of hypocrisy. I like the work, but find it mostly superficial and wish that a discussion of the history of hand-knotted rugs and their makers was not just glossed over. Ahmed does not own the carpet designs he copies and references. In both “Oiling” and the rug “gifted to a friend for Christmas (?)” both use a pattern very typical to the Kazak people of the Caucasus mountains, often called ‘cloud band’ by dealers. To anyone versed in knotted rug patterns, the patterns used by Ahmed and the alterations to the patterns (that he has woven by other people) are more of a play off of design variations that already occur in every handmade rug. He pays no reference to the history of his patterns and cannot lay claim to them or the technique by which the rugs were made. It would be much more interesting to discuss his computer made designs being translated into the pixelated grid of rugs, how a loom lead to the first computer and how the history of computers and rugs has a lot to do with reproducing images.

    1. I’m not knowledgeable about knotted rug patterns, but if Ahmed started his piece with a traditional pattern and transformed it into something original and creative, that is work that is protected by copyright.

      1. I am not trying to make a general case against artist copyright, like I said it’s a serious problem for artists. In This case, the same argument could be used in the favor of the t-shirt designer. The piece Ahmed is claiming to have been ripped off and the t-shirt image are not the same and do not originate from the same rug patterns. I don’t know about the ins and outs of copyright law, but I’m pretty sure that there are some differences between copyrighting a piece and copyrighting a pattern. It is not fair to Ahmed but it seems a gray area.

        1. You’re right. The images are not the same. I looked at it so quickly, I thought they were. I thought it was a straight rip-off.

          As far as the law goes, it doesn’t get much more gray. What is “new”? What is “transformative”? What is “creative”? Who ultimately decides in any given circumstance?

          1. Agreed, all very important and subjective questions. I think this case in particular could start a discussion about how we talk about distinctions between what belongs to who and why. In the study and practice of textiles (my area), there are many modes of working within the same techniques that end up being seen very differently ie. fine art, craft, design, and fashion to name the biggies and what is accepted as original or copied becomes very convoluted and changes from context to context. It is especially interesting to me that textile making evolved all over the world and there are many overlaps and repetitive imagery. So, when does a universal art form or pattern become more than that and become intellectual property? I think this is possible, but I question how much Ahmed is contributing to the civilization long, worldwide conversation and how much difference there is between what he is doing to rugs and what the t-shirt company is doing to him. Thanks for the conversation!

  4. I have to wonder if the T-shirts were ever even made. When this happens (and it happens a lot), the vendor snags an image off the artist’s site and slaps it on a blank T-shirt image and puts a BUY NOW button next to it. The T-shirts are made to order, not kept in stock. Many times the vendor can only get its hands on a lo-res image and the shirt looks like crap.

    I’ve had success with simple DMCA notices in many cases. But the other comments are correct that copyright litigation is rarely useful/viable/sensible, pick your adjective.

    1. What is a DMCA notice? I have had a very effective copyright attorney for decades, but what this be?

      1. A DMCA take down notice. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act was designed to protect websites hosting user-generated content that infringes the work of others. The owner of the work that has been infringed can request the infringing work be removed from the site.

        Here’s a link to DMCA Take Down 101. It’s a little dated, but will give you the idea.

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