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A response to comments on Copycat, Copyright and Coincidence.

Many people left comments regarding the series of posts about "COPYCAT, COPYRIGHT or COINCIDENCE." Here are some responses to a number of comments.

Metalsmith2010 This series of posts was originally based on an Opinion article I wrote for the January 2010 issue of Metalsmith Magazine, Volume 30/No.1/2010.  I hope you get a chance to read the entire article in the magazine, but to facilitate a dialog on this blog, a summary of the opinion is presented in an earlier post. 

My response to some of the comments (in no particular order) is below.

TamryGentrybacklit steering wheel_433Tamra Gentry asked how I feel when people say, "There's nothing new under the sun?" as a rationale for copying other artists' work.  My reply....a few people try to justify allowing copycat work to be sold in a show or included in a book by rationalizing "there is nothing new under the sun."  While I agree that we all build on a foundation of ideas established before us, this doesn't justify copying other people's work and taking credit as the originator.  It takes a lot of work to be "inspired" and create something new and innovative.  The originator should be recognized for creating and the imitator should be labeled "copycat."   

K. Alice asked, "How to prove that someone is a copycat?" I don't think you have to prove that the work is a copycat unless you are taking the case to court. The issue here is whether a "reasonable observer" would conclude that another artist's or maker's work is too similar or that the style or technique inappropriately resembles your own.

CERF Shoe by Harriete Estel Berman is constructed from recycled tin cans. It has a UPC toe and looks liek a Converse style sneaker. It is comparable to a person who steps on your toes in line.  If they did it one time, apologized, and didn't do it again, then you would graciously accept that it was an unintended accident or coincidence. If that person repeatedly steps on your toes, you would no longer consider this unintended.

In most circumstances, you will be making a judgment call, dividing hairs, whatever you call it.  There will always be room to quibble about differences.  But I have seen multiple examples where similar work seemed like no accident. It was inappropriately close, i.e. a "copycat" to any reasonable observer.

CERF shoe by harriete Estel Berman constructed from recycled tin cans, shoe laces are a peice of recycled copper wire. If you're concerned about an incident of copycat work, ask your fellow makers, artists, or mentors for their opinion.  Ask for help from individuals you respect.  

Everyone should be an advocate for their own work, but I never suggested being rude or showing disrespect. Polite professional communication while standing up for your work is always best.

As a comprehensive statement, I would like to emphasize that this copycat issue should be part of an ongoing discussion and mission statement within the arts and crafts communities at large.  This is about fundamental ethics. Teaching and learning from one another is an honored tradition for skill development, but copying another maker's work should not be condoned nor tolerated.  I'll admit the boundary line is not always perfectly clear, but we should be united in saying out loud to the entire community, copying should be discouraged and originality should be encouraged.   

The article in Metalsmith Magazine and these blog posts are an effort to openly discuss a problem that may have always been there.  Not discussing the issue and whispering complaints behind closed doors doesn't do anything to rectify a problem.  Imitators get away with it only if everyone remains silent. 

CERF SHOE by Harriete Estel Berman is constructed from recycled tin cans looks like a Converse sneaker with a UPC toe. Raising the issue of copycat work may be difficult in the real world but you could be performing a great service. A copycat will always have a limited audience for their work. The copycat person has much more to gain by finding their own voice, and in doing so, discovering an exciting future of possibilities. 

IN CONCLUSION: While I don't think that we can entirely eliminate copycat work, I believe that the best protection is a clear message of community ethics. 

I hope these posts offer a forum for ongoing discussion. Even if you are reading this post months later, you are welcome to leave your comments.

Save the Cease and Desist letters for your future reference. "A kinder, gentler Cease and Desist Letter" and "A Formal, Assertive Cease and Desist Letter"

Share this information with your fellow artists and makers. Discuss this issue at your next Critique Group or online.

Bermaid  Pin © 2010
Recycled tin cans, sterling silver rivets,
Artist: Harriete Estel Berman

Become an advocate for other artists. When you see copycat work, it is your responsibility to say something.  Either contact the originator, send a letter to the copycat, or speak to the exhibition or craft show organizer.

Perhaps the Internet can be a tool for effective change, rather than a medium where people are afraid of being copied.


This post was updated on January 13, 2022.