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August 2007

Studio Mate Problems - What shall I do?


Dear Harriete,
I have a studio mate who's work has been looking a lot like mine recently. I know that mimicry is the highest form of flattery, but a couple of my studio mate’s pieces are almost identical to mine and she is pricing them much lower than mine! She and I are scheduled to do a number of craft shows together this summer and I am concerned about how this is going to affect my sales. How do I broach this issue with her and what do you suggest I say?

Signed,

Not So Flattered

Dear Not So Flattered,

 This sounds like a very difficult situation with no easy answers. Let’s start by breaking this into two issues.

The first and most complex issue is that your studio mate (“SM”) is making work very similar to yours.  To resolve this issue, you will have to have a heart-to-heart discussion with SM – but first, take some time to write down how SM’s work looks like yours; add photographs or sketches to support your examples. After you have itemized all or most of the examples, talk to some one you trust who knows both you and SM. Your confidante may provide additional perspective. Although your concerns are very likely well founded, it is possible that SM is unaware of the ethical sensitivities regarding design infringement and oblivious to your concern that her design “similarities” are too close for comfort. Ask your confidante how best to discuss this issue with SM.

Now ask SM for an appointment at a time and place where both of you can have an important conversation. Ask your confidante or a neutral third party to participate and serve as a mediator. This mediator should be a totally cool, calm and rational person capable of managing difficult situations. A neutral, public location such as a coffee house or restaurant might help avoid tears and screaming. Leave your emotions at the door and bring only your notes and drawings.

Begin the conversation carefully. Perhaps SM did not realize how closely she was influenced by the direction of your work. You’ll need to avoid overt accusations and sentences beginning with “You . . . .” Instead, use “I” language such as “I feel upset that . . . .” Start with the assumption that SM is not intentionally duplicating your work and see where the conversation leads. Hopefully, by raising her awareness of your concerns, she will stop that direction and both of you can move on and maintain an amicable relationship.

Despite the outcome of the meeting, it is likely that you will not feel comfortable showing your new work to SM in the future; and this is not conducive to a creative work environment. Therefore, be prepared to initiate a search for a new studio mate or moving out yourself. The best possible outcome is that you will remain friends or friendly.

Next problem to consider is the pricing issue. Pricing of artwork is a much broader topic since it involves business and economic variables. Trying to be objective, I am intrigued with your observation that SM is charging less for very similar work. In this objective mode, I would like to ask if SM is #1) making the work more efficiently (i.e. taking less time per piece or spending less time in creative development); #2) making the work with less investment in materials: or #3) simply not charging enough.

Perhaps all three apply to SM. In #1, production efficiency justifies a lower price but copying someone else’s designs unfairly avoids the expense of creative development. In business, designs are accounted for as intangible assets protected by copyrights, trademarks, and design licenses. Infringing on an intangible asset is just as damaging as stealing any other valuable asset. In #2, less expensive materials would justify lower prices but probably lower quality as well. Competition and market forces generally accept that higher quality justifies higher prices and vice versa. It is up to the seller to point out the differences to justify higher prices.

I suspect that #3 is the most likely scenario. In my experience, most artists do not charge enough for their work. They do not factor in the full cost of their overhead (rent, utilities, shop supplies, raw materials, and retailing expenses like booths, cases, fliers, etc.). Nor do they charge enough for their hourly wage. They are so focused on competing with the many “hobbyists” in the street fair markets that they don’t realize that such low prices make it impossible to make a living on their work. Ultimately, however, the buyers determine what they want and how much they will pay. Therefore, it is up to you, the artist/seller, to inform prospective buyers about the quality of your designs, materials, craftsmanship, and reputation, etc. so that the buyer agrees that your work is by far the best quality for the price.

If you overcome the design similarity issue with SM, you could then discuss the pricing issue. Consider helping her price her work with all the overhead expenses and labor integrated into the price. Maybe SM will have an “ah-ha” moment and be enlightened about the actual cost of producing the work. Maybe you should both increase your prices!

Signed,

Harriete Estel Berman