I was talking to a good friend the other day and she asked me to write about a difficult subject – artists stealing from artists. She had been accused of stealing from someone else, and it affected her deeply. We talked for a long while and I got to thinking about the issue of plagiarism specifically as it applies not to big companies ripping off small creatives or cheap phone case knock-offs made from stolen Society6 preview images, but artists whose work heavily borrows from the work of other artists.
Being accused of ripping someone off is probably up there as one of the most horrid things that can happen to a creative. We pride ourselves on our creativity, and although we live in a world where nothing is quite new, and all themes and styles are recycled into eternity, we strive to make sure that everything our hands create carries an unmistakable personal touch.
On the other hand, looking at fashion brands, accessory shops, stationery stores or Pinterest, that holy meeting place of All Things Pretty, it’s easy to see that each new trend carries with it massive waves of artwork that looks similar enough to almost appear interchangeable. This is not a legal issue, but a moral one – as was proven by the recent Richard Prince controversy (and I still say he’s an ass, albeit a clever one). Even appropriation of someone else’s artwork is permissible under the law if you can show that your changes to it were ‘transformational.’ And it is absolutely not possible to copyright a trend or style. Otherwise the entire surface design world would be engaged in the Mother of All Law Suits.
But what happened to my friend?
Ok, so we have two artists. Names will be changed to respect their privacy – let’s call them Anna and Elsa. Anna has decided to try out a popular trend – tribal animals. Google ‘tribal animals’ or search for them on any PoD site and you will see that Anna is definitely not the pioneer of this trend – it’s well established and going strong, and many artists have worked with it in their own ways. She makes some images and feels pretty good about them. She posts one on a PoD site and in some Facebook promotion groups.
Anna then gets a very angry private message from Elsa, calling her a copycat and a lot of other unpleasant things. Elsa sends links to the artwork of a third artist – let’s call her….. Kristoff? I don’t know, making up names is hard! Anyways, Elsa links Kristoff’s work as ‘proof’ that Anna’s work is plagiarism – but Kristoff’s piece is completely different from Anna’s. They do share the same animal and same idea of filling the animal shape with tribal patterns, but no further similarities exist. Anna happens to be good friends with Kristoff, and asks her directly whether she feels taken advantage of by Anna’s new piece, and Kristoff replies ‘not at all, it’s your interpretation of the same trend, go for it and don’t worry.’
Anna tries to explain all this to Elsa, who keeps furiously insisting that Anna is a fraud and a thief, and sending more and more different pieces of similarly themed art, by different artists, to support her claims.
At this point one needs to wonder, does Elsa feel all those other artists are also frauds and thieves who have all stolen from each other? Because she is acknowledging that there is a wealth of similar artwork out there, and yet is singling Anna out as the target of her accusations.
Long story short, some more private message shouting and FB blocking ensued, and the whole incident left Anna feeling very shaken and insecure about her artwork, even though she did not copy any part of it from anyone else.
This is not an uncommon scenario. Copyright and artist rights are a difficult, convoluted and sometimes downright murky subject, and many artists have radically different ideas regarding the level of rights and control they have over their own work. Many non-artists are quick to lash out at perceived ‘copycats’ in order to protect their favorite artists, even when the ‘copycats’ did nothing more than simply work in a similar style. So this raises a difficult question – at what point does your style become your personal trademark?
Again, I’m not speaking in legal terms, but in moral ones. At what level does it stop being ok to make a piece similar to someone else’s? Because, pretty much everything we make is similar at some level to the work of people who came before us, those who inspired us, or those who work alongside us and take in the same influences. Whether it’s a blooming rose or a polar bear with a winter hat or a cat riding a tricycle, you can bet your gouache paintbox that someone has done it before. Add to that the objective necessity of using reference photographs when drawing unfamiliar subjects (how many of us have regular access to deer?) and the whole thing is just a major mess.
Ultimately, my message to anyone who feels others have taken advantage of their work, or the work of an artist they admire, is to remember this – trends and popular subjects will always exist, we all draw our inspirations from somewhere, and artists should strive to build each other up, and not tear each other down. Unless you have proof positive that someone has deliberately copied a specific piece of art, please don’t start social media flame wars. With a bit of research, your work could probably also be questioned under the same flimsy criteria.
Actual plagiarism, of course, is a different matter. Steal someone else’s actual work and we’ll all be along shortly to tar and feather you. YOU HAVE BEEN FOREWARNED.
Have you ever been accused of plagiarism? Ever find yourself wondering where the line is between inspiration and theft? Let me know in the comments!
If you’d like a chance to draw inspiration from my work, sign up for my cute monthly newsletter! I share a lot of my process images there 🙂