I've been meaning to talk about copying and was reminded of the issue when shopping around Etsy today. I saw an item that gave me a sinking feeling because it strongly resembled one of my most loved designs. I can honestly say that upon seeing the item, my body temperature rose for a few moments. This has happened to me about a dozen times. My immediate reaction to seeing a potential mimic is to be either indignant or foaming-at-the-mouth enraged. After dealing with this feeling for years (sometimes poorly) I have a plan of action I feel confident to recommend.
Next time you come across something you deem a copy of your work, try this:
1. Be really upset for as long as you feel really upset but please do not do a single thing. If you must vent your anger, make sure you are speaking to a small private audience. I like to call my Mom because she is always on my side and makes me feel like I can overcome any injustice.
2. Once your passionate fury has subsided to a low growl, take a deep breath and eat a big bowl of humility because the next part requires a clear mind.
3. Examine the copy-ness of the copy. I'm not really discussing rip-offs shipped overseas and mass produced. I'm mostly focusing on the idea of artists and crafters stealing from other artists and crafters. It is painfully obvious when huge companies copy because they barely bother to hide it. This advice mostly does not apply to big companies who practice creative theft.
Most copies in question fall along the similarity spectrum of fraternal twins to distant relations by marriage. To determine if you have reason to take action, ask yourself these questions:
- Research! Did the item in question appear after yours? Do they seem to have some creative ideas in their portfolio or shop or does it all look like copies? Does the alleged copier clearly have knowledge of your existence (i.e.- they bought from you in the past, repeated your writing, used your product photographs, you are so super famous that Martha Stewart asked for your autograph)
- Is your art made of pieces that other people can purchase and assemble? Jewelry findings, clip art, anything made of things manufactured on a large scale? Unless dramatically modified, it is easy to see how similar items could be created from similar pieces.
- Do you think you are the only person who has ever done this? Seriously? I am not trying to be mean but there are lots of productive and creative people out there and sometimes lightning strikes twice especially if you are using an on-trend vocabulary of imagery.
- If your technique or item is very simple, what makes it distinctly yours? It is a gray area for sure but I think this part requires SOUL SEARCHING about what makes your vision unique.
4. If you have come this far and still believe that a person knowingly imitated your totally original item without a dash of their own creativity, you are ready to make your case... to a friend (no lawyers yet!). I hope you have a friend who you can trust who will take this concern seriously and knows that their role is to try to be an objective copycat juror and not a nodding-in-agreement machine. If you can convince your level-headed friend that you have been wronged, feel confident to take the first step of confrontational action!
5. After your friend's agreement, you may be tempted to spill just a tiny bit of venom online. Don't blow it! I believe it is ethical to open a dialogue with the accused before rallying an internet gang against them. I like to employ a firm but non-harassing tone. Maybe talking to them will make you realized that the offender just walked the line of inspiration vs copy a little too closely and you have an opportunity to set them straight. Even better, you may have found a kindred creative person who sees the world the way you do and makes similar art; maybe you should be friends with them!
6. I rarely have had to bust out my Cease and Desist Letter *legal shivers* because most people I've contacted have apologized and promised to stop or convinced me that they were possibly innocent. If your copycat doesn't reply to talking like a normal person, please use the power of legalese and draft one of these puppies and talk about your fake lawyer while you start researching how to find a real lawyer.
7. 95% of the time there is no need for a step 7 in situations of artists stealing from artists. If you are here at step 7 and still want to proceed, I have become useless to you. Thankfully, I have only needed to go this far. If anyone can recommend some resources for serious legal action, I welcome them in the comments.
Did you notice that I have not included a step that recommends you use all the power of your Blog and Twitter followers to drum up intellectual property outrage about your case? Sorry! I know that being validated by the masses is delicious BUT it is also unwise. If you get a lawyer, your lawyer will tell you not to talk about the case. Heck, too much craptalking (aka slander) could have legal consequences for you too!
I hope that next time you are faced with the stressful situation of dealing with copyright infringement, you find my method helpful. In the case of the piece of art I saw on Etsy today that I thought could be a mimic of my design, It didn't make it past step three and was not even close enough for me to feel I needed to confront the artist.
I also hope that the next time you hear one of your favorite artists accuse someone of infringing, that you don't join in for a quick conviction. My theory is that the best way a person can help the original artist is to promote and support of their creativity rather than rally against some designer impostor (lets not drive traffic to their site).
Maybe I am too soft. I'd love to discuss this topic more. Have you ever been too quick to call foul? Do you think it is appropriate for an artist to publicly accuse another artist? Have you ever thought something was your brand new creative idea only to realize someone else had been doing it before you?