This is a particularly complex case of copyright infringements that speaks volumes about the mess surrounding International Copyright Law V ‘current internet use’. The original artist is Kerolos Safwat and the only place to buy his prints of “When I Found the One I Love, I held Him and Would not let Him go” (also known as “First Day in Heaven”) is through Golden Earth Facebook page. His painting was inspired by Canadian photographer Paige Stewart, without her knowledge. The painting is a tweaked replica of her shot of the women’s rugby team in an ecstatic moment of victory in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Then the painted image was stolen by pirates on Amazon, with a myriad of minor changes to the original, and illegally copied by John ThXXXon, a print seller on Etsy, who posted prints for sale under another name, ‘First Day in Heaven’. Not only were copyrights violated but also the moral rights of the original creator(s), as the image was used to portray concepts other than her and his original intentions. AND do not forget the myriad of times it has been used in blogs and on social media and distributed without permission. Arrgghh!!
Although this case has not gone to court, and the painting has positively impacted and comforted many people, it is a case of copyright infringement. There are elements in the painting that are recognisable as originating directly from the photograph. The story involves many people. In the beginning, I messaged the artist for his comments through various internet platforms, with no reply. I waited, not wanting to write this story without his input. It was a year before we connected and had a conversation about the violations. He showed no guile. Meantime, I searched for the Canadian photographer and messaged several people of the same name via LinkedIn, Facebook, and Getty Images. Not only did I find her, but she replied and supplied a lot of information about what had happened.
Firstly, from my conversations with Kerolos, it was clear that it had not been the artist’s intention to ‘steal’, as in his mind he was simply inspired by Paige Stewart’s photograph; but of course, ignorance of the law is never an excuse. He is a graphic artist, using mixed media, computer generation, graphic manipulation, and brush painting. The painting is unmistakably lifted from the photograph. On the other hand, at first, Paige didn’t mind being the inspiration for a painting, it was not until she read Kerolos’s story in a blog about the image coming to him in a dream (something about seeing his father being greeted by Jesus when he first arrived in Heaven) that she reacted. The writer of the blog “Marshmallow Ranch”, Ginny McKinney, had interviewed the artist, but his story was not completely true. The blog continued to explain how pirated copies of the painting were being sold on Amazon and Etsy and described how angry the original artist was about his work being stolen. Paige’s outraged friends had sent her the blog article and it was the irony of the lie about the source of his inspiration that caused bewilderment and upset. Kerolos was angry that others were using ‘his’ painting to depict two guys embracing under a rainbow. The blog had rallied a lot of support for Kerolos, but Paige’s response was, “You can steal the image to inspire your painting, and you don’t have to credit me, but don’t spread hate about the LGBT community, that’s not cool”.
The photograph has deep meaning for Paige. She says, “The photo itself was very inspirational to me. It was the moment the team found out they were going on to play an Olympic medal match”. Paige contacted Ginny to ‘set the record straight’, however by this stage, Ginny’s sympathies were with Kerolos as they worked together and tried – in vain – to have the pirated copies removed. Kerolos is a Coptic Christian in Egypt and with English as a second language, Ginny had become his English language translator. It was only when she read someone’s comment on her blog that the picture was based on a photograph and the artist had not asked permission from the photographer to use her work, that Ginny acknowledged the correspondence from Paige Stewart. In an attempt to be fair to all, as Ginny had now befriended the artist, she updated her blog with information about what may have constituted copyright infringement and left it to the reader to make their own decision. Shortly afterwards Ginny wrote another blog piece, and although she did nothing ‘wrong’ as such in writing the story, because she was plainly unaware of the rules around copyrights and intellectual property she left readers with the impression that there was room for doubt, and it was an insignificant issue. She sided with the artist because they “had many discussions on faith and have prayed for each other”. Ginny wrote to me that she did not “have that relationship with Ms. Stewart”. Nevertheless, the blog post about the painting “blew up overnight”. Naturally, Paige was not happy, as it was neither a retraction nor an acknowledgement. Ironically, if Kerolos had said the photo inspired him and aligned with his dream, everything would have been fine! Ginny admits she may have misunderstood Kerolos in their first conversations and has since deleted all the blog posts, deciding that “some battles in life are not worth fighting”. Fair enough. Even though it was through her blog post that Kerolos became aware of the pirated copies and Paige became aware of Kerolos’s copy, the battle was not Ginny’s to fight.
The artist contends that he is the victim in this triangle. When Ginny sent him Paige’s photo, he acknowledged that he had based the painting on an impression of that image, but because it wasn’t an outright copy, he imagined his innocence. It seemed a genuine mistake. It is possibly honestly a result of different cultures and different mindsets and something for us all to be aware of as global digital citizens. In some cultures, it would be normal to acknowledge your source of inspiration upfront and considered plagiarism if you didn’t. In other cultures, copying is common and how their society works. As artists putting our work ‘out there’ we must consider all possibilities. However, Kerolos knew that others copying his work was ‘wrong’ and he also said he “still gets accusations of being a thief”. While his title for the painting comes from Song of Solomon 3:4, he told me that he “borrowed a lot from her photo” but he was just a beginner painter in 2016 and painted for the “service of God and not for sale”, until 2018 when the blogs and pirated copies made the painting famous and “all of a sudden everyone asked me to copy it”. I explained to him why Western culture considered what he had done as ‘theft’, and suggested that he could fix that situation with a ‘used with permission’ credit to the photographer. Paige Stewart was willing to give permission. He told me he would “consider it” and I gave him all the necessary contact details. Paige has not heard from him. Making a mistake by not knowing and not asking permission or acknowledging his reference is one thing, but it puts the artist in a different light if he continues his ‘business as usual’ after being informed. Perhaps he didn’t understand the seriousness, perhaps his English restricted him from understanding, or perhaps he judged it as inconsequential.
Kerolos’s other mistake was putting an image online that was easily lifted off and copied. A mistake we make too easily! We live in an age of posting, pinning, ‘retweeting’ and ‘regramming’ on social media with little regard for copyright ownership. The current laws simply do not align with everyday social media practices. Even further, the Terms and Conditions for social media use are themselves misunderstood and contradictory. For example, Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities states the content is owned by the account holder, however, it also states that Facebook is granted intellectual property rights covering any content. Whether artists’ copyrights can be violated on social media is unclear and understanding is further blurred when social media has a mixed personal and business use. Restitution via the courts is frustrated by the disadvantage of having to prove financial loss and damages.
What everyone in this story agrees upon, is that the ‘bad guys’ are the ones stealing images and selling prints online. Hence XXX of the name above so as not to give undue publicity. Ginny’s frustration was that the pirated copies were “no sooner removed and they would pop up with a different name”. The visual arts industry is facing a paradigm shift more significant than the digital disruption that enabled the easy distribution of music, film, and video games. Other digitised industries benefitted from decades of transition (think of the stages music distribution went through and the public antipiracy campaigns for video use) but visual artists have been left with barely enforceable copyright protection.
I acknowledge the contributions of Kerolos Safwat, Paige Stewart, and Ginny McKinney to this story. I am grateful to Kerolos for his candid appraisal of what happened, to Paige for her honest input and generosity of spirit, and to Ginny for her recognition of the conflict and willingness to lay it all down. This is a story that shows how personal relationships trump acceptance and application of ‘rules’, but more importantly, it shows the widespread ignorance of what constitutes a breach of copyright. Opinions about it are irrelevant. However, even when the law is clear, enforcement is another issue. In this era of the internet ‘law of the jungle’, the rights of content creators over their own work are in freefall. There is a ‘permission culture’ implied by internet use that adopts the misconception that original creators have freely given permission simply by uploading their work. Artists and photographers have a battle against both wilful illegal violations as well as those done in ignorance without malice. Strengthening copyright systems is unlikely to stop illegitimate distribution. Oh my! May the ‘powers’ that make decisions over international copyright laws have wisdom! Meanwhile, creators are forced to continue crossing our fingers and watermarking and labelling our work that’s posted online in what is likely a futile attempt at keeping honest people honest. We are held hostage by the dishonest.
Main image: Photo by Paige Stewart of Canadian Women’s Rugby team in 2016 Olympics in Rio
Golden Earth: Kerolos Safwat painting “When I Found the One I Love, I held Him and Would not let Him go”. Also pirated under the title “First Day in Heaven”.
Footnote: Quotes in quotation marks are from personal correspondence with each of the three people involved.
Update: This story, first posted in 2020, has been updated June 2022 to include all the interviews and current information.
Many people have been influenced, encouraged, comforted, and strengthened by the thought that their loved ones were greeted by Jesus like this in heaven, or they would be reunited with loved ones when they themselves reach heaven. There’s no denying the enormous good this artwork has accomplished and it is a powerful testimony of the value of art in our lives, even more so when ‘God is on it’, no matter how it came to be inspired.
Kerolos Safwat has re-titled the painting ‘First Day in Heaven’ on his Golden Earth Facebook page but continues to reference his original title. Golden Earth remains to only place to purchase a genuine print from the original artist.
Blogs that have commented on First Day in Heaven, sadly most do not even acknowledge the artist:
Marshmallow Ranch (no longer available)