Craft Venture: originality in the culture of copying

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I started writing Craft Venture a little more than a year ago, when I was working at a more than fulltime day job (financial/business management) while running my tiny business evenings and weekends.  A year later, I am now purely self employed and my business has developed to the point that I need more time than exists in order to continue growth and development, particularly as I prepare for a couple of big shows this Summer, immediately followed by my very busy season (Fall, the holidays and Winter).

I absolutely love writing Craft Venture, but have made the very hard decision to step down from the column in order to spend more time on my business and upcoming deadlines.  I’m very happy to have reached another new level with my business (isn’t that all of our goals, to continue to develop and grow?), but am sad to say “goodbye” to all of you!

Well, let’s not say goodbye; after all, we’ll see one another in the blogosphere, on venues like Etsy, and exhibitions like papernstitch!  Today will be my last post on a topic that is very important to me: originality.

Two topics sure to ignite passionate discussion in the world of art and craft are originality and copying.  What a perfect topic for my last Craft Venture post on papernstitch!

I’ve thought quite a bit about what I’m calling “the culture of copying” in the handmade community.  I’m not alone, as 198 (as of this writing) comments on this very topic will attest, on a recent decor8 post on this very topic!

There are so many facets and levels to defining what constitutes “copying.”  Are we talking about actual copyright infringement?  Trademark violation?  Exact materials and colors that a competitor used?  Tracing?  Jumping to join the latest popular trend in art or craft?

According to Wikipedia (not exactly the final word in definition), copying is “the duplication of information or an artifact based only on an instance of that information or artifact, and not using the process that originally generated it”.

There are many who oppose the idea of originality in art and craft.  “There are no original ideas!”  Im certainly not the first person to knit accessories.  A hand knit scarf is not an original concept.  However, I am able to approach my designs, styling, photography, copywriting, etc.  with my own unique voice and vision.  I do strive to be original.

There are those who claim originality in their particular form of art or craft, while their designs are clearly copies of other work.  Meaning that they have relied on another artist or artisan’s unique voice and vision.  Many think this is perfectly fine, since there are no original ideas and knockoffs are an accepted part of the fashion and design industry.  Others see this as plagiarism.  Still others see this as an inevitable part of business.

I neither have blinding insights nor answers.  As much as I strive toward originality in design as well as style and photography, I’m sure I’ve been influenced on more than one occasion by other work!

I am taken aback when I learn that a colleague bases their work on patterns or designs from others “¦ but should I be?

We are all part of the handmade community, which I often idealistically believe is above messy things like copying.  Ironically, the communitys DIY knowledge sharing culture may have resulted in the “culture of copying.”

That long hoped for phone call from Martha Stewarts producers means youll get the honor of appearing on her very popular series in order to show gazillions of viewers exactly how you make your creation (and no, I wouldn’t turn down that invitation either!).

Any number of very popular craft and design blogs will share with you exactly how to make your own version of big name designer’s to indie crafters original design.

I think we do this to ourselves.  Our culture of sharing, in the spirit of handmade, has been turned into something quite different: a culture of copying ““ even plagiarizing.

I love to learn new techniques and ideas working from others patterns, tutorials and designs.  However ““ and this is key to me ““ I dont offer these items for sell.  I may knit a sweater or baby blanket from someone elses pattern for gifts or my personal use, but not to sell.  I work swatches and sections from Vogue Knitting or favorite knitting designer patterns, in order to learn a technique.  If I were to offer these for sell (which I would not!), I would do so with the clear understanding that the original design is not mine.  Doing so avoids plagiarizing (although it doesn’t avoid copying or copyright infringement).

Is it even possible to create original works in a culture of copying and influence by others?  Sure, I think so (and I had the same art history education as other art and design majors!).  We can be and are inspired by other works, but most of us manage to both copying and plagiarism.

In a culture of copying, how do you avoid …  copying?  I think self awareness ““ an honest review of your source and inspiration ““ is a step in the right direction.  Copying ideas, text and photography style is easily remedied:  dont!  Come up with your own ideas,words and style.  Doing so isn’t easy ““ it’s hard work that is crucial to your branding.  Part of branding is being recognizable as you and not your competitor!

The culture of copying can become the culture of originality, but not without effort.  Changing a culture isn’t easily achieved and requires changes in the culture itself.  Our culture – that of artists, designers and artisans – is huge!  However, we can affect change in our microcultures.  Talk about copying, influence, originality, inspiration and plagiarism amongst your friends and colleaugues.  On your blogs.  In your teams and groups and associations and clubs.  If you want a culture in which copying and plagiarism isnt acceptable, you have to create that culture by changing the current culture.  Start small!

Recognize the place that influence, inspiration, education and sharing have in our respective forms of art, design and craft.  As well as in your particular work.  Shifting your own perception via self awareness is the single most important contribution you can make to creating a culture of originality.

This is a controversial topic!  What are your thoughts?  Is copying just the price of doing business?  Is plagiarism acceptable?  Do original ideas exist?

If there is a “culture of copying,” is shifting to a culture of originality possible?  If so, where can we start?  Where can you start?

Again, it has been my honor being a part of papernstitch this last year and I will truly miss you all!  A huge and heart felt thank you to Brittni for this opportunity and experience, and to all of you for reading the column!  I look forward to reading and learning from your comments!

—-

Top Image c/o Lucia. . . entitled It’s Arguable Whether I Had Any in the First Place

12 comments | Click here to reply

so interesting. i can’t wait over to hop over to decor8 and read it. i appreciate how you learn from others but you don’t sell it. but then when those skills begin to intertwine with skills you developed yourself and appear in new products you make, that’s hard to distinguish too. this was a good reminder to keep my own work original, because that’s all we can do, isn’t it? and then not really support those who are copying others. but then, you can tell when some people are copying others, because they’re really bad at it and it’s obvious who “influenced” their style. but also, i worry about other people’s ideas seeping into my own style, subconsciously. it’s just so hard. :/

and also, thanks for your postings! you will be missed. 🙁 you have given me hope though, because i kind of want to go the same route as you. at least, work in the business world and do crafts part time…and then eventually build up my part time crafts business.

Thank you!

rachel! | May 24th, 2010 at 2:10 pm

We are all going to miss your posts here Brenda. You have done such an amazing job with the Craft Venture column and I know your future with Phydeaux is bright. Congrats on all your success.
Sincerely,
Brittni
papernstitch

papernstitch | May 24th, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Thank you, Rachel! Such a good point – it does all become intertwined! The lines between inspiration, influence and originality are not as fine as they might seem. And thank you for your kind words – I wish you the best!

Brenda Lavell | May 24th, 2010 at 5:06 pm

And thank you, Brittni! Your kinds words mean a great deal to me. Brenda

Brenda Lavell | May 24th, 2010 at 5:06 pm

I think in this day and age, it’s hard to find originality. A lot of good ideas involve modifying existing products and making them better.

That said, I don’t believe in plagiarism or CASE…especially if you are making money off someone else’s ideas.

Great article!

Yyam | May 24th, 2010 at 10:54 pm

I agree that it’s hard to find, Yvonne! Which makes it all the more delightful to run across something amazingly unique and original. Or a really, really clever and new spin on an old idea! Thank you! Brenda

Brenda Lavell | May 24th, 2010 at 11:46 pm

Definitely a hot topic…I don’t think there is such thing as true originality…we all stand on the shoulders of giants. That’s how the community is built, pushing us all forward. However, I think it’s obvious when there is direct copy and sell something, pretending to be the creator when you are not. Self awareness should take care of that…otherwise it is just influence. I don’t think artists should feel stifled in having to be uber careful not to look like anyone else – it’s part of the process of exploring. Thanks for your column…it’s always been interesting to read!

linda | May 25th, 2010 at 5:57 am

Great post Brenda- I will miss you over here!

I was just reading a blog where the blogger suggested to newbies finding something that was selling and making it “better”.

The problem, besides the possible legalities and the fact that the copier will miss out on producing their own original work is that the real work on the original piece is invisible to someone other than the originator.

The copier doesn’t know why it looks the way it does. The copier hasn’t taken the dozen or more steps and missteps that brought the original into creation.

Of course, we all learned by copying our ABC’s over those dotted letters and everyone who went to art school knows we learned by studying other artists’ techniques in order to better develop our own, but when we become SELLERS the rules change.

Am hoping the craft community’s conversation on this topic evolves from what is legal to what is ethical and really that copying is just not cool. We are all influenced by each other – I have been influenced by your amazing product photos to try to get some kind of movement into my own (hasn’t happend yet though). But, I think people who think there are no original ideas just haven’t had one yet.

Cat Ivins | May 25th, 2010 at 8:25 am

Coming over from web design a few years ago to the craft world, I saw the copying in the same frequency but without the outrage in response to it. In the web design community, if your website is too close to the look and feel of someone else’s your name is blogged, tweeted, and reblogged/retweeted for weeks or months, accompanied by a big branded THIEF on your digital chest.

Although I think there’s a huge chance for libel and defamation if you wrongly accuse someone of copying, there’s also great value in alerting the public to the fact that there is in fact an original version of a design and to point out who that original designer is. It builds credit to the original designer and helps their credibility while simultaneously knocking the copycat down a post, giving him/her time to evaluate what he/she is doing.

Cat said “but when we become SELLERS the rules change.” and that’s the real issue I think. I copy all the time, but no one will ever see the things I copy because I toss them in a drawer or the trash when I’m done. I never feel good about those copies, it’s always just for flexing my left brain muscles really, it’s not my work, it’s just an exercise. The things I sell, profit from, even the things I give away (indirect profit in the marketing department) are original to me because my reputation depends on it.

REPUTATION is everything in business. Just one blog post claiming you’ve copied someone else’s work, true or not, can destroy you. It’s just not worth it.

And yes, a concept or idea can not be copyright protected, but the implementation of that idea can, and is. As a community we should protect that, and each other, by cautiously and discerningly calling attention to copycats and crediting original artists.

Will miss your posts, I’ve learned a lot. THANK YOU!

Natalie Jost | Olive Manna | May 25th, 2010 at 11:43 am

So much food for thought – thank you ladies!

It is so hard to say, Linda, if our influence and inspirations allow us to be truly original at all! If you lived on a desert island without internet, maybe? Even then …

Thank you for your kind words, Cat and Natalie! I think the world of both of you, so am very touched.

Cat, I run into the same advice all – the – time! “Don’t reinvent the wheel,” “make someone else’s idea your own by making it better,” etc. This is particularly heartbreaking in the creative world, for the very reasons you mention. And also, what about the emotional intent behind someone’s original work? Creation isn’t just technique, which makes being copied so much more painful to the original creator.

Natalie, what a great perspective to share – our digital age changes everything! We have access to so much, but are also “out there.” And it is SO not worth it to mess with our reputations.

Thank you all!

Brenda Lavell | May 25th, 2010 at 12:16 pm

nice post. thanks.

emt training | July 19th, 2010 at 12:23 pm

I think there is a problem in assuming that the “culture of copying” is something new that humans have recently creating. In fact, it is the idea of copyright infringement, patenting, idea marketing, and so on that is new. Ancient cultures, and even recent historical cultures, and even living traditions, do not uphold these ideas of copying while creating and selling. Looking at various traditions of tile design, textile patterning, pottery, and structural design make this very clear, and it makes me wonder why art historians or literary critics don’t already see this as a plain fact of creation. Patterns are copied all the time until they become a tradition that everyone uses to create “original” work. But those traditions were not always traditions. They began with someone, or a group, and proliferated until they became traditions. Why is that okay, but copying from someone’s design and recreating it today isn’t okay? Why are DIY demos okay at all? It technically takes the intellectual property of other creators and gives it to the masses, and it does so by removing the necessity of buying or even recognizing the original creator/material, thereby “selling” the original idea/product and “stealing” revenue from the first creator.

Shiva | January 11th, 2015 at 6:30 pm
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