Filing for Copyright is the best legal protection for your ideas, and it's fairly inexpensive initially. However, it costs a significant amount of money to enforce and protect your copyright in court. While the law supports the copyright holder, I believe that artists and makers also need to be more effective advocates for their work through additional proactive measures.
So what can you do to protect your art or craft from copycats?
1. Create designs that can not be easily copied. This only happens if you develop your OWN techniques, style, or design vocabulary beyond the easily available resources. It will not likely come from a book, workshop, or tutorial. It comes from working in the studio, hour after hour, day after day to create new and distinctive capabilities. Taking your ideas, developing them over time, and making them better, different and unique.
2. Avoid dependence on unaltered, manufactured, or natural found items. You may fabricate beautiful work, but if other people can find or buy exactly the same thing, it is easy for them to copy your work. This includes purchased beads and stones. The more common your source for the materials, the more vulnerable your work is to duplication. For example, beads purchased from Micheal's Craft Supply are easy for others to find too. Telling everyone where you buy your stones is asking for "copycat" TROUBLE.
In contrast, cutting your own stones or purchasing from a more obscure source offers more protection from copycats.
3. Avoid teaching workshops that teach other makers how to make your signature style. This may not be a popular idea, but I can not figure out why the crafts community cultivates the idea that successful makers should teach their signature style or technique to a group of makers.
Why are we encouraging them to sell their artistic souls?
4. Jurors of exhibitions and craft shows should actively and vocally reject work that is "copycat" in nature. This includes jurors for student and emerging artist shows. While this is impossible to implement universally, jurors should be well informed. As respected representatives of the community, jurors have the opportunity, perhaps even a responsibility, to reject copycats and promote originality.
5. Everyone can help. Raising awareness and public discussion is the most effective remedy. Whenever and wherever anyone sees copycat work, raise the topic with the sponsor, gallery, or exhibition. Discuss the issue. What are the issues at hand? Is it ethics, hurt feelings, impact on your market, or your reputation? There are many more possibilities but no doubt the community of artists and makers is hurt by copycats.
Images in this post by Curtis H. Arima are inspired by twigs, branches, and roots.
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This post was updated on March 31, to provide current links.