Copycat Creativity

A guest post by Mallory Whitfield.

copycat clips
Copy Cat snap clips by jackandjane

The idea of copycat creativity is one that pops up a lot in the DIY and handmade community.

Artists accuse other artists of stealing their ideas and remaking or selling them. Or worse yet, big companies with lots of money and big legal teams rip off the little guys, who find themselves in a position hard to defend from.

There are plenty of instances where artists legitimately HAVE copied from other artists, but sometimes I think accusations get thrown around when they really shouldn’t.

Here’s the thing: we’re all human, so our brains pretty much work in a similar fashion. (You know, unless you’re Charlie Sheen and happen to possess tiger blood and Adonis DNA.) Some people are naturally going to come up with similar ideas to what someone else has already done. Sometimes they might knowingly take inspiration from someone else, and yes, sometimes they might even purposefully rip off another artist or designer.

But unless you grew up in a cave and were never exposed to history or popular culture, I’d be hard pressed to believe that you’ve never come up with an idea that you thought was totally original, but that was actually subconsciously inspired by someone else’s idea first.

It happens all of the time in fashion – there are direct knockoffs of luxury items sold on street corners all over the world, but there are also trends that come back again and again, every few decade or so.

One of my favorite examples that I like to point out whenever this discussion comes up is one that was brought to my attention during my summers in theatre internships. Almost nothing Shakespeare ever wrote was totally original, plot-wise. But yet he is still possibly the most revered writer in all of history. His plot devices are not what we remember him for, and they are not what made a huge impact on the English language.

What was remarkable about Shakespeare is the WAY he crafted words.

The same can also be said for one of the most influential musical groups in history – The Beatles drew inspiration from all sorts of sources, but we remember them for the way they wove those inspirations together into new music.

About a month or so ago, inspiration came to me almost literally in a dream. Waking up one morning, I was struck with an idea for what I wanted my Mardi Gras costume to be. (Here in New Orleans, it’s just not Mardi Gras without a good costume!) I woke up thinking about a dress covered in stuffed animals. I went to the computer that morning, and tried searching for costumes and clothing made from stuffed animal parts. I was thinking, surely people have done this before, why can’t I find it? Maybe it’s just because I couldn’t think of a more specific way to type it into Google, and the thousands of results that came up were all irrelevant, but I really did have trouble finding anything like what I had in mind. So I decided to go for it, because even if someone HAD done it before, I knew it would be a fun costume to make and wear.

Later, as I started dropping hints about what I was doing on my Facebook page and to people I knew, others thought they knew the inspiration behind my costume, even though none were my intention. Someone referenced Lady Gaga and the episode of Glee where Rachel’s two dads make her a dress out of Beanie Babies to wear for their Lady Gaga rendition. On Mardi Gras day, multiple people thought my costume was a tribute to artist Mike Kelley, who is known for his work with stuffed animals. None of this was on my mind when I started, but to me it just goes to show that there are only so many possibilities for what we as humans are going to dream up.

Even if you THINK you have something truly original, chances are, someone, somewhere, sometime has already done or thought of it.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t still plenty of intentional copycats out there, because there are. But next time you’re ready to call someone out as a copycat, just remember:

you may be a unique and special snowflake, but all snowflakes are made from the same ingredients, so chances are you might not be quite as special as you think.

Mallory Whitfield is a proud resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, where she runs a blog and online shop, both called Miss Malaprop and both dedicated to the very best in handmade and eco-friendly goods. She also designs recycled clothing, accessories, and costumes, including the now infamous FEMA blue tarp dress.

43 thoughts on “Copycat Creativity

  1. What a great post…touching a topic that really stirs up the emotions in all of us. I think there are clear cases where someone literally copy pastes another artist’s work… but beyond that it’s all gray area. It might be true that there are no “original ideas” left…but maybe that just means we shouldn’t be focusing on being original, rather just being ourselves.

    1. Exactly – there are definitely clear cut cases, like if someone purchases something from you and then later starts selling something exactly like it, clearly they got the idea from you. But most cases are much more grey I think. And yup, I think we should always try to be who we are, whether that means being totally wacky and off the wall or even someone who fits a more “mainstream” mold. It takes all kinds!

  2. These are brilliant words to chew on this day. It comes back around in various forms now and again, and this was thoughtfully crafted. I wrote a post last August called “Artistic Influence” explaining exactly how I found the inspiration from another jewelry designer’s work (incidentally, this other jewelry designer is a good friend of mine, and I had her blessing to go ahead and do this). I found a quote and treatment of this subject on a painter’s website where he was showing the Toulouse Latrec and Degas were contemporaries of one another and that they obviously painted stunningly similar subjects. But the way the CRAFTED their subjects into marvels of light and color was what made them unique. Thank you for the thoughtful inspiration today. I am bookmarking this page for future reference!
    Enjoy the day!
    Erin

    1. Thanks Erin! Yes, I think it’s important to remember how all great artists draw inspiration from other artists, and it’s not a bad thing to do so!

  3. Great post! (Also, Hi Mallory!) I’ve run into this myself just recently and it is mind blowing to discover someone else thinking on exactly the same wavelength at exactly the same moment. I admit, my initial reaction was extreme frustration, but after talking it over with friends, family and fellow artists, I’m more comfortable with the idea. In my case, although the other artist was working in a very similar medium on a nearly identical concept, there was STILL enough to distinguish my work from hers. I’m forced to conclude that “unique” is indeed a very relative term!

    1. Hey Zoe!! I definitely understand how frustrating it can be – it’s happened to a lot of artists I know. I just tend to think the best of people (maybe that is naive, but…), and hope that the majority of cases are not people purposefully trying to copy.

      I think the same can be seen in history too… Ancient peoples who could not have possibly had contact with each other still managed to create very similar things. It’s just the way humans work.

  4. Great post – I esp. love that last sentence. I think when we are as bombarded as we are with visual images – thousands a day – we are bound to not realize where all our inspiration comes from. Saying “That’s a great idea and I’m going to do it, too,” is a long way from referencing something you saw weeks/months/years ago that your brain stored away without you realizing it.

    1. Thanks Victoria! I was debating whether that last line sounded too harsh, but I think it’s true at the same time. We all have uniqueness and value, but we are also all human, and share a whole lot of similarities, like it or not.

  5. This is a great topic, and you handled it really well. I sell antiques at a local antique mall, and designed my booth space to look different from the rest, and “original”. Over the years, other dealers have borrowed some of my ideas, and at first I was annoyed, but when I really thought about it, some of my own “original” ideas were inspired by images in magazines, and so on. Now it’s time for me to refresh my decor with more “original” ideas. I like to go to Flickr to get inspired……

    1. I LOVE Flickr for display & merchandising ideas too! I sell a wide variety of different products, and it’s always tricky to figure out how to make it all look good together! There are really only so many ways you can display certain things, but it’s still nice to try to mix it up and keep it “fresh”.

  6. This was really helpful to read! I’ve been struggling lately with feeling like everything I make has been done before and is too much like something else I’ve seen. I worry every time I bookmark a cool artist that I’ll then try to recreate their work….

    This has given me some confidence that my work will be my own as it filters through me. As long as I’m not setting out to create someone else’s work, then I’m going to make something unique. And I shouldn’t panic that everything I belongs originally to someone else.

    1. 😀 I’m glad I could help! And I know what you mean – one of the primary things I love making is recycled denim skirts. When I sell at local shows I often have customers remark about how they made one or their mom made one or whatever. I know it’s not unique in and of itself but I like to think that the WAY I make them, and the specific styling I use is.

      Good luck in all your endeavors!

  7. This was so well written and helpful. I often see designs that are similar to mine and think: “I hope that designer doesn’t think I copied them!”

    I don’t want to be seen as a copying someone’s work just as I don’t want anyone to copy my work…however, like you said we are all influenced by similar cultural aspects and more than one person is bound to come up with the same idea.

    1. I’m glad you found it helpful! I think as long as we don’t set out to purposefully copy someone else, and we stay true to ourselves, that’s all anyone can really ask for.

  8. it’s like pillowpets & pillowpals … these stuff toys serve the same function while they both did well for holiday 2010 @ two different price points & two different sizes … there is room in the market for both!

    1. Yes! You see it happen on a wider scale all the time – there is usually room for it all, and things that are interesting and well-made will find their niche!

  9. Sooooo glad you posted this. I had literally once made a sculpture and posted it on my personal web and flickr photos. I was proud of it for me, it was a bit different than I was used to. Three weeks later one of my favorite artists made one almost identical. There was no way she could have found mine, and our styles are so simliar that I never once thought she copied me. Then I worried about posting mine up for sale because people may think I copied her, and so the point is, we didn’t copy each other but sometimes two great minds that have the same overall style and use the same mediums may actually think alike.

    1. So true! If we manage to find people who become our best friends and our romantic partners, who think like us, then it is reasonable to think there are probably lots of others we don’t know about who think on a similar wavelength too!

  10. Yes!!

    This has happened to me… I’ve made something I thought was awesome, listed it on Etsy… then gone to search for it to see how it’s ranking… and found a stack of similar designs! Earlier in the game, my heart really sunk when this happened, because I was worried others might think I copied them.

    I think sometimes people spend too much energy worrying about this issue. If your stuff is obviously being deliberately copied, that is awful and frustrating. But chances are that no matter what you make, there will be someone out there who has made something very similar. The best thing we can do is focus on ourselves, our voice and style, and make that as clear as we can.

    1. Yes! That’s why I think branding is so important, and for most artists, the personality IS a big part of the brand. People can deliberately copy things you make, if they really wanted to, but it is hard to totally rip off a whole brand, especially when it’s based on YOU.

  11. Thanks for a great post. Creativity is misunderstood and described in strange ways sometimes. This is very worthwhile contribution.

  12. This is excellent, and your key point about creatives coming up with similar/same ideas is so true. I can’t help but think of Terry Prachett who explained it that there are only so many ideas in the universe and therefore the same idea may hit many people. Some will make the idea manefest, whilst others will let it pass… It is the person that a thing unique when they create/speak with their own voice. Even when given the same instructions about replicating a thing, folks will come up with unique interpretations. Thank you for sharing this thoughtful and down-to-earth article.

    1. Thanks! I know it can be a delicate issue, which is why I wanted to include my own story about making that costume – I guess it was my way of explaining that while I didn’t set out to create something I knew others had done, I also didn’t think I could possibly be the only person who had ever thought of it.

  13. I agree! A great post!

    It’s funny, I’ve been in the situation from both sides. I’ve had one of my pieces (most likely) copied and while it didn’t feel good, I decided to give the creator the benefit of the doubt.

    Another time I was so excited with a new design, put it up on my blog and soon found something so similar on Etsy. At the time I was livid but I went in to see when she had first sold that design and it was the day before I had blogged about it and put it out in the world. So even though I knew I hadn’t, I appeared to be the copycat. Her work was beautiful so I decided to no longer use mine out of respect for her (even though she’ll probably never know).

    The experience made me more aware however that great minds do think alike so when you do think that someone else has copied you, there is the chance that they actually may not have.

    1. Thanks Melanie!

      I have seen the issue from a lot of perspectives too, and I guess I just try to generally think the best of people and think that in most cases its not intentional. I just feel like accusations get thrown around way more than they should sometimes, and just as it feels bad to get copied, it also feels bad to get accused of something you didn’t do!

  14. Yes! Love the article. Great subject for debate.
    I love to copy things other people do directly. Yes i said irectly!….because it always fails so i end up evolving it into something new (which doesn’t look like the inspirational source). When i do succeed well than it’s no fun because it looks like the source and i don’t use it.

    A couple of weeks ago a friend had an online hissy fit over a big magazine copying one of her concepts, but it was clearly not a copycat action and i know of a couple of photo shoots with similar concepts (including one of another friend…and i know she saw those images)

    1. Thanks Charlotte! And I agree, in lots of ways copying is a great way to learn and evolve your own techniques. That’s why in just about any art form, you start off copying what others have done, whether music, or cooking recipes, or whatever. Then once you know how to do that, you can start to do things from scratch and interpret the art in your own way.

      1. Exactly that’s how it works you learn so much along the way. I used to try and copy photo’s with a pencil and looking back it was the perfect way of training my drawings skills. You learn to observe and translate it with your own handwriting.

  15. Thank you for your post. I wrote a post with a similar vein last year.

    http://trishalandesigns.blogspot.com/2010/10/lessons-ive-learnt.html

    There are times when as an artist you need to stand up for yourself but be careful that doing so doesn’t damage your creative and business reputation. I cringe when I see the same Craft Artists repeatedly moaning about being copied. I would certainly have difficulty working collaboratively (creatively or in a business relationship) with seombody who got so negative.

    thanks again.

    1. Trish, I just read your post, it’s great! And I definitely agree about how some of the moaning about being copied can damage a business just as much, if not more, than the act of being copied can!

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  17. You’re absolutely right and obviously direct knockoffs are another story. I think part of human nature is that we are constantly building and perfecting and one good idea often leads to the next. Your ideas may not be as original as you may think!

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