Artist out to protect her images: Noel sues Texas distributor for copyright infringement

June 26, 2006

Zionsville artist Nancy Noel's original work can be seen in the homes of Mikhail Gorbachev, Robert Redford, Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey.

Noel prides herself on its originality and authenticity.

And she said she'll "go after anyone" who threatens that.

This spring, Noel filed a federal lawsuit against Texas-based art distributor Martha Ewell, alleging she made unauthorized copies of Noel's images-including her popular Amish and angel collections-and sold them on the Internet.

She is asking to be paid $30,000 for each illegal image Ewell sold, or as much as $150,000 per copy if the court determines the copyright infringement was intentional.

Ewell, a resident of Plano, Texas, has distributed paintings for Noel Studios since October 1999. She denies making any unau- thorized copies, saying she merely sold pieces she had bought at an art show.

Noel Studios learned about the questionable copies about a year ago, when Media Coordinator Jane Jimison was doing her daily online sweep for illegal activity. She found five of Noel's angel images on throw pillows being sold on eBay for $20.

That's a pittance compared with what Noel's work usually fetches. Her limitededition prints range in price from $150 to $1,800, and originals can cost as much as $85,000.

So far, Noel Studios has confiscated nine unauthorized items, four of which were purchased by a private investigator Noel hired to pose as a buyer. The others were turned in by customers who discovered they were not authentic. Noel said as many as 51 illicit items may have been sold.

"To allow people to hurt ... the value of my work is something I will absolutely not tolerate," Noel said. "People know to not mess with me and my work."

Technology has made it easy to violate copyright laws, whether the material is a CD, painting, book or movie. That's why it's important for owners of intellectual property to be aware of their surroundings, said Barnes & Thornburg attorney Don Kneble, much like families who install burglar alarms at their homes.

"You sort of regret the fact that you have to buy an alarm, but that's just a part of society," said Kneble, chairman of the Indianapolis law firm's intellectual property department. "I own a Nancy Noel print and the value of the print is so high because [it's] unique. The value would start to decrease if there were lots of them."

All of her work is copyright-protected, Noel said. Her studio is the exclusive manufacturer of Noel's prints, which are sold through 700 galleries and 15 distributors across the country.

And this isn't her first legal battle. Noel has filed nine other copyright infringement lawsuits over the years, collecting a total of $150,000 in damages.

"When you're a successful artist, it's like being a successful musician," Noel said. "We have hits just like they have hit records. It's no different."

Recording artists likewise have struggled to keep control over their work, Kneble said, as music downloads have gained widespread popularity.

Leaders of Fishers-based CMG Worldwide Inc. can attest to the difficulty of keeping tabs on intellectual property rights. The licensing and marketing firm represents hundreds of celebrities, dead and alive, including Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth and Billie Holiday. It also works to protect brands like "I Heart NY."

CMG's staff uses a combination of methods: hiring an international clipping service that scans media reports, conducting Internet searches, patrolling trade shows and reading trademark watch notices, CMG President Jonathan Faber said.

If there's a market for a product, he said, there's someone out there "trying to rip it off."

"I'm willing to believe on some level there is ignorance as opposed to intent," Faber said, but some people just pretend they don't know they're breaking the law.

Faber said copyright infringement is "an enormous problem"-particularly with countries like China turning bootlegging into an industry-but he doesn't know if it can ever be abolished.

Consumer education and reciprocity among countries could decrease the rising numbers, however.

"It's not a funny or victimless crime when a U.S. company is being knocked off," Faber said. "But eventually it's going to come back around and bite them in the rear."

Noel's case is pending in U.S. District Court in Sherman, Texas. Ewell did not show up for a June 5 initial hearing, instead sending her husband with a doctor's note explaining she had had knee surgery and was in too much pain to attend or make arrangements with a lawyer.

She has since hired Dallas attorney Paul Hoffman, who said the issue should be resolved soon. Ewell purchased the merchandise in question at a Las Vegas art show a few years ago, Hoffman said, and did not make unauthorized copies.

Noel is taking the legal action seriously. Most people respect her work and ask her permission to use it, but she said a few try to be "slick."

She'll continue to sweep the Internet to catch violators, but her main goal is to get the word out that she's willing to do whatever is necessary to protect her property.

"Artists are at a disadvantage because people think they can pull the wool over our eyes," Noel said. "But after 40 years, I've built a reputation-don't mess with me."
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