be unique.


This is a heavy, confusing and upsetting subject, and not one in which I purport to be an expert. Please bear with me while I ramble & muddle through this post and feel free to comment with your thoughts (rudeness will be deleted).

It was brought to my attention recently that one of the artists I featured on Scoutie Girl has been accused of stealing ideas and artistic styles of other artists. Not wanting to appear as judge & jury in this instance, I will simply make a general statement about my posts: While I do *not* condone copying, determining if every single work of art I feature is original is just not possible in the span of my day. My finger is on the indie pulse, but I will never catch everything. My sincerest apologies to those whose original work was not acknowledged b/c of my ignorance. Scoutie Girl will never knowingly feature an artist or artwork whose ideas have been copied directly from another.

Having said that, this is where it gets confusing on the broader scope of this issue. Where is the line between inspiration and copying? How do you know? Is there a hard & fast rule as far you're concerned, or do you think it's a case-by-case basis? One person at one moment in time will always be the originator of an idea, a thought, an artwork, an invention, a musical arrangement, etc. Patented and copyrighted material aside, when ideas are in the public domain and have been repeated again and again and again - is that still copying or is it inspiration? Here are a few that come to mind: scrabble resin pendants, collages with birds-on-a-wire, sad-faced artwork, crocheted food, silkscreened tees with stock graphics/brushes, aged b&w photography, totebags with Amy Butler fabric. Seriously, I could go on and on…and so could you…we could be specific or general…there are 1000s upon 1000s of examples. Some of these involve a similar motif, technique or style. In every case, one person in one moment in time conceived and executed an idea, put a pricetag on it and sold it as artwork. Does that mean nobody else, ever, can make a pretty paper flower or wrap wire around a gorgeous bead and sell it? Of course not! That's silly. The original idea becomes diluted when it is tweaked and repeated by another - then 2 other people interpret the second and so on and so on. The exponential effect is that now that idea or motif is in the public domain and becomes commonplace. But what sucks is blatant, exact, carbon copies - that is so wrong and unfortunate. Do something, anything to make your work uniquely yours – you are unique, aren't you? Well let the world know!

Last August, Erin from Design for Mankind guest posted on decor8 about this very topic. It's a great read: A Fine Line: Inspiration or Imitation? 

Here was my comment to the post, and I think I'll stick by it: 
"Great topic. Great opening statement. I agree there is a wafer-thin line that often divides inspiration & imitation. I think, tho, that imitation comes in a few forms: coincidental, incremental and blatant. The last of the 3 is the easiest to say is out-and-out wrong, illegal (all artwork is copyrighted whether through formality or not), distasteful and opportunistic.

Coincidental imitation happens when creative divinity strikes more than once. We are snowflakes, to a point, but I do believe our common experiences, educations, habits, backgrounds, lifestyles, etc. propel us in similar directions more often than we think.

The last kind of imitation, incremental, happens when certain styles, designs, motifs, genres have already become a trend – the status quo so to speak. When you’re exposed to the same thing again and again and again like a broken record, the novelty wears off, the elements become commonplace, and we completely indoctrinate these designs and ideas into our psyche. They become part of our creative fiber, and sometimes they start to seep back out into our own work."

edited to add another great link, submitted by Nicole of Three By Sea:
creativity, competition & copycats by Amy at pikaland

What do you think? Do you agree, disagree? Do you have a completely different take?

14 thoughts on “be unique.

  1. Very difficult topic! I had 2 recent encounters with it… The first was when I decided to print some tape with leaves on; I had a look on Etsy just before I printed, to see what else was out there in tape form, and found someone selling pretty much what I was about to do. So I decided not to print mine; even though we’d come up with the idea independently, it would just cause too much confusion to have such similar things for sale in the same venue.

    The other instance was today, when I saw a shop selling paper pulp products that were almost identical to something I made a few years ago (that I never photographed or sold or discussed). I’d been thinking about making more, but I won’t!

    My take is that a lot of what I do isn’t rocket science, so it’s not strange that someone else would think of it too; it’s up to me to make sure that mine is unique enough to be different.

    Blatant copying I just don’t understand.

  2. I completely agree with you on this – the line between originality and copying is very fine and you can’t rely on the fact that nobody will ever create anything similar to what you make – you just have to rely on yourself and be original.

  3. I think you nailed it. I am unfamiliar w/ the particulars of this situation, but in general, I think more people need to reevaluate what is actual copying. The reality is, there are few truly original ideas- we are all just creating variations of things done before us- a objects & motif reworked, a technique applied to a different medium, etc. The same holds true in literature, architecture, technology, etc.
    Obviously I don’t condone outright, blatant “I rip people off because I’m an unoriginal a-hole” copying, but I think some people hold on too tightly to their claim of “originality” out of a fear that the creative well may dry up for them one day.
    A particular example comes to mind- at Xmas time, I saw an Etsy member get VERY hostile over what she thought were people copying her IDEA (not actual product), which was a spoof of another ubiquitous design item. Hostile and nasty, to the point that she made new products expressing that hostility, and was making ugly, thinly-veiled threats in her product listings. It was such a turnoff to see her act in this manner, both as a fellow creator, seller and buyer. Fast forward three months later, someone on Flickr starts a photo group regarding the spoofs, as they have become quite commonplace at this point. Imagine my surprise when I saw that someone had a photo of THEIR spoof dated three months before this Etsy member’s spoof product photos. Guess Miss Originality wasn’t really all that original but rather, perhaps, just a part of the art/design/cultural zeitgeist. I would have felt very foolish and ashamed if I were her upon seeing this.
    I think Amy of Pikaland has an excellent outlook about copycats, innovation, and our job as creative types. I wholeheartedly subscribe to her philosophy. Here’s the link-

  4. oh, thank you for sharing this! i agree with you, and i appreciate your differentiation of the different forms of imitation. there is NO way we will see everything out there, and the chance that someone else is doing something similar/the same as what i am doing is so high, partly due to the fact that we all look at so much and ideas and information are shared so quickly and freely. i would maybe add another category, “subconscious”? this is what i am paranoid about, when i go to create something new, i come at it with what i have been inspired by, and my own ideas, but sometimes i get a little paranoid about copying inadvertently!
    i also think that, as described in the comment above, that copying and/or complaining about someone else copying you (i.e. assuming your idea is totally original) will come back around to you, either exposing you to be a hack, insecure, or at least not a very nice person.
    i hope that all came out right :) this is one of those topics i wish we could discuss in person!

  5. Yup, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I absorb visual details all the time, am constantly inspired by others work…and this is bound to come out in my work. I worry that people may think that I am copying them, and have begun a continuing series of Inspiration posts on my blog to specifically point out how a particular artist inspires me – I also email these artists before posting, so they can see what I’ve been doing after being inspired by them – and I’ve never had someone write back pointing out that they’re uncomfortable with how closely I’ve been inspired by them…so I take all this to mean that I’m on the fair side of the inspiration/imitation line.

    Whitney Smith goes into detail about a copying incident that I think illustrates what everyone should avoid. And happily, her requests for the listing to be removed were granted by the copyer.

    I think we all need to keep (civilly) discussing this topic, so we can see into other folks minds, from other people’s points of view, and educate all. I’m happier with each discussion of this topic, as I usually come away with the feeling of “Phew! Nobody out there thinks I’m a big fat copycat!” I strive for originality, but don’t want to live my life in a vacuum, which is the only way one could create art that was truly their own!

    Great topic Jan!

  6. This is such a tough topic. I completely agree with you. It is so hard with all the information out there. Sometimes, I am not sure if a picture I have in my head is something I came up with myself or something I saw somewhere. Once I decide I want to make something from a picture in my head I try not to research it beyond that point. I figure that way if I am remembering something I saw somewhere there is no way I could copy it exactly without my own interpretation. But, sometimes I still feel like I don’t create anything on my own it is just a compilation of things I saw other people create.

    True innovation in any industry is rare. But, I agree blatant copying is wrong.

  7. Can I ask if you have brought this up to the accused copier? I don’t know what I would do – I mean, how do you or the “copied” artist know who was really imitating whom?
    That’s a tough one. I often worry about this in my own work – does over exposure lead to a dilution of one’s ideas? I have a process sketchbook at all times though, and I know that my ideas come from me. Copying is not the same as being inspired by someone, and I’m a bit sad for both artists involved in this particular story, whoever they are.
    Good topic Jan!

  8. sigh.

    this is something i encounter rather frequently, and such acts were done very bluntly so.

    the first time it happened was when i went to an art gallery, saw one of my prints hanging, but with someone else’s name under it. needless to say, i made a whole lot of noise about it.

    second time it happened was when one of the factories accidentally sent me a sample of my designs claiming it was theirs. they had forgotten that i had designed that piece.

    third time it happened was when i was working as a creative director for another company. the president of the company brought in a product and told me to “rip it off”. that product was MY design and he didn’t know it was mine. i quit soon after that.

    then there’s all these smaller cases that are more subtle. you see it happen quite often but you can’t do anything about it legally because they are different enough.

    i mean geez. there’s so many other instances, i’ve started copywriting my major pieces. i also have a lawyer.

    it’s definitely a touchy topic, and i think it’s VERY important for artists, emerging ones especially to be wary.

  9. I’m obviously doing a bit of blog catch up today, but I was JUST thinking about this topic while running errands today and had started formulating a post for my blog called “Imitation vs. Inspiration” in my head. Guess I can’t/ don’t need to write it now! It really is such a fine line and I’ve really been wrestling with it a lot lately as I am looking to expand my product line with new designs. Thanks for tackling it head on.

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