Value, Fingerprints and Copyright or Copywrong?

There's a lot of internet chatter going about copyright and I'm about to own up to stirring the pot so to speak. Settle down and get some coffee, you're in for a long post.

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.


Maisonwares said...

And How. Thanks for posting this.

Jan said...

Thank you for articulating this so well, Renee! Your words most closely resemble how I feel about this issue as well. The soul of the item being duplicated is what is truly robbed, after that comes the artist's blood, sweat and tears.

Sarah said...

Your posts on this topic are always so insightful and written in such a level tone (which is nice since this is one issue that gets a lot of people very heated).

"Let's consider placing value on a work of art or craft." Should be the quote of the year.

I think this perceived lack of value is having some really strange side-effects. Personally I've been getting more inquiries from folks wanting to buy half-finished products that they would like to "add their own special touch" to. The DIY movement is wonderful. Make things! Be productive! But with such a abundance of tutorials and classes out there, people are forgetting that you don't just buy a finished product, you buy the ideas and inspiration and really hard work that went into creating the item (even if it is one of many).

News about copycats and 'ripoffs' isn't a new thing but it seems to be getting more and more common. Whether they're inspired by "hey, why should I buy that when I can just make it myself" attitudes or a genuine want/need to create but no time to come up with original ideas I just don't know...either way it's frustrating.

I just read Urban Outfitters' response to this whole (most recent) thing and I think I would be a little more open-minded to their statements if they didn't have a LONG track record of copycat-ing and stealing from designers. THOSE allegations they didn't respond to via blog... They need to stop 'helping' independent artists with one hand while stealing from them with the other.

Thanks for keeping this conversation afloat.

Jan Halvarson said...

This is a great and thoughtful post Renee.

I think many who say it's a non issue - wouldn't say it if it was their work being copied.

Paraphrasing Martin Luther King - "inequity (injustice) anywhere is a threat to inequity (injustice) everywhere".

Thanks for explaining this very complicated issue so well.

Misti said...

Read a few of your links there.

I guess I don't really see as much of a problem with tutorials, but I can see how the artist might be upset by it. I think every product or accessory of some kind has been knocked off. I mean, what within a day of her wedding, the Duchess of Cambridge's dress was already copied? You can buy similar clothing items from all sorts of fashion houses for cheap by other people...so, is that wrong?

I guess there is a more liberal interpretation for things like tutorials in my book. Maybe I'm wrong...I dunno. The blatant stealing of ideas and selling them of your own---a bit different. Or using a photo or art and making a derivative work---again different.

But showing someone how to make something at home for themselves? Not sure I think that is in the same boat.

I'll think on it more though, you've given me a lot to read about. Don't know you if you saw what happened with Kal Barteski this week, either.

vanessa said...

while i agree with many things being said on this topic, i don't think it's fair to lump artists and crafters together in the same category. they may both make things, but often with a different intent. an artist's sole purpose is not just to make money, but to challenge ideas and push themselves creatively. i don't see a lot of crafters doing that. while it's cool that many can quit their day jobs and live exclusively off their etsy sales, crafters have got to stay ahead of the competition if they want to succeed. [in this case the competition is other independent designers as well as the big guys like UO and Anthro, etc] crafters may need to think like artists and be prepared to turn out new ideas, push themselves, be unpredictable and not just settle on one design or concept and say they own it. you can't own putting paint on a canvas, but you can repeatedly find fresh, new ways to do it that make you stand out.

not sayin' i'm right or anything, just thought i'd share this view. good luck to all you designers out there. stay true to your work!!

Wolfie and the Sneak said...

Vanessa--Absolutely there are differences in artists and craft persons, I was just trying to simplify a very long post and felt the creative industries could be called "designers" as a diplomatic answer to specificity.

But! It's awesome to have that input and your thoughts added to the conversation. The differences are important and you've made valid points that should be discussed further.

vanessa said...

i agree with you whole-heartedly wolfie. thanks for letting me weigh in!

Anonymous said...

this TED talk is super interesting and relevant, because there is copyright in fashion: http://www.ted.com/talks/johanna_blakley_lessons_from_fashion_s_free_culture.html

sara (girls can tell) said...

as one of the artists who created the work that was the original for one of the knock-off tutorials (and i guess i use the term tutorial loosely here, since i don't think creating a knock-off is in the spirit of a tutorial at all), there are a couple aspects that irked me:

1) the lack of background work that went into creating the tutorial. my name is in the description of the item on anthro's website. this is particularly annoying mostly because anthropologie is completely transparent + honest in their sourcing of this item. they did the right thing by these towels. they was made by me. each and every one of them. (i know, i know, welcome to the internet, a fact-checking free zone.)

2) that the author of the knock-off post has not removed the post (to garner as much traffic from it as possible, i can only assume) even though she admitted that she did later learn i made the towel and she "felt awful all day" for knocking off an independent artist. it's still up. it's still a step by step instruction set on how to decorate a cheap towel with a marker, under the image of my handprinted design.

3) that the quality of what you're going to end up with by following that tutorial is so weak. SO WEAK.

4) lastly, the lack of value on creativity, as you touch on in your post, wolfie. if my towel inspires these people so much + they're not even creative enough to figure out how to create their own knock-off by looking at it, isn't that worth a little something? the lack of appreciation for the people who generate new things + create real content is appalling.

thanks for this clear + well articulated post on this multi-faceted issue. it's been a doozy, wrestling with these complicated issues, especially as an independent artist who has had the good fortune of actually having nice working relationship with the big corporation in question, and then got knocked off by little guys... sort of turns things on its head a bit.

Sadie said...

And the fact that UO pulled the item in question down from their website as soon as they noticed the viral spread would indicate that they were guilty of something... I would have thought?

Kim Baise said...

Perfectly put! Thank you for posting this.