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Is Temu Ripping Off An Indigenous Beaded Earring Artist?

An Algonquin beader says one of her designs was stolen and sold on a massive online retailer without her knowledge for nearly a year. 

Melody Markle saw a post from a fellow beader warning artists about copies of their designs appearing on retail websites without permission. 

So Markle went onto Temu, an online retailer (similar to Etsy or Amazon) that offers products through third-party sellers, to see if any of her work was there. 

“I was scrolling and then I came across what looked exactly like my design,” said Markle, who’s from Long Point First Nation (Winneway) in western Quebec. 

“At first I was pretty surprised … and then I kind of got a little bit angry just looking at it deeper.” 

It’s an unfortunately common experience for Indigenous artists according to Meika Ellis, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property who’s based in Ottawa. Ellis, who is Gwich’in from Fort McPherson N.W.T., is not representing Markle nor did she comment specifically on Temu or its policies. 

The path to removing stolen designs is complicated and potentially expensive, Ellis said. Most people opt not to hire a lawyer, if they’re even aware that it’s an option. 

“It’s incredibly easy to infringe [upon rights] and it’s much more difficult to enforce one’s rights,” she said.

Another problem, Ellis said, is that artists don’t always know their rights.

Educating artists

Canadian Artists Representation (CARFAC) shares information about how artists can protect themselves and what to do if they believe their work has been stolen, including through their Indigenous protocols. The organization also provides education to non-Indigenous artists and businesses about respectful collaboration.

Larissa Derosiers, from Couchiching First Nation in northwestern Ontario, is a program director for CARFAC and said copied designs “cheapen the value” of Indigenous works. 

Markle sells her chickadee earrings for between $300 and $350. The pair on Temu sell for about $11.

The price of Markle’s earrings includes the cost of natural materials, like quills and caribou fur, which she harvests and dyes herself, as well as items traded with other crafters across North America, she said. It also reflects the time she’s invested in her work and the skill she’s cultivated over time.

Melody smiles in a headshot wearing a denim jacket with her hair pulled back.
Markle says she looked at beaded earrings on Temu after a fellow beader said she found her own designs on the site. (Submitted by Melody Markle)

Derosiers said she’s happy to see beaders know the value of their creations, and she’s disappointed to see it undercut by online retailers. 

“[The quality is] not comparable at all to the actual quality of what these artists are selling,” she said. 

On top of that, the teachings and culture differences are erased when beaded art is sold without appropriate context, Derosiers said. 

While the chickadee earrings on Temu are described as “boho-chic,” Markle says her designs come from her Algonquin culture. 

“Birds are a big part of my life and they’re message carriers from time immemorial,” she said. 

“They still sing our original songs… and they’re Creator’s gifts.”

Markle and Derosiers both said they believe Indigenous artists are targeted for design theft because of the beauty and uniqueness of their creations. 

“When [settler society] couldn’t market off of Indigeneity, then it was shunned. And then as soon as you realize you can market it, it’s misappropriated,” Ellis said.

Getting copies removed

A cease and desist letter to the seller of a stolen design can be a first step in getting a work removed, Ellis said, but on some platforms, including Temu, there is no direct way to contact a seller or even know who is behind the account. 

She said these cases rarely go to court and compensation for stolen designs is rare. 

“It’s so hard to get companies to take down [work], let alone provide monetary damages,” Ellis said, adding that going through a trial can cost over $100,000. 

In an emailed statement, Temu said it is continuously working to improve its intellectual property policies, including with a new online complaints portal. The company also said it has improved its efficiency in processing complaints and now resolves “over 99 per cent of takedown notices within two working days.”

Temu’s statement said artists “often don’t have sufficient copyright protection for their work,” although copyright is  automatically applied to all completed works in Canada.

Registration of a copyright with the government isn’t required, Ellis said, but it is useful to have the registration number to easily prove ownership.

Anyone can register a copyright (with or without the help of a lawyer) which costs between $63 and $81, but it isn’t something many artists pursue.

Derosiers said that’s often because artists don’t know it’s an option and because it can be expensive to register each piece. 

After sharing about her experience online and seeing many comments from other beaders who said they had similar experiences, Markle said she decided to hire a lawyer. 

She spent about a month trying to get the chickadee earrings removed from Temu before they disappeared from the seller’s page without notice. 

Now she’s wondering what she can do to protect her work going forward. 

Putting a copyright symbol on any images online can be an easy first step, according to Ellis. 

“A lot of it is just being very loud about disclaimers and, and making it very obvious that the work is owned by somebody,” she said.

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