Whangārei artist Victor Te Paa says each piece of work he creates is like a child.

So when he found out his artwork had been taken without permission and printed on products for sale on a website called 1stnewzealand.com, he was gutted - it was like someone walked into his house and took something without asking, he said.

"It's personal. It's your wairua, your time, your spirit, everything is invested into these things as you're doing them - you can ask any artist - and then someone comes along like that and has no understanding of what went into it, what it means, the depth and all of that."

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Te Paa, of Ngāpuhi descent, is now talking to lawyers.

He said he first found out the website 1stnewzealand.com was using his artwork last year when an image of his Rūaumoko painting - which was an acknowledgment to Papatūānuku and her child in womb Rūaumoko, the god of tā moko - appeared on the site's Facebook page.

Victor Te Paa's Ruaumoko painting posted on the 1st New Zealand Facebook page. Photo / Supplied
Victor Te Paa's Ruaumoko painting posted on the 1st New Zealand Facebook page. Photo / Supplied

He messaged them and didn't receive a response. Shortly after, he found out the website had also taken the work of his friends and fellow artists. He said the artists also messaged the page, which ended up being "shut down".

Last week, he found out another one of his pieces, done in collaboration with Far North artist Anikaaro Harawira, had again been used by the company without permission and this time it was plastered on a duvet set being sold on the website.

The original artwork by Victor Te Paa and Anikaaro Harawira. Photo / Supplied
The original artwork by Victor Te Paa and Anikaaro Harawira. Photo / Supplied
Victor Te Paa and Anikaaro Harawira's work printed on a duvet cover which was being sold on 1stnewzealand.com but has since been removed. Photo / Supplied
Victor Te Paa and Anikaaro Harawira's work printed on a duvet cover which was being sold on 1stnewzealand.com but has since been removed. Photo / Supplied

He contacted 1stnewzealand.com again and received no response but the items were removed from the website. When you try to visit the Facebook page now, a message saying "sorry, something went wrong" appears.

"They just do this thing when they come in...and people turn around and go after them and look for justice with these guys, and they literally disappear off the map. I guarantee you when this has all died down they re emerge again," Te Paa said.

Whangārei artist Victor Te Paa. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Whangārei artist Victor Te Paa. Photo / Michael Cunningham

The Advocate also found another website called 1sttheworld.com selling hoodies and T-shirts with Te Paa's Rūaumoko piece emblazoned on the front, when told about it, he was shocked.

"It's like we're really only looking at the tip of the iceberg. It's just outright theft," he said.

While the 1stnewzealand.com Facebook page cannot be accessed, the Advocate was able to message it through a link on the website.

We initially asked for a phone number without identifying we were a newspaper but the person responding said "if you have question, you can ask me here. I'm available now".

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We then asked who designed the products.

"Our designers design our products," they responded.

The Northern Advocate then let them know it was a reporter contacting them and that we were aware of at least two artists' work appearing on products on the site, and we will be running a story.

We also sent them screenshots of Te Paa's Rūaumoko image posted on the 1st New Zealand Facebook page; and a photo of his and Harawira's original work along with an image of the duvet cover it was printed on from the website.

"The design don't have on website. I mean 3rd pic (Rūaumoko) about 1st and 2nd, we deleted them on our website," they said.

When asked why they were used in the first place, they replied:

"When we get report, page post and product link were unpublished immediately, then confirming, these are deleted."

The Advocate then reiterated the question and asked how they ended up with work from other artists on their products when they have their own designers.

"U know, we got many designs which you can't find anywhere. About out artist, if we know that they are stealing another, we will ban them forever on our website.

"Next week, we will have policy for our artists. I think this problem will be solved very soon."

The Northern Advocate asked if the website's designers were in-house or outsourced, and were told outsourced.

When asked if they could ensure other Māori artists' work would not be stolen and used on 1stnewzealand.com products in the future, and whether they'd like to say anything to the designers whose work had been used on their products, they said:

"Oh, this time is so pressure. We will try to make sure that never happen again. Next time, we will try to contact with original artist and have policy with our designs. About saying to the designers who used Māori art, we think it is our fault and should try to ungrade our system."

The Northern Advocate also sent an email to 1sttheworld.com and its Facebook page - Love the World - but it has not yet received a response.

There are a number of similarly named websites such as 1staustralia.com and 1sticeland.com.

A domain name search of 1staustralia.com has the registrant email listed as admin@1stnewzealand.com, the contact email on the 1stnewzealand.com site.

Meanwhile, the confirmed page owner of the Love the World Facebook page is CÔNG TY TNHH TVN GROUP - or TVN GROUP CO. LTD.

A Facebook page named TVN GROUP, which refers to CÔNG TY TNHH TVN GROUP in its posts - has a website called www.tvnteam.com.

That domain name is registered to a Minh Tien Vu with the registrant address being in Vietnam, the registrant details are the same for 1sticeland.com.

When the Advocate initially called the registrant phone number listed, someone answered but the call disconnected.

Victor Te Paa's Rūaumoko piece. Photo / Supplied
Victor Te Paa's Rūaumoko piece. Photo / Supplied

The Advocate then sent an email to the registrant email saying we tried to call, and asked to speak to someone about 1stnewzealand.com and 1sttheworld.com.

The person responded saying hi and "how can I help you?".

When asked if the person ran 1stnewzealand.com and websites by similar names including 1sttheworld.com, 1staustralia.com and 1sticeland.com, the person said:

"No, sorry. I do not understand why you mention this problem?"

The Advocate then asked why the person's name was associated with 1sttheworld.com, TVN Group and 1sticeland.com, and stated we were doing a story on 1sttheworld.com and 1stnewzealand.com using artwork by Māori artists without their permission.

"Thank you for your information, we will contact the owner of the design on this matter, Thank you. Regards," the person replied.

The Advocate asked the person to clarify if they were involved with 1sttheworld.com, and asked how they knew what design had been taken. It has not received a response.

Victoria University professor of law Graeme Austin could not comment specifically on this case but said when you use someone's original artwork without permission, you breach copyright.

"It's pretty straightforward. And New Zealand artists are protected in almost all foreign countries through New Zealand's Treaty arrangements."

Meanwhile, barrister and cultural intellectual property rights expert Maui Solomon said this isn't the first time there has been a "rip off" of Maori designs and artwork, and the Wai 262 claim, which was first lodged in 1991, aimed to address this.

"This is a claim I took for three Tai Tokerau iwi - Ngatiwai, Te Rarawa and Ngati Kuri- and it's probably one of the most significant reports to come out of the Waitangi Tribunal and it includes a whole range of recommendations to protect matauranga Māori, taonga Māori, artistic works such as a breach of Māori artists' works, and Māori names," he said.

"The problem being the Government has been very slow to respond and it's only now, almost 10 years after the tribunal made it's report in 2011, that the Crown is finally starting to address and consult with the claimants and do something about it. So of course in the mean time it's pretty much open slather for people wanting to rip off Māori art and design works."

He said artists can seek legal advice and seek redress for an infringement of copyright. But he said costs spent pursuing a legal case through the courts could outweigh any redress artists may receive, an issue which was raised in the Wai 262 claim.

"Most artists, Māori artists especially, don't have the wherewithal to go through expensive legal proceedings to enforce their rights so we need to look at designing a new system."

Solomon said there needed to be some kind of national commission set up - a Māori body funded by Government - to take these cases on to protect Māori artists.

He said in most cases the work of Māori artists is a manifestation of whakapapa and tūpuna so when the work is used without permission it not only causes personal offence, but cultural and moral offence.

"It's deeply rooted within the rich mosaic of Māori identity and ancestry and so there's a direct relationship between the person, their art and their ancestors. That's often the difference between Maori art, or indigenous art, and other artworks,"