Copycats, Copyright and Competition

If you've spent any time on the Internet lately as a creative you know you can't throw a metaphorical rock without hitting some kind of post that talks about an artist's work being stolen or accusations of copying. In the beginning it was a lot of rallying behind the "little guy" against the "evil corp" but lately it's starting to get a lot more artist to artist, and a lot of it is not pretty.

So, I have been thinking about this topic for awhile. And it's a pretty nuanced topic that I think involves several different layers of issues. Then, in the course of a few weeks I have come across two different blog posts that have basically summarized everything I've been thinking. And wow, that's so refreshing! I'm so glad to know that this creative community is all churning on these ideas together and arriving at some really intelligent conclusions.

I thought I would summarize some of the points of both (which still makes for a VERY long blog post), as well as add a few of my own thoughts. Feel free to think of this as being "inspired by" these posts. ;) Please read these articles below in full! There is so much good stuff in both of them and I know that both authors would agree that we need to keep these conversations going. So comment on theirs, comment below, send a tweet, send a smoke signal... understanding the issues at play will only make us all better.

DESIGN SPONGE: "50 Shades of Grey: Copyright and Credit in Design"
I would highly encourage you to read the comments on this one as well as reading the post. Christine Schmidt (who I have the utmost respect for as a designer) of Yellow Owl Workshop makes some really great points-- one of them being her reason for not copyrighting her own work. 

MARKETING CREATIVITY by Lisa Jacobs: "The Shocking Truth about Copycats"
I loved that she talks about the dangers of living on the extremes of copyright rigidity and copyright anarchy (my terms, not hers). Both seem pretty unhealthy to be either.

I also want to highly recommend the blogs of lawyers Kiffanie Stahle and Jonathan Tobin, who both do great work with creatives:

"Copying" Is and Isn't Subjective

One of the biggest takeaways from both articles is that the nature of how we view "copying" is somewhat subjective. I totally can understand people who have work that is directly copied being very upset, but most people's work is not so cut and dry. Cut and dry things, to me, seem to include things like burning DVDs and CDs of things that are not yours then selling them as your work, printing another artist's drawing so that it's a blatant copy, or copying and pasting written words into something you are signing your name to. I don't think there is probably a lot of disagreement that this is a pretty big no-no both from an artistic integrity standpoint and also from just a straight up lying standpoint.

But then there is this whole area where copyright isn't clear and thus where copying isn't clear. By now we should all understand that fast fashion exists because it's perfectly legal to "knock off" dresses that very much look like the high end "original." And guess what? Those high-end brands are still making a crap ton of money (this should not be confused with people taking logos and other trademarks and directly copying them onto purses, etc... see how this stuff is confusing?). Plus, for many things, you really can't copyright them (like functional and utilitarian aspects of design).  So, when we look at copying's legality and its harm, it seems like a lot of things just aren't the big deal that people often make them.

So Give the Benefit of the Doubt

This goes for both people who have been accused of copying and the person who is accusing. Because creating is so personal, it can be hard to not feel like there isn't something mean about the whole thing. If someone is approaching you about work they feel like you've "stolen" and you just feel like this isn't the case, just remember where they are coming from. There is tremendous pressure to create work that feels authentic and original and people often can feel very protective of that, especially if they are also a small business. And if you are the one who feels like you are being ripped off, take a step back and really think about the situation before firing off an angry email. If it's a smaller artist, some true ignorance could be at work and if it's a big corporation, the same is often true since they are probably getting the design from a third party.  

Creativity and Great Ideas are More Inspiration and Reaction than Originality

If you have done any studying of history, philosophy or art, you will know that there are rarely any new ideas if any new ones at all (I guess that's its own debate). Most of intellectual history is just one big conversation of recycled ideas. We're constantly reacting to what just happened which causes another reaction and so on. In all of these reactions and "talking back" there is of course going to be hints of what was there before. And it should come as no surprise that we often land back in the same pot of creativity we started in. That's just how this stuff works in the grand scheme.

Great art is ALWAYS thought provoking... originality as we are defining it is less so part of the equation (that's why paintings in a museum from the same period look very much the same, but it's what they are saying that distinguishes them as great). The interplay of ideas has always led to much more interesting AND relevant things than someone trying to think of an original thought. 

Plus, as the Design*Sponge article notes, most modern makers are heavily relying on indigenous methods, patterns and iconography that is both part of cultural fabric and also simple patterning that may or may not be intentionally copied. And there really is nothing wrong with this, so long as it is done in that interplay of conversation. I think that's what makes this a wonderful world to live in-- to play with all the things from history until now and see what you make. And at some point we shouldn't be surprised when these things get remade as identical or almost identical to the "original" or something else that's in the world.   

Don't Be Paranoid or threatened... It's Killing Creativity and You'll Survive

We also shouldn't become so obsessed with originality (or so arrogant as to think we are so original) that we forget that we live in an incredibly inspiring world and that all of that feeds into creativity... and that is more than OK, it's being human! Being human, soaking what's around us up and spitting it back out as something we share is all part of creative process. It's absurd to think we should be living in a bubble where we can't be influenced by other ideas. What we are responsible for is the thoughtful undertaking of how much we will mimic someone else and how much we will engage in a creative "dialogue" so to speak with their work. I feel like this is way more of a question that people should be asking themselves and far less something a creative copyright gang needs to point out on the Internet. 

There have been a lot of interesting studies out there that have actually shown that knock-offs create a demand for the original, so if you are selling something that keeps "inspiring" other people (or in some cases they directly copy) don't sweat it. Seriously. While infuriating in some ways, most of the time this will not take away from your business in any way (rare exceptions, but really I feel like most of the time this is not the case). Plus, by now, we've all been told that if you've had one creative idea, you'll have another one. So, if someone steals your idea, you've got more where that came from. 

Theft is a Cost of Doing Business

Unfortunately, these situations just suck sometimes and there isn't a whole lot you can do about it. People are constantly being surprised that these things happen online, but if you ran a brick-and-mortar shop you would expect some amount of theft. Would it suck? Yes. But you would likely not be surprised by it.

In the same way you'd operate an offline store, you should take some security measures to protect yourself (it will look different for everyone, but consulting a lawyer and making sure you've taken precautions with your work and any business deals you make is often a smart route). However, it would be unwise if you turned your store into Fort Knox with customer-inhibiting security and other things that might keep away thieves but will also keep away buyers. This is often what happens when people over compensate on their online security by having crazy watermarks and other things that make online experiences unpleasant for customers. 


It's funny we are still learning these lessons about the Internet, but let us never forget that the stuff we say here is public, semi-permanent and can hurt just as badly (if not more) as words said in person. Even when you have the most righteous of cases, suffering in silence and dealing with things "behind the scenes" is almost always a better idea than banding together your support online. 

I've seen a few of these done with optimal results when it's a David vs. Goliath, but David is usually extremely tempered in their approach which is often why it doesn't blow up in their face. But most of the time, this does not end well... even if you think you're completely "in the right." And that's also because you damage your case for court if this is really something that you can have legally resolved. Staying mum usually benefits you more in the end all around.

Some Things to Consider

If you feel you've been wronged or if someone accuses you of wronging them, here are some things to think about.

  1. What am I going to get out of this? Really. Honestly.
  2. Is it worth it? I have been cheated out of money and have pursued legal action that has resulted in way more time and effort than what it was worth. Often as small businesses, small amounts feel big but the "system" rarely rewards the little guy when you go that route. Really examine all routes to take (resolving outside of court is usually your best shot) and know when to call it a day. And is it worth potentially damaging someone's reputation or accusing them wrongfully?
  3. What is the potential backlash? Who could you hurt? What could hurt you? People read things in ways you'd never expect or are happy to troll you on behalf of the accused. It can bite you in the butt real quick. 
  4. What are the "behind-the-scenes" routes that I could take could actually resolve this the most favorably?
  5. How do I behave as professionally as possible? Because word will get out at some level about how you handled this even if done privately. And because it not only could affect your future business but also the reputation of the industry you represent at large. Emotions run high with this stuff and trying to get those out of the mix as much as possible in these situations usually results in the best course of action.
  6. Know the facts and where you stand before doing anything. Most of this stuff is not urgent, so figure out all the facts about the situation including your own legal footing. Don't fire off emails before you've done some investigating. I find that most of the accusations online are misunderstandings or things that you can't really prove which just becomes gossip on the internet.

As always, it's your business. Be smart and thoughtful about it. Think about your business' future and not just about the moment of righteousness you want to feel.

How have you handled any situations of copying? What lessons have you learned? What resources have helped you? Please share in the comments below!

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