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…