50 Shades of Grey: Copying & Credit in Design

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I’ve had this topic kicking around in my head for a long time and to be quite honest, I’ve been scared to start this conversation. Mainly because a lot of people, myself included, can have a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of any independent artist being copied or hurt by a larger brand. That reaction can make it difficult to have a balanced and open conversation. The David and Goliath analogies are easy to make when you see a smaller artist up against a larger company, but the stories behind those issues are almost always more complicated than they seem.

This essay isn’t inspired by one person’s story, but rather by a decade of seeing the way these sorts of issues are discussed and handled in the real world of design and retail. I by no means have all the answers to this problem, but I’ve seen and heard the behind-the-scenes details of so many cases of alleged copying that it makes me want to open up the conversation and see if our community can have a real discussion about copying, originality, crediting and trend-setting. They’re all different things and shades of grey exist within each, but I think tackling issues like this and listening to each other will help artists and designers learn to better protect themselves and how we, as supporters of their work, can learn to better support them.

If you’re passionate about independent artists and designers, I hope you’ll read on and join me in a deeper examination of one of the biggest problems facing our community as a whole. xo, grace

*UPDATE: Here is an EXCELLENT guide to what is (and isn’t) fair use when using someone else’s work in your own. There was also a great post on copyright written by creative counsel in response to this post. It is chock-full of valuable info!

A long time ago I got to know a woman who sold patterns. Until I met her, I didn’t even know that was a thing. She went around with a huge trunk full of patterns that were sold to large companies to be used in their upcoming collections. Typically the major companies bought these patterns outright, owning their exclusive right to use for a period of time. The patterns were a mix of things created in-house by designers at her pattern firm and antiques she sourced at European flea markets. I was never 100% clear about who owned those antique patterns and how people recreated and resold them, but it became clear that buying patterns like this was a common occurrence.

I think about that moment in time a lot when I hear from people who are upset or worried about copying. Mainly because for me, it brings up the grey area that can be tough to negotiate- where does credit begin and is there such thing as a truly original design?

For me, almost all art & design is inspired by something that came before or something that’s happening in the current zeitgeist of a community. Does that mean it’s not entitled to be credited or protected? Absolutely not. But does it mean that originality is a topic that may be greyer than we’re comfortable admitting? Yes. So today I want to delve into this issue because I’ve seen so much time, effort and stress go into alleging copying online, versus time that could possibly be put into legal research, fighting companies that truly deserve to be taken to task and educating artists and designers in better ways to protect their work and their livelihoods. Because for me it boils down to this: larger companies aren’t going anywhere. Sure, some brands will come and go, but there will always be large companies that try to profit from indie designers, whether fairly or unfairly. And while it’s important to focus on changing their policies, it’s also important to focus on how to help our community of artists and designers protect themselves and promote and grow their businesses as safely as possible.

ORIGINALITY

This may be the toughest subject to discuss, because I’ve never met an artist, or person, who didn’t think their ideas were 100% original. But having spent time around people who’ve gotten multiple degrees in design, art history and decorative arts, I’ve found that most current trends and styles have their roots and beginnings in a much much earlier time period. That said, there are so many incredible artists and designers who are able to take those concepts, styles, patterns or color palettes and put a modern and distinct spin on them.

So how do those artists protect their concepts and ideas? The first step is knowing where those ideas come from and seeing if they can be copyrighted (here’s how to do that). Is your work based on an original concept, pattern, image or style? Or is it taken from another person’s artwork, existing pattern/fabric or produced by other craftspeople and then sold under a different name? All of these forms of creation exist, and are supported, by our community. But lately it’s felt like the people who get the most upset (and email to ask me to “out” the offending company) are people who fall into that last category. And after seeing hundreds of these cases over the past ten years, I’d love to see less energy spent on upset and rage over non-original or non-credited ideas and more time spent understanding and crediting sources.

There is a current trend in design (which has been popular since the early days of decoration) that favors fabrics and homegoods made by traditional craftspeople in other parts of the world, namely countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. I love these sorts of products as much as everyone else, but I rarely see the credit given to the original craftspeople making these products overseas. We see this sort of “who made this and where?” issue happen in big-brand retail all the time, but it’s starting to happen in the indie community to a surprising degree. Too often I receive emails from shop or brand owners, furious that a larger brand has started selling mudcloth pillows “just like theirs”. When the truth is, that fabric/product/item was made by another artist in another country who is not getting credit for their work. True, that work is often done as “work for hire” and not having credit is part of the deal, but for the owner of that shop to claim originality over a pattern or fabric that wasn’t created, designed or imagined by them, rubs me the wrong way. What’s wrong with admitting that your goods are produced by other craftspeople? If you’re paying them fairly, they have fair working conditions and they’re making this work out of their own free will, then there should be no shame in clarifying that you work with an overseas group of makers to produce these pieces and bring them to a different market. Our community has plenty of room for makers of all types and for shops/brands of all types. It’s totally ok if you don’t make everything yourself, just don’t get up in arms if someone else decides to hire their own local makers to do the same thing. People have been traveling to different countries to find/take inspiration from other cultures and their artwork for ages. It’s not a new concept, it’s part of a long-standing (and often complicated/controversial) trend in the decorative arts. Which brings me to the next grey area…

TRENDSETTING

We’ve all seen the way trends seem to pop up and spread like wildfire in today’s online community. One maker does something beautiful, posts it to Instagram and a few weeks later, an entire group of artists decides to try the same thing. Sometimes those resulting products are direct copies and sometimes they’re loosely inspired. Either way, what’s happening here is one maker striking a chord with a community and starting a trend. We’ve seen this happen in floral design (after the success of studios like Saipua and Emily Thompson, it felt like everyone in Brooklyn quit their job to be a florist) and wood working (Ariele Alasko most certainly inspired a new generation of makers to try woodworking, lathe pattern designs and spoon carving) and it’s been tough to draw the line between inspiration and copying. There’s a lot of both out there, but the bottom line is that there is a difference between a 100% new or original idea and popularizing (or re-popularizing) a style or technique. In the case of florists and woodworkers, both of these ideas and styles have existed before, but they’ve been made to feel fresh and modern and exciting by a new group of talented makers. This happens with every generation and it lets us, as fans of design, rediscover something that we may not have seen before and inspires artists of all ages to try something different. But so often it leads to legions of devoted fans attacking other artists who are trying out the same style. I love to see anyone get passionate about supporting an artist they love, but there’s a part of me that would love to see long-past generations of designers and artists come back and show their work and how the tradition has existed in their time, too. That’s never going to happen, so instead I’d love to see both artists and supporters of artists step back and take a moment before attacking each other. In some cases, yes, someone copies someone directly and profits from it. But in some cases, no one can claim to have invented a striped fabric, a plaid chair or a triangular pattern on a something. These basic shapes and patterns are part of mankind’s earliest decorative art traditions and what we’re seeing in our contemporary community is our generation’s take on those established skills and styles. Are they unique and wonderful? Absolutely. But are they so original that they should cause people to threaten others because of inspiration or similarities? I don’t think so.

WHAT’S A DESIGNER TO DO?

So what is a designer to do if something they created sparks a flurry of knock-offs or inspirations? Well, it’s a tough decision and I’d love to hear from designers who have experienced this and what they’ve felt the best doing. Personally, I feel that any designer who wants to grow their business to a much larger scale (which isn’t necessarily everyone’s aim) might want to preserve relationships with larger distributors, brands and companies if possible. That IF is a big IF, but I know of two distinct cases where an indie artist was copied by a MUCH larger brand that resulted in confrontation behind the scenes and an ultimate settlement and then partnership that benefited the designers and their financial success in a major way. Is that everyone’s best choice? No. But if you find yourself in the position of knowing your truly original work was stolen by a huge box store, it’s time to talk to a lawyer. Why? Because going public before you know your legal rights and positioning can be incredibly detrimental in a number of ways. Before we talk about that, let’s talk about where to hire lawyers to help. This pro-bono resource is a great place to start, but you can also contact your local small business chamber or group for low-cost or sliding scale lawyers with experience in your field.

One last quick note: don’t send a pitch or proposal to a store or brand without the entire process documented in writing and with a clause of ownership and copyright included. Too often artists will send custom ideas to a bigger brand, with high res files, and then the brand will “pass” on the ideas and then do them in house. So make sure it’s documented that these designs are yours and that they acknowledge they know that and that they have received them. It won’t guarantee they won’t try to take something, but it will be helpful, should you need to take legal action.

GOING PUBLIC?

The reason I suggest most artists contact a lawyer before going public is that any claim made in public (social media, newsletters and emails count) and in writing can be used against you in a court of law. And, like I mentioned above, unfortunately, proving that your work is 100% original and that it was copied can be very difficult. It’s not impossible, but knowing your rights and an outside opinion is valuable to do before you put yourself in a position to be counter-sued by someone who may have done something awful to you. It can be hard to hear that a company that may have stolen something from you can turn around and sue you in return, but it’s been done many many times. I hate to see an artist that was wronged have to turn around and defend themselves from a huge lawsuit because they spoke publicly before getting a lawyer involved.

HANDLING THINGS BEHIND THE SCENES

There are purists and realists (and everything in between) in our community and after 10 years, I’ve become a firm realist. I’ve decided that it’s too black and white to label all big companies ‘evil’ and all small artists and designers ‘innocent’. There are often shades of grey in between and if you handle things privately, often they can work out in your favor.

About 6 years ago I knew a talented indie (no agent, no licensing rep) artist who had their very recognizable artwork stolen and used on major national product designs. When that artist found out, they hired a lawyer, contacted the brand directly and, after a few weeks of back and forth, they were given not only a settlement check that allowed them to live comfortably for several years, they were also paid what they WOULD have been paid for that work and they were given an official holiday campaign with the company the next year. Now, does that happen to everyone? No. And would everyone want to work with a company that took something from them? No. But sometimes, working things out with a major company can open doors, in terms of financial support and exposure, that can change a designer’s life in a big way.

In a similar example, I personally recognized a copied design from a well-known pattern designer pop up in the work of a even more well-known designer a few years ago. I was sitting in the press event where the products were being introduced before their retail launch and I said, out loud, “Oh! I didn’t know you guys were collaborating with [Name of designer]. How cool!”. Everyone looked at me and stared in silence and, cut to 2 days later, I was on a phone call with the more well-known product designer who admitted that the other artists’ designs had been referenced in an in-house design session and, somehow, never got changed or altered (or used as inspiration, rather than a template) in the final process. The smaller designer was made aware of what happened and, privately, they agreed to a design fee and the smaller designer profited from the payment and the exposure of what was then launched as a collaboration. Is that a messy path to financial success? Yes. But at the end of the day, sometimes finding a way to make something work, rather than taking something public first, is a good way to make the best of a bad situation.

Now I know not everyone’s case will win and not everyone wants to work with a company that copied them, whether intentionally or not. But as someone who wants to see indie makers, artists and designers do well on a BIG scale, I’ve become inclined to think that it’s worth seeing if you can make headway with these companies, with a lawyer involved, in a way that leads to you being compensated and celebrated for your work (even if it didn’t start that way).

GETTING LEGAL

So what if that doesn’t work out? A company claims they didn’t steal and that you have no proof? Well, if you have proof, a lawyer should be able to help you turn that into a settlement of some sort. I know of at least 10 high-profile cases handled this way in the last few years alone with MAJOR companies and it didn’t cost the artist their life savings. Not every case will work out this, in fact a lot won’t, but if you have a good case on your hands, it’s worth pursuing. I’ve found too many artists get scared and frustrated by the amount of work they’ll need to do to defend their work that they just give up. But please don’t give up, this is where your fans and supporters can come in.

WHAT’S A SUPPORTER OF ARTISTS AND DESIGNERS TO DO?

If you see work you feel is copied from an artist or designer you love, do them a favor and send it their way. Take a screenshot first (this will be valuable in proving the case happened, because so often people pull things down before photos or proof can be provided) and send it to the artist and let them handle it on their own. Don’t run and tell the other company or get on your social media accounts to rant. You can be pulled into legal battles with those people (this has happened to me before) and put them in an awkward situation if they choose to let it go or handle things privately.

Another thing you can do? Support them financially if they need help with legal funds. I haven’t seen many artists do this yet, but this happens in the music community a lot and I’m hoping it will spread to ours. People can use private and public funding and crowd-sourcing sites to raise funds needed to take legal action (or to support their daily business costs while they fund a lawsuit) against a company that has copied their work. If you want to support that person, this sort of support goes further toward directly helping them than publicly claiming you’ll “never shop at XYZ store again”.

WHAT’S A STORE TO DO?

First and foremost: STOP STEALING DESIGNS FROM SMALLER ARTISTS. If your business is big enough to afford a legal budget to deal with copying claims, use those funds to hire those artists outright. It doesn’t hurt your brand to work with up and coming designers, it helps it. Plenty of huge international companies are doing collections and collaborations with indie artists, so there’s no reason it can’t be a part of your business plan.

If you DO steal from someone? Make it right. Remove the product and compensate the designer or find a way to rectify the situation financially and through retail exposure for the designer, or in whatever way they agree to with you.

It has never been easier to find amazing and talented artists and designers to work with. Take a moment to check out an indie trade show (Renegade is an excellent place to start) or a site like Etsy and contact people directly about selling their work or collaborating. So many of us know of big stores and brands that troll trade shows with their name tags flipped over and take photos to bring back to corporate for “inspiration”. But we also know that designers and artists are smart and our community is willing to back them up when they’re wronged. So while this may be a rampant issue, I have faith that the rising wave of independent design will be strong enough to take its place alongside (and possibly in collaboration with) larger brands. It may feel like an uphill battle, but I feel ready to help, support and help designers however possible. It’s why we continue to provide free business advice from professionals every Tuesday and why I consult privately with designers on a regular basis to help them navigate and deal with issues like this before they decide to pursue issues of copying.

Not all big companies are ‘evil’. There are real people working at all of them who care about our community. But there are also people working there who don’t care about properly crediting and supporting our community. The same goes for independent artists and designers, sadly. I’ve seen scores of indie designers knocking off other indie designers online and the culture of copying and inspiration is one we could all benefit from spending more time talking about, learning about and finding ways to prevent and deal with in a way that allows the people we love to build successful, sustainable businesses.

  1. Sophie says:

    I see a lot of people in the comments talking about ‘originality’ and how no idea is ever really original and I felt I had to point out there is a huge difference between an original idea and original work. If you copy an idea and produce different work than the person whose idea you saw and copied, that’s fine (legally). But if you literally copy someone’s idea AND the finished work they produced, that’s not cool and you could get into a lot of trouble for it.

    There is a huge difference between debating whether an idea is original or not, and the copying of someone’s business and work.

    I run my own business and I recently, at the end of last year, dealt with my first serious case of someone trying to copy my business. Now, the jewellery designs I make cannot be copyrighted BUT my intellectual property – the combination of my business model, the way it looks, the aesthetic and branding, packaging, etc. – is protected by law. If someone copies this – like they did – I am well within my rights to issue a cease and desist – which I did.

    Everyone learns from copying and I do believe there really are very few original ideas.. however, the work each individual person makes really is original and THAT is what needs to be protected.

  2. Kim Still says:

    Thank you, Grace, for such a well thought out article on this issue. I love the realistic approach you’ve taken – recognizing that people on both side of the issue are often never completely in the right.
    In our increasingly media saturated lives, I’m always afraid my “original” idea will actually turn out to be an echo of something I saw on Instagram last week. And sometimes it is inspired by something on Instagram from last week.
    And I love polka dots and geometrics, but obviously those are derivative by their very nature.
    I really appreciate that you’ve made plain that the creative process often involves some remixing of someone else’s idea, but that there is still a line that crosses over into copying or not crediting someone else’s work that artists, designers and producers all need to respect.

  3. linda says:

    Interesting. Three years ago I made a wood wall hanging for a family member. I’ve never seen Ariele Alasko’s work until you mentioned her, but I see some similarities with the one I made. Sometimes that just happens.

  4. Clarity says:

    A little over 10 years ago, I had two of my designs stolen by a large retailer. The copying was blatant. I felt sick over it. Here I was, a struggling artist, being ripped off. The company claimed to have never heard of me. I talked to attorneys at Washington Lawyers for the Arts, and they told me that although I clearly had a case against Urban Outfitters, I would need thousands of $ to fight them in court, and most likely, they would crush me because it is their practice to steal from small time artists. They know we can’t afford to fight back. My story was featured in Bust magazine and most recently in this NPR story: http://kuow.org/post/artist-spots-stolen-seahawks-design-has-little-recourse

    All these years later, I’m still fuming. Why couldn’t they just buy the design rights from me?

  5. Jane Means says:

    I am a British ribbon designer and your article really hit home. A few years ago I designed a cat and dog ribbon for the London store Liberty. I used a British manufacturer called Berisfords to produce this ribbon and trusted them with my artwork. Much to my horror, shortly afterwards they were producing a very similar design which fooled everyone in the industry. Lawyers were instructed and even though I won my case, I was horrified that my manufacturer whom I trusted and gave lots of business to would treat me, a loyal customer so badly. Luckily I had tonnes of support from my followers and I am now a campaigner for Anti Copy in Design.
    No matter how small you are, if you have the proof, you will win your case. Thank you for a brilliant article

  6. Greetings!

    As an attorney who works with Copyright, Licensing and Art every day I appreciate your insight into such a complex topic. I also appreciate your willingness to share with others that not all legal action has to break the bank. You bring up the heart of many conversations that I have with my clients regarding the balance between creating a friend or creating an adversary for your future brand. I was also delighted to see you bring up the point that many times it can be a mistake that can be remedied, with legal intervention, to the benefit of the artist (and technically the manufacturer).
    Finally, thank you for emphasizing a very important point regarding registering copyrights and it sure that all bases are covered before a design presentation is made. Those two valuable and relatively inexpensive protections can make a world of difference and also make a strong statements to any presenting a partner that a designer takes his or her work seriously and values it as a strong business asset.
    Keep up the great work and thank you for presenting all sides to a very challenging and stressful topic.

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      thanks tammy,

      can you speak at all to average costs of litigation or even just negotiation? however broad? a few people have mentioned stats of 100k on average but the cases i’ve known personally are well below that (around $20-$40k).

      grace

  7. Alexis says:

    In a decade of doing textile design for the fashion industry I saw the direction evolve from “Copy this vintage blouse” to “Copy this designer dress” to “Copy this print I found on Pinterest.” Never a direct copy but as close as possible without being obvious. Susan Brinson is right – it’s about taking risks, and of course budgets and deadlines. Collaborations are the best thing to have happened to the relationship between the independent designer and the big retailer, and I think the online design community has played a huge part in creating this. Instead of a J.Crew scarf that looks suspiciously similar to one from Block Shop Textiles, we get a limited edition Block Shop Textiles scarf offered by J.Crew.

  8. Jim Marcotte says:

    Grace, thank you for this essay and for keeping the conversation going on legal issues that affect the design community. In reference to the costs of copyright infringement litigation, unfortunately the 100K average figure, scary as it may be, is actually low. The American Intellectual Property Law Association (AIPLA) researches and reports in some detail on these costs, and their 2013 report shows the median cost for copyright infringement litigation when the recovery amount in play was under 1 million dollars (most art and design scenarios) is 150,000 dollars BEFORE going to trial (through the discovery phase), and 300,000 dollars if it does go to court. These costs are all inclusive, meaning not just the attorney fees but court costs, doc prep, travel, witnesses, etc. are included – as they should be because you will be paying for all that too. Of course these are midpoints, and artist/designer actions will tend lower, but it will never be cheap.

    The report can be seen here:

    http://library.constantcontact.com/download/get/file/1109295819134-177AIPLA+2013+Survey_Press_Summary+pages.pdf

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Jim

      Do you have an idea how much lower the artist/designer amounts typically are? This IP stat seems to include some pretty high ranging cases involving technology companies, so my hunch is those huge amounts may have thrown off stats that apply to artists seeking smaller dollar amounts. I certainly don’t think lawsuits are cheap (although there are law groups that will take on cases pro bono) but I’ve known at least 6 people in the last 3 years that have sued successfully (involving larger companies) for way under this price point. Perhaps they’re in the minority? Or perhaps smaller indie designers dealing with more cut and dry cases of copying are able to avoid some of the travel/witness costs?

      Grace

  9. Jim Marcotte says:

    Hi Grace. The key is what happens after the initial demand letter, or if that didn’t work the filing of the lawsuit. If the parties disagree on the infringement, say it’s not cut and dry and they decide to fight it out, then the cost trajectory becomes rather steep. The lower AIPLA figure reflects costs through the discovery phase, and I would venture that most actions in our world don’t get that far. One party or the other is either unable or unwilling to spend the money, which makes sense when the expense will quickly exceed the amount in contention. It’s far cheaper for the infringer to obtain a license and pay a few thousand in back royalties than to fight. I’m sure you are right in that artists and designers typically spend less, although even 20-40K is a pretty daunting figure for most people. It would be difficult to accurately track this among the thousands of far-flung artists and designers, maybe a survey by an organization like the Graphic Artists Guild could reach enough people to be helpful.

  10. Cath says:

    Hi Grace,
    Great essay. I have had a design of mine repeatedly copied and have had some interesting results with and without the use of an IP lawyer. I am in Australia so can only speak about the law here. Firstly, understanding the concepts outlined in the Bern Convention are important, which countries are signatories etc. there is an incredible amount of misinformation about what copyright is and a lot of myths, I would suggest people do not take the advice of well meaning family and friends but actually consult a specialist or at least do some reading before they do anything.

    One of my copyright infringements was my design, (sold as a banner and cushion in my Etsy shop) was being sold on a T shirt in a large chain store in Australia. Having been through a similar situation before and not wanting to spend money on an IP lawyer I felt like I could handle it myself. the design was categorically mine and I had proof that I was the original designer so that was in my favour. I was sent a photo of the design in the shop window and I immediately sprung to action. I sent an email to the store, a private FB message and rang their head office, within 3 hours all the shirts were removed from sale- I had someone go into the shop and ask for one and they were told they weren’t allowed to sell them anymore but weren’t sure why. so began the to-ing and fro-ing between myself and their lawyer. Basically what I asked for and eventually received was: the removal of all the shirts from sale immediately, all the money from the sale of every Tshirt, (what they actually cost in the shop not what profit was made,) a large designer fee, an apology, a review of their processes when people submit designs and finally an amount of money to compensate me for the damage caused to our brand. Our brand is eco friendly and the thought of people seeing our very popular and loved design in this throw away disposable fashion shop horrified me. A friend of mine found a case in Australia where a judge had basically said you cannot say ” I didn’t know it wasn’t original ” anymore as a quick google search shows my design front and centre- when a specific word is googled.
    It was a very stressful few weeks and I did have a very savvy friend help me out but I didn’t use an IP lawyer that time. I think the other thing I had in my favour was that I had shown the designs next to each other without mentioning who the copier was and the anger and outrage on social media was in my favour – and they could see that. I feel like – in some sense social media does enable small time designers to have some power. Anyway, that’s my 2 cents worth. Also for anyone in Australia reading this the IP lawyer I used, who is very supportive of Etsy shop owners and is writing a book about IP law for independent designers.

  11. Cameron says:

    This is such a smart, delicate, nuanced piece. Bravo.

    Back when I was a moderately successful blogger, I made tons of my designs and illustrations freely available as downloads; despite not having updated my site in years, these are still wildly popular. (Which calls to mind a separate rabbit hole issue that you’ve addressed before, I believe, i.e. the effect of free stuff on the design marketplace) At the same time, I sold a small number of my designs on etsy or through licensing, with substantially less success. One of my designs (this was around maybe 2007, I think) was a cartesian graph plotting “my love for you” along the y-axis and “time” along the x-axis; the graph was a parabola. It was super sweet and nerdy. A couple of years later, I saw a nearly identical design (letterpressed, of course) hawked on a bigger, more successful blog. At first, I was crestfallen and frustrated. I drafted cranky emails. I shook my fists. And then I just threw my hands up and accepted that a) if Liebniz and Newton could both invent calculus, it was entirely possible that my same idea could have occurred independently to another person–perhaps even BEFORE it occurred to me; and b) even if my idea had been “stolen,” pitching a fit wasn’t going to bring me the satisfaction (economic or otherwise) that would make the pursuit worth my while. And while my attitude would probably lead to the starvation of full-time designers, ultimately I decided that I would only get upset about other people’s work referencing or copying mine if I had run out of ideas.

    In the intervening years, I saw lots of internet skirmishes between indie artists/designers and other artists, as well as other companies. Sometimes the violations were absolutely undeniable. But much more frequently, the “original” and the “copy” bore as many differences as similarities or the complaining designer’s “proof” was utterly lacking. Likewise, over and over, I saw up-and-coming bloggers and designers use my illustrations (sometimes with elements of my signature still present) on their blogs or in products they produced. And over and over, I weighed the personal and economic costs of fighting about it and decided they were not worth it. I’m not sorry to have made that calculation, but I’m not making much art nor sharing it publicly anymore either, and the huge hassles and low margins are a big reason. All these things are interconnected. Glad you are pushing the discussion forward.

  12. Ine says:

    Wonderful & nuanced post about copyright! Thank you. I recently discovered one of my designs was copied by a Spanish company and am in the middle of dealing with it, so I can’t give too much detail right now, but I’m working with a copyright lawyer and he confirmed some of the things you say.
    I also appreciate your view on inspiration, trends and such. A friend of mine was recently accused by another designer of stealing her artwork, while she didn’t even know the designer. The designs had a similar theme and style, but were not copies. In the end they managed to work things out, but it was a very hard experience for her. As painful as it is to have one of your designs stolen, it is just as painful to be accused of having done so when you didn’t.

  13. Monica Lee says:

    Grace, I so admire you tackling this issue and as I scroll down through these comments, I know quite of few of the artists and their struggles. The time and care you have taken here in the comments is impressive.
    I am trying to approach this issue with my own creative audience in a way that fosters originality. My mantra has been “find your own style and aesthetic” and “let’s figure out what makes YOU unique.”

    I can approach this with compassion because I have looked at others beautiful work with lust in my heart, haha! It takes TIME to develop a unique voice. We have SO much imagery coming at us now, finding your own creative style is paramount (and often difficult!)

    People are not taking the time to get to know themselves. Companies are not taking the time to understand their own brands.

    It is a hurry-up-and-succeed world out there and these stories are the fall out from it. I believe each of us having an original spirit to draw creative ideas from. Sometimes slow success and slow creativity can be the best thing that happen to us. I just wish the internet would cooperate!

  14. Amber says:

    Grace, you created a really interesting conversation here. Several of your commenters have mentioned it and I’ve been thinking about it and observing, but I wonder if any of this lack of integrity is connected to the pressure many people are putting on themselves to live this creative, “I own my own business”, freelance lifestyle. I This is just me thinking out loud, and I guess I’m talking about the artist, designers, and bloggers doing unkind things to each other. I feel like this way of living has become the new cool thing to have or be. I’ve placed this pressure on myself before (definitely not enough to steal other artist’s work), but it’s real and maybe some people don’t handle it in a healthy way. As you’ve shown, it’s far more complex than that, but I think that pressure may be a part of it.

  15. Jon Tobin says:

    Thanks for this insightful article. I started writing a comment here about some of the legal issues, but got so carried away that it ended up being it’s own blog post: http://counselforcreators.com/log/thoughts-copying-credit-design/

    Anyways, thanks for starting the conversation.

  16. Denise says:

    Grace, I did it! Your post gave me courage! I posted my piece, “The REAL reason why I watermark my work!” I gave a shout out to your post and the ‘Counsel for Creators’ post in my ‘Recommended Reading for the Curious’ at the end.

    http://www.polarbearstudio.com/blog/files/real-reason-why-i-watermark-my-work.html

    Have a great day!

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      thanks denise :)

      grace

  17. Grace,

    You put so much amazing time, thought and insight into these posts. It’s so appreciated – It makes me miss your podcast!

    I loved what you said about the traditional crafts of countries like Africa, Middle East, India etc. It’s troubling to see so many of these crafts in popular brooklyn boutiques completely stripped of any information or identity. I thought you might be interested in a friend of mine’s company, Cistanthe, which references and gives credit to both the traditional craft used and the people or tribe who make them.

    http://cistanthe.com/shop/

    There’s a really smart article here about her ideas for the company and why she wants to do more than fashion, and give voices to the people who make these traditional crafts.

    http://dailymetal.eu/blog/cistanthe–the-art-of-craft/970/

    Seems up your alley and her designs are amazing. Hope you take a look!

    xo.
    Julia

  18. Nhung Le says:

    Dear Grace,

    This post along with many posts in D*S “Life & Business” have been extremely encouraging and helpful. As a young illustrator/designer who just started out, I’m so grateful for all these guidance and resources.

    I have a question and if you find it silly, please ignore me completely and I apologize. I was searching around but haven’t found the answer and thought maybe you have some directions you can point me to: Is it okay for me to draw/paint real clothing designs for my characters in my illustrations or that would be a copyright issue? Say can I draw a bunny wearing a Dior dress in my work? I’ve seen illustrators who specialize in fashion illustration and sometimes I see they sell prints of those illustrations. I’m sure many of their works are commissioned but do they always need the fashion designers’ approval in order to re-draw the designs?

    Thank you so much,
    Nhung

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      Nhung

      My hunch would be that that’s totally legal, because it’s your interpretation of the object but I’m not sure. For example, you wouldn’t be allowed to sell illustrated versions of a Dior logo, because it’s copyrighted. I would consult an arts group (like the one linked to in this article) for professional feedback, I’m sadly not qualified to make that call and wouldn’t want to steer you wrong.

      Grace

  19. Nhung Le says:

    Grace,
    Thank you a lot! I saw the updated info and will be doing further research :)

    Best,
    Nhung

  20. sonja says:

    thank you so much for voicing some options in pursuing your copied art work..
    I am staring at my design on a dress published in people magazine by a famous designer. and have felt powerless as what to do … I went back over my design and found my original hand painted croquis which was painted at friends house so there are witnesses. then scanned and manipulated on the computer… its dated ….. so now i just have to contact the design house…. I do like to work it out so thanks for that option… but there is a tiny voice inside my head that of course wonders did I see it somewhere and it logged in my head … This design was made in 2013 and i saw it a month ago ….

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