Not the title you were expecting, was it?
Copying seems to be quite a controversial topic in the maker community. There are many conflicting ideas out there about whether copying is acceptable, when it is acceptable, and where we can draw the line between inspiration and imitation. Over the years I have talked to countless artists who have had their work copied, and I myself have gone through the heartbreak of seeing my own hard work replicated or my photos being used on someone else's page. I have talked to beginners in the community who genuinely had no idea that pulling close inspiration to another maker’s work is frowned upon. I have also heard from those who strongly believe that direct copying is perfectly acceptable, because everything that is posted online is “fair game" (hint-this is not true!).
Earlier in the year, I gathered together several other makers I know and respect and we had an honest conversation about this topic in a group chat. We shared our stories, experience, perspectives, and the knowledge we had accumulated over time and offered each other advice and encouragement. As a result of that discussion, I feel that I have a fairly solid understanding of what most creatives view as acceptable behavior when pulling inspiration from someone else's work, and what actions will step on the original creator's toes.
My belief is that there ARE, in fact, some instances in which copying is okay! However, there is a proper way to go about this and there are definitely some unspoken rules about what you are allowed to do with something you have copied. Read on to learn more!
In this post, I will address:
1) The basic legal jargon and implications of original work & copyright.
2) When is copying okay and when is it not?
3) What counts as copying and what doesn’t?
4) Tips to make sure you copy responsibly or to help develop your own style without copying others.
Please note that I am a human with my own experience and perspectives, and my opinion on some of these topics within copying may vary vastly from someone else's! It is totally okay if you have a different opinion than me. I am simply combining my thoughts with the experiences and perspectives that have been shared with me by other creatives and makers.
1) The ~LEGAL~ stuff
Okay. Some of you might want to tune out already when you saw that phrase, but stick with me here because this sets the scene for everything to follow. Let’s break some basics down first:
Copyright essentially establishes legal ownership of an idea and provides the owner with the “right to copy” (aka recreate that work or create derivatives of that work). It also legally establishes the right to determine whether and how others can use it. A creator does not have to do any paperwork to establish a copyright on something they created. According to copyright.gov, copyright is automatically established “the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” (17 U.S.C. § 102)
Essentially, when someone creates a piece of art and posts it online, that piece is legally protected and the owner of that piece can technically pursue legal action against any infringers on that copyright.
Derivative works: “A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship” (17 U.S.C. § 101)
This is an important definition to bring up because I think a majority of the copyright infringement that we see in the maker’s community falls under the category of derivative works. If a piece is copied by another artist with some subtle modifications, but it can still be clearly perceived as derivative of the original (for example, someone copies your design but changes only the colors or one design element), then it is still copyright infringement.
Now, we see copying all the time in our community but I personally have never known anyone that has opened a lawsuit against another maker for copyright infringement. They could, and if they did they would probably win, but for most makers the payoff of going through that is honestly usually not worth the trouble and/or lawyer's fees. However, I still think that understanding the legal side of things is important to look at because it frames the general consensus about what is acceptable and what is not. It also might motivate you as a maker to create more original works if you understand that it is technically illegal for you to make a copy of someone else's work without their explicit permission.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on the legal side of things, but I will give one final takeaway on this. When I was in college I took a course on media in the U.S. and I remember learning about copyright infringement. My professor boiled it down to this: in a battle over copyright, the main deciding factor about whether someone can be penalized for infringement comes down to…
Essentially, if you are profiting off of something that you don’t own a copyright over, or negatively impacting the original owner's ability to profit on their design, you are accountable in a legal sense. Even if it is “derivative” of the original work and not a direct copy. When you make the same basic piece as someone else and decide to sell it, you are directly impacting their ability to make a profit off of the product that they created- and not only devaluing the time and energy it took to create that piece but also the long hours of trial and error and years of perfecting their art.
Now that I've overloaded you with all the legal information, let's get on to the practical side of things.
Is copying ever okay?
Woof. This is a question that will have a different answer depending on who you ask, but I’ll go ahead and dive into my own beliefs in an effort to explain why I titled this blog post "Please Copy My Work." I think a good amount of makers will resonate with most of my statements, but some may have a qualm with the last statement. Here are the instances in which copying is okay, in my opinion:
1) It is okay for you to copy my work as a way of learning or practicing techniques.
2) It is okay for you to copy my work if I provide a tutorial, pattern, or DIY kit for my design.
3) It is okay for you to copy my work as a stepping stone for you to develop your own style.
4) It is okay for you to copy my work to keep for yourself or to gift to someone in your life. (this one is something that I suspect some makers would NOT be okay with though)
If you want to copy someone's work and it falls under one of these categories then congrats! You are probably in the safety zone.
However, these works should never be posted anywhere online WITHOUT THE DIRECT CONSENT OF THE MAKER (if a tutorial or pattern was provided that inherently counts as consent to share). If you have been given consent, the original maker should be tagged and given credit for the original design. It is also generally a big no-no to sell any pieces that are copied, even if you paid for that pattern or DIY kit! There may be exceptions there, but generally speaking, makers create patterns for people that are learning or just want to make something for themselves, not for other makers that have their own shop.
Although some makers would disagree with some of the exceptions I provided as being acceptable for copying, the majority of us do understand that when you’re first starting out with a new craft it’s very difficult to make things on your own unless you have an example to reference. We all started there- we get it! For most of us, the ability to create our own original designs came after we have mastered the techniques shared with us by other makers.
What counts as copying?
How can I make sure I don’t accidentally copy someone?
First off, I just want to say that if you are concerned about accidentally copying a piece, you probably won’t ever do it or be accused of it. With the exception of those of you that have photographic memories, have you ever just looked at a piece you liked, put the photo of that piece away, and tried to make that exact piece without referencing back? If you’re like me it probably will end up nothing like that original piece. I’d have to keep going back and referencing that picture if I really want to copy it “knot for knot” as we say in the macrame world.
The people who are most worried about copying someone are almost always the least likely to ever do it- it’s usually the people who don’t understand that copying is an ethical faux pas, or worse -those who understand and still don’t care- that are the culprits of direct copying.
So, what counts as copying? As we mentioned above, anything that shares the likeness of the original piece, even if it is derivative.
Here are some tips depending on what stage you are at in your creative journey:
-If you want to copy something on a youtube tutorial or have purchased a DIY kit or pattern from the maker, go for it! That is a way of the maker letting you know that they are totally okay with you copying everything they are doing for that piece. Yay!
-If you want to directly copy something that does not have a pattern/DIY kit from that maker, you should directly contact the maker asking for their permission. You should also tell them what you plan to use it for- whether you want to recreate it just for practice and won't post it online, or whether you plan to try to sell it. Don't get upset if they tell you no(they likely will say no if you want to sell it). It's not personal, some of us have emotional connections to our work so it is hurtful to have it copied even if it never ends up online.
-If you want to copy a piece but with one or two modifications, that still falls in the category of derivative and still counts as a copy. In this case you should still directly contact the maker and ask for their permission, also including how you plan to use this piece-whether it is for learning or to sell. Again, they have the right to tell you no. If they do, take it as motivation to exercise your creative muscles and make something that is more loosely inspired by their piece!
-If you're at a place where you have got the techniques down but you haven't yet found your own style or learned how to create your own designs from scratch, try this: Instead of using one piece of art as your inspiration for a project, take 3-5 pieces that you like (preferably from different makers) and really try to hone in on what element(s) drew you to each piece. Instead of making something inspired by just one other piece, try to blend those elements you like from multiple pieces together to create your own combination! I’d bet that if you use a minimum of 3 different pieces to blend for inspiration, you will never have anyone contact you thinking you made something too similar to their work. This is something I tried when I was first starting out and I believe it helped me to quickly discover my own style!
One final caveat:
Signatures- I have recently found that some makers have “signatures,” AKA super unique elements that they include in all or nearly all of their work that help people to recognize it as their own. I can think of several examples. I know one maker who has a specific method of weaving in velvet ribbons and knotting them to look like “bows” in her wall hangings. I know another maker that has a design for a unique type of tassel that she incorporates in each of her pieces. I bring this up just to say that if there is a really unique element of someone else's work that you have been wanting to incorporate into your own, I would try to make sure that it is not their signature. You can do this by scrolling through their work and checking to see if that one element is in more than half of their work, and if it is I recommend that you check with them. I'm sure they would be thankful that you asked!
I hope that this blog post was helpful! Drop any questions below or let me know what you think!