50 Shades of Grey: Copying & Credit in Design

by Grace Bonney

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.


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…


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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”.


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.

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  • I think what’s most important is that independent designers and artists educate themselves on copyright law. Unfortunately, the bigger companies have a lot more firepower and I think the best offense is a good defense when it comes to protecting your work. On the flip side, I also have come across some people who get very defensive about their “work,” when truly it wasn’t theirs to begin with. Like you said, it’s a very gray area, but for example, if you’re digitally manipulating a photograph that is not under a Creative Commons license and was not yours to begin with, then I don’t feel you have any ground to stand on if that work gets “stolen.”

  • A thoughtful overview of a sometimes messy topic.

    What resonated with me is (in my words) encouraging a professional, reasoned approach when dealing with potential copying/stealing of artwork. Jumping directly to social media to shame company “x” or person “y” before consulting with a lawyer or before contacting the artist does nothing. And like you note, can end up even hurting any resolution.

    It’s like when someone has a bad experience with any company and rather than resolve it directly (and privately), they jump on twitter as a “gotcha” and attempt shame that company into action.

    Mistakes happen. Theft of artwork happens. We can all be savvy AND professional by, as you note, contacting the company directly (if it’s our work) or contacting the maker directly (if we see someone else’s work that has possibly been copied). Ranting on social media before the facts are known (and the legalities of inspired by vs. copying ARE grey, as you note) is not professional.

    The more that artists and makers stand up for themselves and hold other makers/companies to account for copying/stealing, the harder it will be for them to get away with it in the future.

  • As a designer I am scared shitless about my work being stolen. I loved that you wrote this.

    I notice so many big names that are riding trend waves started by smaller companies. It’s ok to play into trends, but when you look at something and think someone else did the work and THEN find out it is being “imported” by a large company…well, that puts a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

    Standing up for our work, knowing the best way to deal with these situations + continuing to make new work is a great way to move ahead.

  • Your suggestions are spot on Grace. I agree there are several facets to resolving this issue. And it starts with designers learning their rights and understanding where the gray areas exist.

    The power of the creative community can make a huge impact on this subject. All it takes is that we help each other police and (privately) notify someone when we think something fishy is going on. And then take action when appropriate, not in a knee-jerk reaction fashion, but a strategic way.

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful, thorough, and open overview of this touchy subject.

  • i agree, grace: there’s space and opportunity for the big guys and the little guys to work things out.

    the cases that trouble me are the little guys biting the little guys. i sell handmade baby moccasins through an online shop. sounds like a match made in Etsy, right?


    i’m scared of Etsy. one search for “baby moccasins” and you’ll see 100 pages of the same pattern—a pattern i know to be sold online for $5. i invested time into testing and re-testing a pattern that felt unique, sophisticated and true to my brand. if a big brand were to copy, i’d feel well within my rights to know my rights—but if a peer were to copy i’d feel like a bully for raising an issue.

    but your essay makes me re-evaluate this paranoia. it’s a reminder that most design isn’t new. moccasins are not new. handmade shoes in general, nothing new. they are the original shoe. so chances are, the pattern i’ve toiled over through trial, error and instinct is probably a pattern that has existed for centuries. it just so happens i was led to it not by sight, but by common sense. and no one has rights to that… i looked.


  • You’ve offered some great advice and resources for further learning here, thank you! I also love your point about the origin of design, as one could argue that yes, everything design related does come from what has come before to a degree… I think the rapid fire of visual stimulation thrown around on social media, be it Instagram or Pinterest, is really complicating this issue. By posting images of process and work, designers of any scale are able to easily reach new (and unknown) eyes. There’s so much pressure to share and get your work out there, to build an audience, etc. I’ve seen the topic discussed quite a bit on this blog in particular, with helpful guides to social media practices. For most designers or makers trying to establish a brand, participating in social media (and throwing images of you work and process out into that abyss) is almost mandatory at this point. So what happens when it gets even blurrier? When you see someone take an idea you shared there, a blogger or competitor for instance, and days or weeks later pass the idea off as their own? (The only proof here is that the person follows you and has access to what you share.) This has happened to me a few times, with the same offender. I’ve thought about trying to handle it privately but it’s hard. How can I really prove that it is my idea and not the other brand’s? Trends hit so hard and so fast these days. It’s just hard to see someone else making money off of an idea that you know originated with you only because they have access to a larger audience. Especially when the marketability of design blogs to a degree is original material. I wonder if you have experienced this in the blog world to a degree? Is that approach different than the one you’ve outlined here for say a large company/store stealing from a smaller designer – I feel like in a way it makes it more complicated because with blogs you become familiar with the people that run them…I look forward to reading more about this and hope you will continue the dialogue! (Not necessarily with my comment, but in general…:)

  • Man, I wish I had read this months ago. Ugh, I feel kind of sick right now because I just pitched a “collaborative” design with a major brand and they decided to “pass.” I felt rushed and could not find a designer or lawyer that could give me advice on my situation. I sent them sketches and samples. I really hope they do not steal my designs. I will send the sketches to the copyright office right away!

  • I am super paranoid about putting work or ideas anywhere “in case they get copied” that I end up just hoarding ideas that I never do anything with. I think that sharing ideas and collaborations is what brings art and artists together.
    I was having a conversation about the subject of originality with a friend earlier today, funnily enough. I’m definitely of the mind that the only way something can be ‘original’ is because someone different is saying/making/showing it. Pretty much everything has been ‘done’ before, it’s up to us to use our own voice to make it original.
    But that brings me back to my first point…how can I believe that nothing really is original and that we all need to use our personal voice to make it so, yet I’m so unwilling to share my ideas?
    There are some interesting comments here – I enjoyed reading this post very much! :)

  • Love this. Such a balanced approach to the topic. It is hard to navigate the ‘who copied who’ claims fairly. There are three situations I see far too often. First, when one small designer claims another designer copied and calls together her friends to back up her up and boycott the offender. In one notable instance, it was two wallet patterns. The accuser based her claims on the fact that the other designer had purchased her pattern and that the pattern piece for the driver’s license pocket was the same size. Everything else about the pattern was different, from the directions and photos to the overall design of the wallet, as far as one can make a wallet with a zipper around it different. Insane.

    The second situation I see quite often is when a big store is copied by a little designer. Somehow it’s okay to knock off another store as long as they make more money than you or you really need the cash or … or… or… Bottom line, it’s not. Take the idea, close the tab, and make your own version.

    Third, I am completely appalled when a designer/blogger goes on and on about how they found the *cutest* stuffy/top/whatever pattern in this craft magazine and made their own pattern download from the magazine! And then add a statement to please don’t use their pattern (download for only $10) to make a profit as it is their pattern and respect this, please. It seems that the copiers are the most adamant that they not be copied in turn. Huh.

  • I agree with you Grace. However, at the risk of being flamed, many, many bloggers and designers take an idea from a big box company or recognised designer. Scrolling down from a pin of this article there was a Kate Spade knock off, Anthropologie DIY and West Elm hack. When does a designer become big enough that it is ok to rip them off? One blogger I follow was publicising where she buys her Calvin Klein counterfeit underwear. There are many grey areas to the argument because it isn’t ‘blogger vs big box’. It’s hard not to be cynical when a reasonably well known designer has an article in a magazine which she then blogs about. When three comments point out another blogger did the exact same thing a month ago she “remembers” that she meant to credit them. People are people and all individual and there are good designers and bad designers the same way there are good and bad companies.

  • I have reached your blog as it is recommended in Timothy Adam’s book. A very nice surprise! I am so glad to have come over here and see you are discussing this sensitive topic with courage. As an owner of store dealing Japanese contemporary hand-crafted arts, originality and ownership of design and copyright are constantly part of my nerve wrecking issues.
    I do not create anything ‘borrowing’ someone’s design myself, but showing the world someone’s unique design is part of my job. I do not want to offer any works with no legitimate copyright, and most importantly, I do not want anyone else to copy paste the original design of the work I am offering. I care so much about the artists I work with, and I want to protect them. If my action of broadcasting their products and works in the internet world hurts them at the end, I am heartbroken.
    I am so glad to find your posting with very constructive approach, and read you are state very fair opinion. I am going to introduce your blog on my blog and other social media tools. (If you are okay, though.)

  • This is so relevant at the moment. Thanks for posting. My friend has been the victim of a tirade of online abuse from another designer and their fans who falsely accuse her of copying. I have watched how much these false accusations have caused stress, upset, potential lost income and caused someone to doubt their own creative ability. I understand that it must be so frustrating to feel copied but publicly attacking – and/or encouraging the attack of – other makers, without evidence, is really not the way to go about it. In fact, it’s defamation and potentially breaking the law. (Funnily enough, she also designs, tests and makes her own baby moccasins).

  • Well put, Grace. You are brave to tackle this issue, and you are the right person to do it, given your years as a leader within the design community. Even though I am not an artist, seeing an individual’s work being blatantly copied cuts to my core! Recently at a major clothing chain I saw jewelry designs that were clearly copied from a small indie workshop that I’ve been admiring for years. And even some of the mega companies that like to market themselves as partnering with designers steal other designers’ ideas without credit all the time. On the flip side, it’s interesting, too, how often it seems like small designers employ the signature styles of other independent designers. For example, I am regularly shocked by how many Etsy artists I see copying a certain successful stationer’s lovely floral illustrations.

    • Ariel

      I’m assuming you mean Anna Bond. I’m shocked at how many people are blatantly reproducing her designs. Down to a T.


  • It all comes down to integrity, just as in school it’s never o.k to copy someone, wether that person be a famous fashion designer or a someone who sells their products at craft markets, if your taking that idea and producing that as your own, in my opinion that’s copy right theft. What concerns me is when indie designers will say this big store is copying my designs it’s almost advertising where to get their products cheaper. Yes you will have followers who will be totally in love with you and your lovely products but you will also have followers who like the look of your products and don’t really care much else about the authenticity of buying a copy.

  • I have to be COMPLETELY honest here. And I hope you’ll allow this comment, because I’m a huge fan of DS and not trying to call out or name any names… but I couldn’t read through this post without thinking about how a certain well-connected illustrator was outed as a copycat (tracing photographers’ work without permission, outright copying various other illustrators’ work & styles), admitted to it, paid off & threatened bloggers to keep quiet about it and even pulled several of her designs from her webpage. Through all this, most big design bloggers blatantly looked the other way. So it’s wrong for stores or design houses to copy indie artists, but when an artist does it to their own it okay to let it go ignored?

    • Steph

      I know who you are referencing and I also know that several of the things you’re alleging are 100% false. If you’d like to continue this conversation via email, I’m happy to talk. But as this article explains, I no longer participate in conversations that promote gossip and provide no documentation of very serious (and potentially libelous) claims.

      In the same way that big companies make mistakes, so do independent artists. I don’t think that particular case was handled in the best way on either side.


      • Steph

        I tried to email you but the email you provided bounced back as non-existent. Could you provide a working email address if you’d like to talk further?


  • It’s great that this conversation is taking place on bigger blogs (such as Design Sponge) – And I agree with @Victoria – Blogs that promote “Get this look for less” AKA “buy the knockoff” hurt the design industry. This is a topic that needs to hit the masses. Designers struggle every day to stay ahead of the curve. Its not flattering to be knocked off. It doesn’t mean you’ve hit it big to be recoginized by someone more powerful than you. Its insulting and it burns. It often cripples independent designers who attempt to battle the copy.
    Thank you Grace for bringing attention to this. It plagues every artist and designer in every industry.

  • The part about originality in reference to products made by traditional craftspeople resonated strongly with me. Working in this manner has become extremely popular (although not a new concept). There are a lot of people/brands not giving credit where credit is due. I’ve been working with craftspeople in Latin America and Africa for years and my biggest asset up to this point are my sources. There is no way I would expose the exact crafts person as I’ve worked really hard to discover and nurture these relationships. That being said traditional textiles such as Mud Cloth have been around for a VERY long time and are still being used without much change in design. If we are going to work in this way; collaborating with traditional craftspeople and allowing them access to greater markets we have to be honest about whether we had any design input or if we just purchased/ordered the textile or product as is slapping our brand name on it. I think educating the consumer is hugely important so they can understand what they are buying (origin, etc.) not just what they are being told.

  • Every designer needs an IP transfer agreement signed before starting talks with a large retailer. This is a legal document that gives you ownership of your work: concepts, ideas discussed, the actual design itself. If a company won’t sign an IP transfer agreement, walk. Good companies are transparent and fair and uphold a basic CODE OF ETHICS. Do not be afraid to publically challenge a company if you have all the facts. There is NO grey area if your work is copyright protected, period. Do not be afraid to spoil some imagined future relationship with a big company if they screw you over. (And I’ve had my reputation threatened by one retailer because I refused to sell to them.) Large retailers can’t have it both ways: claiming to support an independent design community while twisting makers to achieve the highest margins possible. Small design companies aren’t publically traded on the stock exchange. Are all large corporations inherently evil? No. I’ve worked with good ones. But never, ever work with anyone that isn’t plain-dealing with you. Designers need to think and act like small business owners, not artists.

  • This is a challenging one. I think another component to this, at least when it comes to smaller-scale makers vs. large retailers is simply our desire as a society to have high style at bargain prices. It creates a market for those mass produced products, instead of choosing to invest in hand crafted goods, if one’s budget allows. Thus, making it more attractive and lucrative to copy good designs from original makers. Great post and conversation.

    • Sarah.

      ABSOLUTELY. I still reference the West Elm giveaway we did last year all the time, because the comments were so telling of what’s causing the disconnect in the design community. West Elm asked people to share what they’d like to see them sell that they aren’t now. The answers were primarily “handmade/made in the USA” and “things under $100”. Those two rarely go together because America requires minimum wages and safe working conditions. The number of people that wanted a “handmade, made in the USA sofa under $500” blew me away. That’s pretty much impossible.

      It makes me wish less for lower prices and more for people to embrace hand me downs, DIY and the thrift store. You can find gently used furniture at thrift stores, flea markets, etc. for that much money. But to expect a small scale maker to hand make you a HUGE piece of furniture for less than the cost of the goods just isn’t fair.


  • Very well written and thought provoking, Grace. So many important and difficult issues with some distinct lines ( to flat out copy it wrong) and many blurry lines that are hard to discern (can someone claim to own a word? Is a photo of the Eiffel Tower original?).

    I remember seeing a interview with Martha Stewart. Martha was asked about her thoughts on being accused of copying recipes and then calling them her own. She actually laughed, she was incredibly flippant – Oh, well, no on really owns a recipe. Haha! She could care less, the attitude was, let someone try to come up against ME. She has the power, the money…this goes a lot, I’m afraid. So yes, from the get go, as stated above, protect yourself and your work.

    I have to throw this story in here. My grandpa’s sister and her husband owned a little restaurant in southern IL – Mike’s Ice Cream. The special draw was their burgers – the Big Mike and the Big Murt (my grandpa’s sister – a wonderful, fun lady who lived to be 100). In the late 40’s , they became very friendly with a salesman – this guy loved their burgers and he thought the names were cute. He made the rounds to Mike’s many times and always got the Big Mike – it had slaw on it. This salesman’s name was Ray Kroc.

    The family always considered him a friendly man and had no resentment. They were rural people in a farm community – it just ended up as a family story – a true story.

    • Cindy

      Martha is actually right here, though her flippancy isn’t doing her any favors. Legally, you cannot copyright a recipe, period. I’m married to a cookbook author so I’ve learned about this first hand. Almost every dish you can think of has been done or created or has history in some culture somewhere. Molecular gastronomy sort of blew that field open a bit, but it’s hard to prove you’re the first person who ever thought of putting peas and carrots together, you know? That said, I think more cooks and cookbooks and cooking magazines should acknowledge where their inspiration comes from. Just like in the post above, if you’re inspired by traditional African mudcloth, there’s no weakness in saying it. So if a magazine is inspired by Jamie Oliver’s sandwich, they should say that up front. I think our community could learn a lot about true appreciation for each other if we just owned up to finding someone or something inspiring.


  • Grace, huge props for this… A situation happened just over two weeks ago that still brings tears to my eyes thinking about it all again now. It was a blogger (and then entire community) accusing a small designer of copying another small designer, but also bringing me and my business into it – which I don’t think has ever happened before. Aside from the disturbing fact that there was no design theft (in fact the designer being defended hadn’t actually ‘designed’ the original bag herself but had a great leather factory duplicate a beautiful, favorite vintage one that belonged to her mother) it was such a heart-breaking experience and was extremely hard for not only me to watch but for many designers who have also experienced the mud-throwing phenomenon that has become so popular on social media… Because the real issue that I saw come from it was how quick the community is to point fingers, shame people online, harass and scare them, etc. with zero rational thought; no balance or fairness is apparent, instead it becomes accidental (or in some cases probably purposeful) ‘ganging up’ on people and judging people unfairly. When charged with emotion it’s hard for people to sometimes step back and remember that no verdict should be made without a trial, yet it’s so easy for people to not only speak their mind but to publish and spread it like wildfire online – whether it’s researched, truthful, or just opinion. It was so awful, and confusing, and emotional that I actually decided to hold a public forum at my office so we could discuss the issues, and I hired a lawyer to be there to give advice and answer questions. I would LOVE to talk to you about it in more detail via email or the phone, as I think an amazing followup piece to this great one is about proper conduct and the state of social media. (You can see a post I wrote about it all on the blog page of the website, written before the forum and more information came to light.) Anyways, I applaud you for taking on such an emotional charged topic. More people need to educate themselves on it all, as well as being liable and the implications that can come with accusing people so publicly with zero evidence. Such a tough subject…. Thanks for starting to chip away at the iceberg!

    • Sonja

      I know you feel. I’ve seen people gang up against my friends, against me and against others in our community both for and against. It’s scary to see how fast people will jump to attack without seeing ANY proof or documentation. Last year I spent a very unpleasant month looking around GOMI to research claims I saw made online and I was SHOCKED to see how many people just said “So and So stole this from me, threatened me and you should all boycott them!” and then people, without even asking for ANY evidence would just glom-on and say “YES….THEY’RE AWFUL!”.

      That sort of behavior is what makes up the backbone of the worst part of the internet and I’m not sure what, if anything, can be done to change it.

      Did you listen to “This American Life” last week about internet negativity? It was moving and awful and wonderful all at the same time. I fully believe that until someone has it done to them, they can’t truly understand what it feels like to be attacked or threatened or ganged up online. I would never wish that on anyone, but I think true empathy is hard to find online.


  • This is a very interesting issue and thank you Grace for even broaching it. However, I am not a fan of the idea- they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery… yeah okay, but tell that to the poor artist who can barely make their rent while someone else “builds” off their inspiration! I have been copied many, many times, often blatantly, over the years. To my surprise I have never found a single offender on my own. Every time there has been an honest person out there who doesn’t even know me in person , yet will know my work well enough that they feel compelled to notify me about what they saw someone else copy and try to resale. The other surprising fact in my experience is that for all of the times I’ve been copied as a designer it has more often than not been by someone less creative and new to the seen, usually not a large company. Perhaps that account comes from market saturation and desperation? We all want to feel and be creative. I guess to put my own spin on it, I like to think of the industry like the struggle of flowers or plants. They are all vying to survive. There is limited nutrients, sunlight, and minerals so the ones that survive must be both lucky and unique to stay around long enough to really matter.

  • Great post. There’s so much to talk about – on both sides of Thea conversation.

    It is always weird to me to see Anna Bond’s art and products right beside their copies. People have really latched on to it.

    I also have to agree with the previous poster – I couldn’t help but read this and think of that certain illustrator – it seemed like a very heated situation well the story was all about the “independent artist” being ripped off but then when it came to light that that same illustrator copied over other people’s work, the blogosphere went seemingly silent. That same illustrator continued to promo their book about become a successful artist, even in spite of everything. I am still shocked that the book wasn’t pulled and that it continued to receive endorsements from other bloggers.

    I know that you (Grace) have said above that a lot of what the first commenter who brought this has alleged some things that are not true. I, too, would like some deeper understanding on this issue. From the outside looking in, it felt like the artist got all the publicity and support from calling out another brand but was not held accountable for any of her own actions. Obviously if we the public are wrong, then the story needs more information.

    • MF

      That story is pretty much over. As are most stories that are handled behind the scenes. This article was about why it makes sense to handle things privately and that issue was. The public isn’t owed or able to get an explanation if a lawsuit is involved, so I sadly think people will have to trust that if all involved parties (the artists themselves, not people making claims who aren’t involved) are done and aren’t talking anymore, it’s been handled to their satisfaction.

      The worst by-product of copying issues is that people who know nothing about the case get involved and start making comments and claims that other people read online and then assume are the truth. I’ve seen that happen on a daily basis to hundreds of artists and it’s usually pretty unfair. The best thing to do is just walk away from anyone who can’t back up a claim with imagery and actual details, period.

      I’ve fallen down the GOMI wormhole before, especially in the case you’re referencing, to do some research myself. I couldn’t get over how loose the connections between work were and why people couldn’t understand that certain themes, styles and matter overlap in MOST artists’ work in a certain time period. Were there some legitimate issues in that case? Yes. But they’ve been handled. And 90% of the discussion afterward was gossip and pretty harsh hearsay. Everyone is 100% entitled to support or not support artists as they see fit, but people aren’t entitled to make claims they cannot support. That’s libel.


  • I really appreciate this post. If anyone was going to say is with grace it was you. I completely agree with everything that was said here. It can be difficult as a maker to find a balance between protecting your work and wanting exposure to help move you forward. We ran into an issue with another business who claimed they wanted to work with us to “help us get our name out”. We were thrilled to work with them and really excited to get our name out. However, when push came to shove and the work was done, they did not readily credit us for the work on social media (or anywhere really). I had to be our best advocate and keep pushing that we be acknowledged while trying very hard to still be respectful. It was a learning curve for sure. I now know that we need to make a written agreement in those scenarios that claims ownership of the design and work we do BEFORE we hand over the final product. It was a tough lesson to learn. But I really appreciate that you are trying to open up the conversation in way that feels respectful to all parties. Well done.

  • Grace, you’ve given me courage for my current ‘work in progress’ blog post.

    As a photographer, dealing with watermarks and trying to protect my work has been an uphill battle. While building my portfolio a year ago, I worked with some friends and coworkers, waiving a session fee in the pursuit of building a body of work. However, I made it VERY clear that the work would have watermarks on it and that the images should not be shared on social media unless I received credit. Regardless, several cropped my watermarks out and posted the images on instagram and facebook without giving me any credit at all. When I called them out on it, and requested them to at least say I took the photo, I was ‘unfriended’ instead. Ouch! Whenever you post images on social media your friends assume you’ve taken them unless you say otherwise. I explained that it wasn’t solely for vanity, but I was trying to protect the images from being misused.

    I think there’s a common misconception regarding watermarks, and why artists use them. I’ve been collecting links to back up an explanation, but still overwhelmed on the best way to explain it. I hope I can write a post that will at least educated my clients to prevent any more heartache.

    Here are two articles I’m planning on referencing, if anyone else is interested in broaching the conversation.



    Thank you Grace!

    • Denise

      Thank you for bringing that up, that’s a great point. I personally feel photographers have been hurt the most by social media and Pinterst culture. It really feels like people feel any image is up for grabs as long as SOME source (even a vague non-source like ‘Pinterest’) is credited.

      I would suggest never (ever) doing a deal with friends (or anyone) without a contract. It gives you some legal repercussion for things like that. I’m so sorry that happened though- it’s awful to find out that people you think are friends aren’t there for you :(


  • Thank you for this essay, Grace. It was an interesting take on a too-familiar issue. I am always shocked (but less and less surprised) when I see a direct rip off of Anna Bond’s work. Her style is everywhere now, and it is disappointing that others are capitalizing on her studio’s success.

    I’m glad that some of the people who highlighted were able to turn the situation around and make it work for them. I wonder how many of them felt like they had to work with the company to get any sense of justice out of the situation. Would some of them have rather not had to sign that contract? Is that how things are moving these days, were artists have to sign a “deal with the devil” in order to get any of their due?

    • Abby

      I think the point of my article is that theft, overlap and inspiration don’t make anyone the “devil”. That’s the problem. If we continue to see people or companies who make a mistake as a total impasse or loss, we miss out on the chance to grow. Yes, there are probably companies out there that are truly terrible. There are also indie designers who are terrible, too. But if you don’t talk to someone, find out if there’s a decent person there, and see what can be done to right the wrong, you’ll always be laboring under the idea that we’re stuck in this black and white world. Even the best companies and best designers make mistakes, have not so great people working for them and occasionally mess up. We just can’t see this as such a simple issue. (I also know that in the case of the person who received the huge settlement and holiday collection, they gladly made this deal. They didn’t feel pressured at all. Both parties I discussed first had a very clear, and copyrighted, case, so they knew they had the bargaining power.)


  • Hi Grace,

    Thanks so much for tackling this issue. I am an artist (painter) who discovered that six of my original paintings were copied by a factory in China and distributed to major retail chains throughout North America and Europe. The story is long and strange but I would like to share a couple things that I learned along the way. The first is to always copyright your work. I’m Canadian but I now copyright all of my paintings with US Copyright Office. A lot of artists think that their work is automatically copyright protected from the moment they create it, and in theory it is, but if you want to fight an infringement legally, it’s much better to have copyrighted your work first. It’s also important to keep all your rough work- no matter how embarrassing it may be…. sketches, photos, anything that shows the idea was yours.

    Canadians are lucky that Small Claims Court accepts IP theft cases. It sounds small-timey, but it’s a good way for artists to stand up for themselves against corporations who have the power to delay and drag out a lawsuit. It’s a fast track system (usually within 10 months) and the monetary limit is up to $25,000.

    I don’t understand why the US doesn’t allow copyright cases in Small Claims and I really hope that one day that it will change. Being able to stand up for myself legally was a crucial part in getting over the feeling of being violated and powerless.

  • Thank you for this post, Grace. I was especially encouraged to see you address indie artists reproducing what’s been successful for another indie artist, imitation generally, and the fact of trend- following. And I also applaud your point in the comments that made in America will be more costly – and that low prices should not be the first priority for a buyer who wants to support hand-made, hand-crafted items.
    I think a lot of well-intentioned buyers need some help getting educated about what/where they are buying: how long has the person/ shop been in business? (How long have they been selling that style or item?) Does the shops’ inventory/ listings seem possible for a single person or small business to make? Is it possible to cover costs/ make a profit selling at that (low) price? My worry is that a lot of buyers may assume that Etsy, or any other shop or site, is vetting the products for the buyers. This is no always the case, and buyers need to think critically before making a purchase.

  • Thanks for posting this! You hit the nail on the head! One big cheer leader high kick for you!!!!

  • It’s a sad shame that copying exists, that a lot of people aren’t tapped into any creative energy of their own and feel the desperate, cowardly need to steal. Etsy is a perfect example of this, it seems like in some categories, there is an unprecidented amount of copying and ripping off. However, I’m constantly baffled by the amount of “sharing” that is on the Internet by small companies that are clearly trying to make a living at their craft. If you are selling a product, why on earth would you post a formula, or instructions on how to make it? Why teach a class on your unique style of floral design or pattern making, knowing that whilst most will be entertained by it, there is a handful out their that will indeed, steal? While i understand that teaching is good marketing, but when you do this, you must expect someone to not only copy your style, but hang out a shingle and sell it. If you dont care, that’s fine, you cant complain. But the question is, Are you truly in business, or are you just in it for the 15 minutes of fame, and to see yourself online? Take a leaf from a big brand or company, do you think they would be where they are if they showed everyone how to make their product? Would Chanel #5 be a best-selling number perfume for how ever many decades if they divulged the formula? It bears some thought. I think larger companies, here and overseas make a point to look for those generous, over sharing designers specifically to steal for profit, let’s face it, it’s always been “okay” to take from the ‘little people’. I’m not saying that everyone does this, but many do, so why make it easy for them?

    I know we all want to stay positive and not encourage bad energy in our community, but you cannot afford to be naive when it comes to the possiblity that there are cut throat people out there who want to make a quick buck. And be mindful of your own creative energy as well, if you are in an industry such as Bridal, don’t encourage copying, duplicating or “knocking off”. I’m a floral designer, and a retired Cake designer and when brides would bring me pictures and asked me to duplicate a cake style, I refused. I told them to contact that particular designer and ask them to make that cake for them. And as for flowers, when you hire me, you get MY STYLE, not another artist (s) off the Internet.

    It’s about Karma, ladies!

  • What an excellent article and wonderful responses, and yes what a grey area to tackle. I’m sharing this with my Etsy team members in our group on Facebook as we have delved into many of these issues over there. Thank you Grace for starting this complex conversation.

  • Every single thing ever created is an act of copying. We copy from nature, we copy from things we actively know we are copying from, we copy from things we once saw and have filed away and become ‘our’ visions. When we learn to draw, to write to talk we are emulating others in recognised languages. If we did not all have a communal idea of what a horse was, no one would be able to draw one. Unless we actively lift a finished product from another person, we are all inspired by others work regardless of if we like it or not. Not one person is original, it is impossible to be.

  • Grace,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to reply. I know it’s hard.

    I still have issues with how that whole case was handled and wrapped up though – it may be “over” but I guess my point is that the original artist (who accused the larger company of deceit) never had to actually answer to the accusations by other photographer that she had traced the profiles for the designs in question off of their original images. This of course opens a whole other can of worms – can photography be copyrighted? Is it like recipes mentioned above?

    Why is it (seemingly) okay for someone to trace a photograph but then still feel like their have the right to complain of artistic copyright. And of course I respect that the final images had the artist’s own style and that the company ripped those off directly BUT if we are going to ask companies to own their mistakes then surely artist should too.

    I would have loved a post or statement from the original artist (whom I used to follow and read) as to her mistakes. Did I miss that somewhere? It just felt like a crappy situation with no one taking any responsibility.

    I hope you can understand my position – I’m not trying to gossip or spread something that is untrue, I mean it when I ask if I missed some follow-up in this situation.

    But I guess I just remember feeling angry on the artist’s behalf the first time I read about the initial copy by the company. And then I felt rather dumb when I heard the other side.

    • MF

      As I mentioned above, all artists involved in this (photographers included) have handled this behind the scenes. They can’t make statements when legal issues are concerned, that sort of thing is commonly prohibited by lawyers, etc. I’m not sure why you think no one “answered” to anyone, though. Just because it wasn’t blogged about doesn’t mean it wasn’t addressed.

      The practice of tracing source images is one I’m not comfortable with, period. I honestly had no idea people did that until I actually dated someone who did. I brought it up only to be defensively lectured on how that is very common (which is true), and as long as there are “significant” changes made, it’s legal (which I don’t think/know is entirely true). I have yet to see a lawyer address that definitely online, and believe me, I’ve asked MANY of them to address that.

      Basically, when it comes to source imagery (meaning, any original image used as a baseline for someone else’s work), it very much depends on the artwork, how much it was changed and how it was used. So many times it simply happens because no one knows/cares/sues. But I don’t think that makes it 100% legal. But I have found that it’s very common among artists and most people doing it feel it’s fine because they’re changing the work significantly. I can’t make a legal call on that because I’m not qualified.

      It’s up to each individual to decide how they feel about artists that trace other people’s work. My biggest issue, which I outlined here, is that I think any artist who does that should be transparent about where the source image comes from. And when that’s not made clear, problems ensue. As far as I know, that is the only issue that wasn’t apparent from the start of that particular case.

      The other allegations are not true to the best of my knowledge and no proof has been provided anywhere online to back them up. If you have further questions, I’d recommend talking to the people involved.

      I know your concern and other people’s concern around issues like this (this is by far just one of very many that happens on a regular basis) comes from a good place, but I’d suggest checking out this post to see how assumptions and not talking to people directly for facts can lead to very bad things for the artists we all care about. There are real people on both sides of every one of these issues and this article was my way of stating my opinion and hope, which is that people stop and think before they get angry, lash out or accuse.


  • I guess it all comes back to your point about how people should handle these things privately first. I’m sure a lot of people’s anger toward the artist came from a sense of feeling a bit misled. I can only speak for myself but I felt very defensive originally on behalf of this artist because I had respected her work and followed her blog for a while.
    While I understand legal situations often mean the details of settlements can’t be divulged, I would have wanted at least an acknowledgement or a statement of her copying the photography. And I do feel like it was copied. I don’t think it was re-interpreted enough to be considered original. That’s obviously just my opinion about that specific work.

    I guess the lesson here is if you are going to put it to the internet that you were robbed, you have to make sure you’ve been honest too.

    BUT I do appreciate that you have used this platform here to have this conversation. It really does count for something even if we all can’t quite decide on all the details. At least someone is talking about this stuff.

    • MF

      I agree that anyone who puts themselves online should understand that people can respond, positively and negatively. But if you have a second, please read that post I linked to at Unique LA. It will give you an idea of what an artist that gets stuck in something like that has to deal with. It’s not fun and often times, it’s downright scary. So for all of the feelings we as readers may have, I don’t think they’re necessarily as important as the very real and difficult consequences of dealing with these issues publicly online (even if those artists decide to take them online first).

      I don’t think you’ll ever find an artist that goes online and says “I robbed someone”. If they honestly felt their practice was robbing, they probably wouldn’t do it in the first place. Therein lies the point- I try to assume that most everyone’s intentions are never to viciously steal from another artist. Yes, copying and overlapping happens. Most people don’t even realize or remember they’ve done it. Does that make it ok? No. I think it’s always important to acknowledge when a mistake was made, but using language like “answering to” and “robbing” comes with a level of judgement and anger and intention that I don’t think is always the case with issues like this. To me it feels like someone wants to “punish” people for making a mistake. And believe me, anyone who has dealt with people attacking them online or has had to deal with a lawsuit is feeling plenty of repercussions without anyone needing to punish them any further.


  • Yes. Thinking the best of people is a better way to live and gives people room to live up to your high expectations.

  • For me this boils down to two key elements of where the line is crossed. I find ‘signature style’ is a combination of two elements: idea + execution. Signature style is what makes a creative, a creative. Maybe a product designer, illustrator, or photographer.

    Are there any real original ideas? Maybe not. But execution is unique, or should be per creative. When you pair those up, it makes something original. Let’s say you’re an illustrator and you draw a flower. Not a terribly original idea, but the execution is unique because of the colors and line weight and over all composition. When you see those two things, idea + execution, knocked off or ‘copied’ that’s where it’s too close. This goes for any industry, big or small.

    One reason I think larger companies fall victim to this is because they tend to need more internal approvals to execute creative. An idea + execution lands on a mood board and is literally copied because no one wants to take a risk and do something that has never been seen before. I commend companies who take that risk and create something new, it can be scary. Collaborating on a smaller scale with risk-taking creatives on a social scale is a wonderful way to test the waters, aka the market. On a positive note, I see this happening more and more.

    I have to admit, we’ve been burned in the past quite a bit. I try not to be sour about it but sometimes when I see something very specific we did, knocked off commercially, it does get to me. For instance, we shot this one image about creativity for our blog and I wrote about creative challenges. The image went viral on Pinterest and I saw it many places. Then I saw it copied almost 90%, on the cover of a catalogue. The idea + very similar photography style. Why couldn’t they just hire us? It try very hard not to take it personally and focus on us creating excellent work.

  • I am a visual artist and last year discovered my work is being ripped off by two manufacturers in China. As you mentioned – it’s very important to get your legal facts right before you start making public accusations. Every country has their own laws so it’s also important to go to the right resources for legal advice relevant to you. For artists and designers based in Australia, here are some great free/cheap resources to start looking for advice and templates. http://www.visualarts.net.au, http://www.artslaw.com.au & http://www.copyright.org.au. My outcome is that I can’t really do much about the manufacturer (I was advised that if the likes of Sony can’t stop piracy in Asia I don’t stand much chance) – but I can target the importers and retailers with Cease & Desist letters. They are more likely to want to steer clear of trouble and by removing the demand for the product, the manufacturer will (hopefully) stop making it.
    Yes, it’s devastating when you’ve put months and years into your artwork and your practice only to find someone has just gone “copy and paste” and start flogging off a soulless, substandard replica but it’s the reality of todays business world being so dependant on the online world. If it’s online, it’s almost certainly going to happen. I like your idea of educating people from all sides, opening the discussion and encouraging a more respectful and supportive community where everyone wins!

  • MF – This artist cried out very loud for all to hear, but when the table turned on her…she clammed up pronto, and so did all in her camp. It was weird to say the least.

    If she was so above board, then why could she not easily & honestly talk about it? No one needs to know the legalities here – she could of just shown some humility, maybe a little back and forth about issues that affect many artist.
    All the public got was – here, swallow this little pill and be quiet. I must say, she has a very strong support system…her friend certainly had her back.

  • The last sentence should read – ‘friends’ -her blogging community. This is what I meant.

    • Cindy

      I think you’re overlooking the legal issues mentioned over and over here. If people are involved in a lawsuit there is usually a rule or gag order about discussing the case in any way. So despite what you feel should have been discussed, that’s usually impossible if people have handled things privately with a lawyer involved. This is true of people who sue someone for copying and WIN. Often the winning and financial compensation comes with a gag order to not discuss the case publicly or privately. So a lack of conversation online doesn’t necessarily mean something evil or purposefully evasive is happening.

      People make mistakes. And those people are real people. To assume they’re awful or trying to hurt people or trying to make you “swallow a pill” is a pretty limited and black and white way of viewing the entire situation.


  • Lisa- It sounds like we experienced something similar with the Chinese knock-offs. I was able to speak with the factory that was knocking off my work and they admitted to copying but claimed ignorance to copyright laws. I learned from several lawyers that copyright infringement is a strict liability offense and everyone involved from manufacturing to importing to selling the knock offs is liable- even if they were unaware of the infringement. The idea is that they have a responsibility to not sell illegal products to their consumers. Sadly, I was largely dismissed by these distributors and retailers until I sought legal representation. One UK chain who I had legitimately licensed work to in the past who were involved in selling the knock offs had the nerve to threaten me with a lawsuit if I pursued any legal action with them. Although on what grounds they could have sued me is a mystery.
    I understand why some artists use social media as a weapon in these cases as it’s an unfair battle. The average US copyright lawsuit- if it goes all the way to court will cost the claimant at least 100K. If your work is unregistered you will likely not recoup your legal fees so unless the infringement was for a large sum, there’s no point and these corporations know this.

    I really feel that there are two main issues that have led to the social media outcry- which obviously has its own flaws as Grace discussed. The first is an unfair legal system for dealing with IP theft. It really comes down to who has more money, and as mentioned earlier, a desire for handmade products at bargain bin prices. The knock offs that were made of my paintings fell into two categories: canvas reproduction prints and original paintings. The original paintings were priced around $100 US for a large 3’x4′ canvas and they were painted by Chinese sweatshop artists. It boggled my mind that consumers were snapping up these original paintings and very likely never thinking twice about their depressing origin.

    • Janet

      I know of a few cases with copyright lawsuits that were nowhere near $100k to bring to court and finish. Do you have any info or articles with that stat? If it’s true I understand leaving that here, but that’s not what I’ve experienced with friends who’ve gone to court over copyright, and while lawsuits are indeed costly, I don’t want people to think they’re in for a $100k bill automatically if that’s not 100% true.


  • Hi Grace,

    I was quoted that number from a couple of lawyers that I spoke to when I was deciding whether to sue over the infringements in the US. It could have been that my case was so widespread and because there were six images involved and I imagine they wanted to give me a worst case scenario. However, I did receive an email at the time in 2013 from another Canadian artist that took a US company to court (in the US) for copyright infringement over one image and spent close to 90K unfortunately.

    • Janet

      I’m so sorry to hear that, that’s awful :(

      I’ll look into this further and see what the financial averages are. Perhaps the cases I know about were lower because they were single instances?


  • That would be great! I’m actually still interested in pursuing this legally in the US as there is still one chain selling the copies so further info is always helpful. I tried getting a lawyer to represent me on a contingent fee arrangement but had no luck.

  • And what of the spiritual impact in this complex constellation of issues? I have watched too many creatives lose themselves in the chase for protection and compensation, supporting the litigious construct that has us believing we have the right to protect our originality. I’m not convinced. I don’t buy into the idea that I am so wholly unique.

    Yes, all ideas come from other ideas and as artists, our process is at its best when are both aware of -and building on- research that includes a broad swathe of existing ideas. My choice is one of opting out, choosing to fuel my own instincts and voice in new inquiries, new curiosities and new work. Yes, I have been ‘imitated’ and ‘referenced’ but I value my own capacity for new work far more than I value the false sense of justice our legal world has us literally buying into. Move on, move forward. Put your time and energy into your work. Be far, far down the road when those who mimic you show up with a version of something you’ve made or written or sung.

    As for corporate licensing deals and holding these organizations accountable, if you’re going to get into bed with these folks, be realistic about the journey you’re choosing. I can name the number of corporations that I consider responsible stewards on one hand. The corporate model relies on capitalism to generate profitability and success. Far more egregious issues at stake in the corporate system than whether they’re paying ‘indie’ designers for work they want to replicate. I don’t believe that authentic artistic creativity can truly coexist with the contemporary corporate model, sadly, and we have 400+ years of historical data that points to this reality.

    So, yes, choose the path that is right for your work but be honest about the inherent trade-offs and make peace with them before you begin.

  • Really a solid treatment of a hard subject. Rarely do large retail outfits produce items themselves and those knock-offs are often made by an off-shore third party. Large retail chains are not faceless monsters- the buyers are real people with real passion for their buying categories and, like any field, there will be people that act without integrity. They, more than anyone, know that stealing is also just bad PR. Let your money do the talking and they will listen. Also know the customer that buys the knock-off for a fraction of the price probably wasn’t your customer to begin with. I never copyright my designs and when people send me items that look “inspired” by my work, I just shrug. I don’t expect other designers to know everything on the market and, if it is blatant, I pity them. I got the the thrill of making it and pride in myself while they get sacked with a heavy conscience and the stress of not knowing where to steal their next idea. Building a business or portfolio on reproduced designs is despicable but it’s also a crappy business plan. I have already moved on to a new thing and I don’t want to retread anyway. With a few exceptions, if it is at a larger chain, it was purchased a year ago and is already past trend. Buyers need proven interest so they know items will sell. I am a little guy that sells mostly to small stores, but my business with larger chains, usually for a small number of SKU’s, keeps my business afloat, allows me to take creative risks, keep my prices competitive, generate jobs and support my US suppliers.

    I will also argue that sometimes the knock-offs generate value and demand for the original. A rep told me once a customer has to see something ten times before they buy. If I didn’t see so many Knoll rips I probably wouldn’t demand my wake include my caftan-clad corpse be staged in an original Platner chair with original Dusen Dusen shades and a gimlet up.

    This is just a personal opinion generated from personal experience. I really respect Grace and other named commenters for sticking their necks out on a thorny subject.

  • As a designer, I would never intentionally “steal” someone else’s designs. But there is also a really fuzzy and confusing line between “stealing” and being “inspired by”. Is it wrong to create and sell a fabric in the likeness of a Moroccan tile pattern you saw in some ancient palace or something? Does it make a difference if you copy it exactly or just tweak some lines and colors? Geometric patterns are especially tricky. Like colorful triangles, and candy-colored polka dots are super trendy right now. There are a million variations on these patterns, but can any one person or company claim to “own” them? I think the average person is much savvier and stylish than ever because images and ideas spread so rapidly over social media. There might not be just 1 source for a certain aesthetic, but many sources reverberating off of each other. I don’t have any answers, just lots of questions. Somewhat related, this Kinspiracy website is a pretty funny and interesting observation on how many people can be influenced by the same aesthetic: http://thekinspiracy.tumblr.com/

  • Grace, I never implied this artist was evil, awful, or trying to hurt anyone – those are your words. Yes, I fully understand and comprehend what a “gag order” means. Evidently, it also includes her friends, which is understandable. However, when you wrote this well written, insightful article, did you not think this particular artist might come to mind? This story was all over the internet.

    Unlike you, I don’t know this artist personally. All I know is what I’ve read. I fully admit, freely, I don’t know the whole story nor do I think I’m in any way entitled to know. I simply said in my comment that I felt she could of shown some humility, somewhere, somehow – publicly. Even Martha managed that. Its just good PR.

    But, you did imply that I am, “pretty limited”, and you did imply my thinking on this topic is, “black & white”. You did insult me. I’ll just leave it alone now, I’m over it. But remember, the internet is rather transparent.

    • Cindy

      I wish that case was the only case that was referenced in this article, but it wasn’t. Most of these cases don’t go public, but people seem to email me to ask me to comment (or “out” people) publicly so I have more examples of this to draw from them I could sadly use in one post. A conservative estimate would be around 2-3 emails a week with copying examples that I’m asked to “expose” publicly. I never partake in these, but I always investigate to see if there’s something that should be done, either behind the scenes or in court.

      I didn’t mean to imply you were limited, and I’m apologize if you felt that way. I said that such a black and white viewpoint was limited. “To assume they’re trying to make you “swallow a pill” is a pretty limited and black and white way of viewing the entire situation”.

      The bottom line is that this case, and most other copying cases, are complicated, full of disappointing moments and are never ended the way we all hope. I think your desire to have things cleared up is coming from a good place, I just think it’s hoping for something that’s not always entirely possible (legally) or realistically.


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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

  • 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.

    • 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).


  • 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.

  • 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:


    • 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?


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.


    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.


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


  • 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

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


  • 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 ….

  • Great read! ??
    There is a great book called ‘owning it’ on copyright for creatives. It’s based on Australian law though I’m sure much of it is applicable overseas. Translates legalese into normal artist language.