According the US Copyright Office,
Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U. S. Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works.**There was this, a necklace from Tru.che; then this: the regretsy response. Someone retweeted the Tru.che story, I retweeted it, a friend of mine retweeted it then Amber retweeted it and the whole thing went viral.
Simultaneously a handmade blog posted a series of knock offs based on Anthro/UO products. I think it was the phrase "knock offs" that made me comment. It may also have been the fact that many of the knock offs were identical to the product sold through the store.
That's where I opened my big, fat passionate mouth and commented,
"I have to say, purposefully knocking off a person’s designs is a hurtful behavior, regardless of whether it’s for profit. It ultimately undermines the artist’s income."
And the whole thing turned into a conversation on copyright and controversy. Once the phrase controversy was used some ugly behavior started. In defining copyright (or rather clearing up the rights of artists in the murky world of high-speed internet) I prefer less name calling and more discussion. Civilized discussion, with good points, and varying perspectives.
So here's my perspective. These are my beliefs, my own understanding of copyright that sparks a fire in my gut and makes me speak up when I feel there is something wrong going on. To clear the air, this is not a rant about one corporation, nor is it the defense of an individual; this is in defense of any entity (aka designer) who feels violated from the theft of their intellectual property.
Whether you realize it or not, there is always a person behind a design. The person may work through a giant corporation or work for themselves, but there is a face with a passion to create things. The face, the person, the heart behind the matter is the owner of the copyright, the designer. The combination of their lived experiences (including, but not limited to place and interactions with placement), artistic eye, talent, style, materials available to them, and the accumulation of data from daily life are woven together to form that person's specific artistry. That specific artistry is the designer's fingerprint. The designer's fingerprint is what is copyright protected.
Copyright protection subsists from the time the work is created in fixed form. The copyright in the work of authorship immediately becomes the property of the author who created the work. Only the author or those deriving their rights through the author can rightfully claim copyright. In the case of works made for hire, the employer and not the employee is considered to be the author.**
Here's the thing: just because you see many versions of similar items doesn't mean someone somewhere wasn't ripped off. It means there is an epidemic of thievery because copyright is difficult to protect. It means there was a designer who created something that fit a trend, had the design stolen and didn't (or couldn't) protect their work on the front end of the process, so another designer stole the design, then another and then another. For the purpose of this blog post, this is specifically a nearly identical creative design, duplicated by many different sources. Design theft is still a part of this process, the infringement is harder to trace, though, due to the saturated market of identical designs.
With regards to the collective conscious, many similar items will be made. We have a lot of information coming at us in strong tides. Themes, trends and interests sweep like waves and we can't help but absorb the information. There will be other items similar to the ones we make. It will happen, and they will show up in shops large and small. To say there is nothing original is simply to make an excuse not to try.
I'm not talking about finding influence: liking the shape, proportion, even qualities, textures and colors, then digesting the design, playing around with it and creating something similar but with your own perspective distinctly added through materials, patterns, form and basic design. That's how you place your own design fingerprint on something.
I'm talking about dissecting the design of an object and duplicating it. While I'm at it, the US copyright laws make no differentiation between personal use and resale.
We often think it's okay to replicate creative works because we, as an internet culture, fail to place monetary value on the skills, talent, and craftsmanship required of the designer to make an aesthetically interesting work.
How many people would defend themselves in court, should the need arise? Why wouldn't you do that? Because a lawyer has been trained, their skills have been honed, that is what they do. We all have the ability to find logic and reason, just as we can all muster the ability to replicate a design.
You wouldn't go to the grocery store and tell the cashier they are not needed because you have a calculator. Is that because you don't have the ability to do math? Is it because you don't find value in the service the provide and you'd rather save the $8 an hour the cashier makes?
Let's consider placing value on a work of art or craft, I see no reason to differentiate art and craft. Let's allow the designer their right to make money on art without the arrogance of devaluing their skills by copying. The artist's skills are a culmination of experience, talent, skill and expression. Their work is their own unique fingerprint, their own expression.
By all means be creative, find influence, seek inspiration. Build, create, grow! Add to the dialog of the visual language. Get in there and express yourself, but don't take another person's cumulative experience (as expressed through a visual work) and tell the story as if it were your own.
Remember the person behind the design: the face, the designer. Respect the human being behind it all.
Honor their skills and hone your own skills by building upon creative dialog rather than echoing sentiments already expressed.
That goes for opinions, too. Digest the information available to you, think about it, form an opinion. If you don't like the behavior you see, if you feel a designer has been trampled on and you feel the ick factor, speak up.
Ask for accountability.
Talk, it's one of the ways we can increase the value of good design.
Quotes with ** are from the US Government's Copyright Basics PDF.