When is a knockoff a rip-off? An Atlanta artist finds the answer with a lawsuit

Zheng Li’s passion for his work helped him win a copyright infringement case against Somerset Studios

1015_painting01_mmuun_oneuseonlyOne August day three years ago, Zheng Li walked into Z Gallerie’s Alpharetta location to see what sort of art was selling. He stopped in front of a 48-by-48-inch semiabstract painting of a grand piano with four legs, two pedal supports, lid propped open, the instrument streaked with bright reds, yellows, and oranges. “I was in shock,” he says. “I had chills. It was unbelievable.”

Li is a native of Dalian, China, where he learned to paint. His father, an art professor, was a piano player, and the grand piano represented presence and power to young Li. In 1996, two years after moving to Atlanta, Li set to work on the first of a series of more than 40 impressionistic studies of grand pianos, lids open, standing on four legs, the images splashed with vibrant colors. “The colors you envision when you hear piano music,” he says.

From the rigid and amateurish brushstrokes, the piano that caught Li’s eye in Z Gallerie definitely was not his work. But the angle and shape of the instrument—and even the color palette—were almost identical to his 2004 Piano No. 9. The title on this painting was Piano Coloratura, and in the bottom right corner was scrawled the name P. Roberts. Who the hell is P. Roberts? Li wondered.

It turned out that P. Roberts was merely a studio signature, not an actual human. But Li’s search ultimately revealed that Piano Coloratura was being reproduced and sold all over the world by nearly a hundred galleries, websites, and retailers, from Z Gallerie to Kohl’s to Allposters.com. That October, Li and his Atlanta attorneys—John Bowler, Michael Hobbs, Puja Patel Lee, and Lindsay Mitchell Henner—filed suit in federal court against two dozen companies, alleging copyright infringement and intellectual property theft.

For Li, the lawsuit was never about money; art, after all, is more than just his livelihood. Under the stern instruction of his father, Li began painting at age eight. At 15, he was one of just 30 students from across China accepted to the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts, where he would eventually become a professor. He and his brother, also an artist, came to the U.S. in the early 1990s as visiting instructors at Appalachian State University. They settled in Roswell, where they set up studios and opened several galleries in Atlanta. Li understands that imitation is how young artists learn. If P. Roberts actually existed, Li says, he would have addressed the issue personally and not taken it to court.

But art is a commodity, and there is money to be made in hand-painted reproductions that are cranked out by workers in a factory-like setting and sold to home decor and department stores. Li’s Piano No. 9 sold for $5,800. Knockoff oil paintings of the work were being sold for less than $600, posters for as little as $20. “Painting comes from my heart and my soul,” says Li. “Everything I paint, I create. That’s why I feel so angry. It’s like stealing something from me and then putting it up in front of me.”

Even if artists copyright their work, infringement cases can take years to resolve. The money and patience required to sustain such a battle can be prohibitive for independent artists like Li. And even though more than half the defendants in this case settled confidentially with Li out of court, several braced for the long battle. “I think they thought we might give up,” says attorney Hobbs. “But we never wavered once.”

Li’s painting is on the left. The knockoff that led to his lawsuit is on the right.

Defendant Somerset Studios, a North Carolina–based company that sells art to retailers, claimed in court filings that Piano Coloratura was created in 2003 (a year before Li’s) by a different Chinese artist who sold it to a reproduction company, from whom Somerset acquired a sample copy in 2004. However, Somerset did not register the work until 2010, and that copyright lists the creation date as 2008—a mistake, according to Somerset, due to confusion with the questions on the form. The company later amended the creation date to 2003—after Li filed suit. Although Li did not formally register Piano No. 9 for copyright, he was so fond of the rendering that he chose it as the cover of his book, which was published in China in 2005.

As the case dragged on, Li fell into despair. For months, he couldn’t work at all. When he finally went back to his easel, Li found he could paint only at night. He resumed his piano series, but now the music he was envisioning was much darker—a mood reflected on the canvas, the lively hues replaced by drab oils of brown, gray, and black.

When after two and a half years the trial date finally arrived, Bowler says that Li’s passion for his art was a difference maker for the jury. From the witness stand, Li described in detail how he created Piano No. 9, from vision to sketch to canvas. He even got up to draw an example in marker on the courtroom dry-erase board. “Somerset had no process story,” says Bowler. “We did.” The jury took less than 90 minutes to deliberate before rendering a decision in favor of Li. The judge awarded nearly $900,000 in damages—half of which came from Somerset, whose attorney did not return calls seeking comment.

Today Li has moved his wife and two young daughters into a brand-new house in Alpharetta, but he still uses the family’s former Roswell home as his studio. Down in his garage, lined with shelves of acrylics and stacks of paintings, he’s started a new series, this one of horses. Li is preparing for an Atlanta show in November. But he still makes time for his pianos. A version of a grand piano he’d begun during his lawsuit—full of grays and blacks—he’s now painting over with reds and yellows. “Everything is like sunshine,” he says. “I am not angry anymore. I work in the afternoon. And I enjoy the sunset.”

This article originally appeared in our October 2015 issue under the headline “Seeing Double.”