Teacher Secretly Sold His Students’ Art on Mugs and Shirts, Lawsuit Says
Teacher Secretly Sold His Students’ Art on Mugs and Shirts, Lawsuit Says

In January, students at a junior high school outside Montreal received an assignment to draw a classmate or a self-portrait in the style of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“The challenge is to make an original artwork in Basquiat’s style; not to copy one of his images,” the teacher, Mario Perron, wrote to his students on the junior campus at Westwood High School in St.-Lazare, Quebec. “I am very familiar with Basquiat’s work and will return copied work, because it is considered plagiarism.”

The assignment was titled “Creepy Portrait.”

Basquiat was a worthy subject: He was the influential Brooklyn-born artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent who was known for a brief career in which he innovated with graffiti and other types of improvisational pieces. He died at 27 in 1988.

But parents of some students who completed the assignment were shocked to find that Mr. Perron had copied the portraits and was offering mugs, cushions, bags, apparel and other items for sale online bearing reproductions of the artwork, according to a class-action lawsuit filed last week in Quebec Superior Court.

Joel DeBellefeuille, who learned what was happening from his 13-year-old son, Jax, accused Mr. Perron in an interview of perpetrating a “premeditated” scheme. A portrait of Jax by one of his classmates was among the student artwork being offered for sale, he said.

I freaked out,” Mr. DeBellefeuille said. “I was full of emotions. Still now, it’s really unbelievable.”

Mr. Perron, who did not respond to a request for comment, is not listed as a current employee on the school’s website. Darren Becker, a spokesman for the Lester B. Pearson School Board, which is a named defendant in the suit, said the school board “does not comment on internal investigations.”

It was not immediately clear if Mr. Perron had sold any of the items he listed, or how much money, if any, he had made.

Mr. DeBellefeuille first discovered that the art had been repurposed on Feb. 8, when his son, who had done a Google search, showed him that Mr. Perron had created a profile on Fine Art America, an online art marketplace. The profile had thousands of items for sale displaying the work originally submitted by the students, priced between $9.50 and $113 in U.S. currency, all apparently unauthorized.

Each item was labeled with the student’s first name followed by “Creepy Portrait.” The drawings themselves mimic the frenetic style of Basquiat — multicolored portraits that nod to the unconventional and imaginative, including many oddly shaped heads and contorted bodies. Mr. Perron was listed as the artist for all of the works, according to screenshots provided by Mr. DeBellefeuille.

In total, according to a demand letter sent to the school district on Feb. 13, there were 2,976 items for sale using works from the 96 students who were given the assignment. The student artwork was reproduced in 31 categories, including throw pillows, tank tops, tote bags and beach towels, according to the letter.

The works appear to have been removed from the Fine Art America website.

“It is evident that the trust of the public, the students, the parents, and specifically our clients, in the school board and its representatives, has been severely shaken,” the letter said.

Mr. DeBellefeuille’s brother Martin, a lawyer, initially sent the letter on behalf of Mr. DeBellefeuille and Edith Liard, the parent of another child in the art class. The parents of 10 other children have since attached themselves to the suit, Mr. DeBellefeuille said, including two who added their names after it was filed on Friday.

The plaintiffs are seeking 2.16 million Canadian dollars, or about $1.59 million, a figure that includes 5,000 Canadian dollars for each work reproduced in the 31 categories as well as punitive damages and legal fees. They are also demanding that Mr. Perron withdraw the works from all platforms, for him to be suspended and for a written apology.

Under the Canadian Copyright Act, a copyright owner may be entitled to between 500 and 20,000 Canadian dollars for each work that is unlawfully used. Under Canadian law, one does not need to file for a copyright to be considered a copyright owner.

The suit cites the Civil Code of Quebec as the reason the school board is named as a defendant. It says that “the principal is bound to make reparation for injury caused by the fault of his subordinates in the performance of their duties.”

Mr. DeBellefeuille said he expected that the school district would settle rather than go to court.

“For me, it takes a special kind of person to go that deep to do what he did to minor children,” Mr. DeBellefeuille said of Mr. Perron. “This is what enrages me.”

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