Chihuly Turns Up The Heat On Competing Glass Artists

When glass artist Dale Chihuly filed a copyright-infringement suit against two glassblowers last year, his friends and acquaintances were almost apologetic.Such a hard-nosed tactic, they said, was unlike Chihuly, who once ran his business as an extension of his family.

They wondered if the artist had been influenced by advisers.

Chihuly offered no such excuses, explaining, "We're not going to go after somebody unless it's pretty serious."

The copyright suit may be an extreme case of Chihuly protecting his multimillion-dollar empire. It's certainly the most visible.

But it's not the only time he's played hardball with other artists.

For years, Chihuly and his associates have used a combination of personal confrontation, legal threats and quiet influence to keep other artists from making or selling work they felt was too similar to Chihuly's.

They've sent letters to glassblowers telling them to stop, attended exhibits to call out pieces that resembled Chihuly's style, and persuaded gallery owners to relegate competing works to the back room — or stop selling them altogether.

Few would question Chihuly's right to protect his business and his ideas, but in a world where most artists eke out a living and strive for one or two gallery shows a year, many have questioned whether he's gone too far.

Chihuly has copyrighted dozens of works that his critics say use shapes, techniques and colors that are hundreds of years old. He has trademarked not only his signature but also the names of glass series such as "Persians," "Floats" and "Baskets." And he has required employees and contractors to sign increasingly stringent documents promising they won't ever disclose anything about Chihuly or his business operations — and agreeing to limit their work opportunities for five years after leaving his shop.

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