A Story of a Stolen Mermaid--(and the Infringement of an Artist)

Fact: I wrote Sirena: A Mermaid Legend from Guam in 2010.
Fact: My brother, Sonny Chargualaf is the talented artist behind the imagery.
Fact: Our Sirena is copyrighted.
Fact: I haven't blogged in two years and this incident has made me mad enough to start again.

And so begins the story of a sister/brother team, who collaborated to bring a platform to our Chamorro culture and a book to honor their late father to the forefront.


Sirena, the legend of a mermaid, told to me first by my father and next by my teachers in Guam was always my favorite story. When my father died in 2007, I struggled with the loss. When my mother, moved back to Guam after living with me for a few years, I was again sad. I decided to channel that into creating a children’s book, retelling Sirena in my way. A legend that is public domain, that I wanted to spin into a rhyme. A book that I wanted to create with my artist brother. We began to collaborate via e-mail in May of 2010. By August of that year, I completed the book and Sonny brought to life a gorgeous cover and rich art for the story itself.

A thousand dollars later, invested with an independent publisher, Authorhouse, I had a product. A book dedicated to my dad, with a by line by me and illustration attribution to my brother. I never thought that the cover art would bring us anything but pride…

The first time we began to see the cover art reproduced without permission was for school projects. Children on Guam identifying with the image of Sirena from our book? That was fine. It is a classic representation of ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’. These children were not using the image or their recreation of Sonny’s version of Sirena for financial gain. We smiled and moved on.

In 2015, within a Guam group I was connected with in my new home of Washington State, Sonny’s Sirena image emerged from the deep in the form of stickers. Stickers solely created to be sold for profit. Stickers he never approved. Money not entitled to the people involved in creating the sticker. A Sirena image hijacked from my brother. With some detective work, I received a name. I was begrudgingly given a phone number in Guam. I called and confronted the woman involved. She questioned me, asked me if I owned the image. She was confrontational and tried to make me feel guilty. I invited her to Google Sirena+Taimanglo+Chargualaf and she would see the book. She calmed down after I said my brother’s full name, then blamed a graphic artist she hired. I wrote a letter to the editor addressing this particular incident. It was received well by fellow artists, but scoffed at as being too harsh by others. Apparently, I wasn’t allowed to be upset or question my culture or fight for artists’ rights.
With 2018’s Mes Chamorro, Sirena was seen in numerous places again. A major grocery chain used the image on a large wooden cut out. Their explanation to my brother, the artist? “Oh, it was on Google.” McDonald’s did the same. Printing our Sirena directly from the book cover, minus my name and Sonny’s. My brother handled the calls and the companies gave their lame, ‘I didn’t realize’ excuses.

It’s Monday, the day after April Fool’s, and in the last week, in the midst of my brother’s visit from Guam, we had a stronger case of the misuse of Sonny’s Sirena. This particular company etched our Sirena on their product. They sold this product for a substantial price, $149.99. They went through the process of ‘hiring a graphic artist’ to create a Sirena, which is basically from our book cover. They debuted the product at the March 24th, Chamorro Cultural Fest in San Marcos, California. Ironically, a large annual event produced for the Chamorro people by the honorable non-profit group, CHELU’ Inc. of which I was a Board member for four years, being an organizer for the first 4 fests. Family, friends, those who know Sonny and me and our book began messaging us, tagging us, and questioning the validity of the use of Sirena on this product. Monday, March 26 was stressful. My brother just got to Washington to visit me and we had to deal with this infringement. It was fortunate for us that we were together. It made us fight stronger, in that our father’s 11th death anniversary was looming as well. He always taught us to stand up for ourselves. After finally getting a name for the company, a call was made. I recorded it, heard his explanation. Something not new to us, oh, the “graphic artist” did it. Stealing is stealing. They claimed it was an ‘honest’ mistake. That didn’t sit well with us.

They came up with a weak proposal and asked us to censor our posts on-line. They wanted us to remove “negative” posts on our business and personal social media accounts. Say what? Censorship? Nah. We simply requested help in finding the company owners. The responses from other people were outside of our power and their right to voice their opinion.

We didn’t agree to anything in writing, but suddenly Sonny’s name was being associated with them on their website. I screen shot everything. Yes, I did. I told my brother, it’s like they forced you into a marriage you didn’t agree to.

We discussed the limp proposal and offered a counter offer. After three days and no response, I checked their social media and website. I found that all traces of Sirena disappeared, even their post admitting that they did not mean to use Sonny’s artwork, but did. My brother followed up for a response. None was made. Big sister mode kicked in and I texted the co-owner. Finally, an emailed response came to Sonny only, I was not cc’d this time. They wrote that it was too bad that we didn’t accept their miniscule cut of the profits and that they took the product down. They are claiming to provide refunds to those who bought the unauthorized product. We have no proof that this has been done, at least not via their social media.

It’s like they are erasing the mistake and hoping we will also be silent. My brother and I can’t. Their mistake will not be made into a tall tale, because this is not fiction, it’s real life. We need artists to be protected. We need the infringement to end. There are still 30 of their products out swimming recklessly in the world. They claim they will relaunch the Sirena product with something original. They hope this won’t happen again to us. But, the damage was done. A price must be paid.

Sirena, the story, the legend belongs to us all. The artwork my brother created is his. Good luck to this company. We wish you the best, as long as you don’t force us to swim with you.

Comments

  1. It is really a shame that these people think so little of their fellow Chamorros that they steal their work. Seems like they put more time into providing a shady excuse for their theft of intellectual property rather than properly compensating Sonny for his work. Tai mamalao.

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  2. I think you should contact a lawyer.

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  4. Please, please, please find the strength to continue to pursue and lay claim. Cheering for you.

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  5. I love your book, and Sonny's art work can't be described in words. Keep fighting for the protection of your talents. It breaks my heart that you have to go through this, but it is worth the fight.

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  6. There's a number of ways to fight this, and sadly the most 'appropriate' way (legal) isn't usually the best, due to the cost, effort, time, and heartache involved in doing so.

    First, I highly recommend registering the artwork as yours anywhere possible and even using it on multiple products of your own - this can be accomplished easily and with minimal or no cost by using zazzle, teespring, or any number of online systems which allow you to sell t-shirts with your designs without actually having to pay to have them printed until they're sold (be mindful of those terms and conditions, though, and don't EVER give up universal, derivative, and/or perpetual rights to your work).

    The other, likely more effective option in this case, sad as it is, is to shout loudly. First, you can draft a simple cease and desist letter using a number of public-domain (i.e. not copywritten) templates easily available online or through a lawyer. Given, I'm a mainlander who's now living out here, but I'm certain there are some good lawyers who are also good people and would at least provide you with a universal C+D for little to no charge.

    Once you've sent the C+D, continue to utilize social and traditional media to make noise. I absolutely saw the supermarket version you posted, and frankly even upon sight I thought it looked like a hack version of what had to have been a better design. I'm sure they were fine (ahem) paying less for some poor hourly employee to recreate your brother's work, but given the high standard such companies are supposed to represent in the community, I would think/hope they'd be more amenable to working out a better solution than getting publicly shamed and slammed as exploiting your brother's design. And trust me, basically EVERYONE saw that version. There's a guilt that goes in knowing you've seen a crime and done nothing. Use that.

    Finally, be careful about harassment. By sending the C+D, you're putting yourself in a position to invite one yourself and may have already received one based on your notes above. Being right and being right about it are two different things, especially in the eyes of the law.

    But most importantly, lock down the image. Copyright the design. It's not expensive and it is the #1 way to give yourself every bit of protection you need to fight these infringements. Just know, most of the 'branded' gear on the island is unlicensed, and those brands have HUGE war chests designed solely to protect their copyrights and trademarks. What you have when the courts of law aren't good enough is the court of public opinion.

    But the above note, if feasible, is wise - get a lawyer. Sue with the understanding that you'll probably settle. Preferably find a lawyer who'll take a cut or a percentage of current and future earnings (tier it so they don't sit on their hands and get a large chunk of everything you ever do with it), and most of all, don't ever think for a second that any of what these other people are doing with your brother's design takes away from its original purpose and meaning. They can make a few dirty dollars and spit into their own wind, but the priceless value of the work doesn't leave when it's stolen, it just stands out even more.

    PS - this might help, might not, but empowering yourself with knowledge is always a good choice: https://www.fastcodesign.com/3029501/was-your-design-stolen-follow-these-6-steps

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