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Belgian Artist Christian Silvain Wins Copyright Suit Against Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts Professor at Beijing IP Court

On August 24, 2023, the Beijing Intellectual Property Court announced a ruling for Belgian artist Christian Silvain against Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts Professor Ye Yongqing. The Court ruled that Ye infringed the copyright of Silvain in his paintings and ordered Ye to pay Silvain 5 million RMB, publish an apology in the Global Times newspaper and cease infringement. This is believed to be the highest damages award in China in a fine-arts case.

Left: Artwork by Silvain in 1990. Right: Artwork by Ye from 1994.

The Court found that 122 of Ye’s works had plagiarized 87 of Silvain’s. Ye is a well known artist selling about $24 million USD of paintings at auctions per the Global Times. Ye’s most expensive painting sold for just over 1 million Euros and many of his works sold for about 200 thousand to 500 thousand Euros.  In contrast, Silvain’s artworks often sell for 5,000 to 15,000 Euros. 

The Beijing IP Court summarized the issues stating,

1. When judging the substantive similarity of infringement of works of art, usually from the perspective of ordinary observers, the visual image characteristics of works of art should be considered, and the artistic modeling expression embodied in works of art should be evaluated in terms of constituent elements, forms of expression, and overall visual effects.  If there are only slight differences between the two works as a whole, so that ordinary observers tend to ignore these differences unless they deliberately look for the differences, it can be determined that the two are substantially similar. When the number of copyrighted paintings and infringing paintings for comparison is large, all the paintings involved in the case can be considered as a whole, and at the same time, combined with the author’s creative experience, creative method, creative style and other factors to make a comprehensive judgment whether it constitutes infringement.

2. The act of using other people’s original expression to create a work of art constitutes a copy or adaptation of the previous work, depending on the size of the visual difference between the two and whether the later expression forms a new work. Considering the visual image characteristics of art works, only when there is a sufficiently large visual difference between the later expression and the earlier expression from the perspective of ordinary observers, can the later expression obtain copyright protection, otherwise it may constitute copyright infringement.

There is no word yet on whether either party will appeal to the Beijing Higher People’s Court.

A copy of the ruling from the Beijing IP Court courtesy of 书法订阅 is available here (Chinese only).

Principal, and Director of the China Intellectual Property Practice

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