Recently I learned some details about a far too common practice in which contract designers and manufacturers surf the internet for design ideas. They are looking for trends in consumer tastes to "inspire" new design concepts. Unfortunately, the line between "inspiration" and "copy" which may be clear to most of us has been crossed on enough occasions to raise real concern.
Legally, copyright belongs to the person who can prove that they are the earliest author or original creator. But one small additional step can make a big difference if you find someone copying your work.
"Registering" your copyright through the US Copyright Office provides a clear legal foundation (i.e. a dated document officially issued by the US Copyright Office) that you are indeed the original creator.
However, even a registered copyright does not automatically protect your designs and ideas from infringement. The Copyright Office will not take action against an infringer. If you discover that some entity is copying or infringing on your designs, then you (at your own expense) must sue the infringer in court for copyright infringement. But the registered copyright provides a powerful foundation supporting your claims.
With or without a registered copyright, you must be an active advocate for your work and for the ethics of our community.
You can register copyright on your design (or series of designs) at any time.
So the real question is, How should I decide whether or not to register the copyright of my work?
Registering your copyright does cost money, a minimum of $35 per application. So it is probably not worth registering every single piece of work that you make. However, if you create a particularly novel design or a design that will likely influence subsequent work or a series, then the expense and effort of registering your copyright may be worthwhile.
Even with registered copyright, legal enforcement via the courts may be too expensive and time consuming and far beyond the resources of most single individuals.
Consequently, social norms and raising awareness can actually be the most effective path to quell growing copycat abuse. The internet can help this call for action . . . and I am advocating for a change in our collective thinking. We need to raise our voices loud enough and expect a new behavior regarding "borrowed" or copied designs, i.e. a policy that compensates artists and makers for commercial use of our art and craft designs.
Instead of just shaking our heads, giving up, or slinking back to our studios, we need to bring visibility and awareness to the copycat problem.
Many artists and makers are afraid that any controversy, even as the victim, will shine a negative light on their work.
I understand this fear. This week I witnessed what was intended to be an open discussion about the issues turn into an abusive fight over craft carrion. As long as the craft community can't stand together with united voices for just treatment of fellow artists and makers, we will continue to be exploited.
Look at the real and growing impact of copycats. It is time we said out loud that stealing our designs is UGLY. It is illegal and unethical to copy other people's work.
Kim Lyons says: "Where I sell on the weekends, its flooded with foreign manufacturers (and local stylists) taking pictures. There are apps now that allow the photographer to be even more sneaky with their i-phones. Some days you get exhausted by all the "no photos" or "please delete that photo" that it distracts from selling.
Lyons continues: "And yes they do like simple designs that are easy to rip off. But blaming the artist for having a simple style is not fair. Those styles are the bread and butter keeping the artist afloat."
"Blaming the artist for creating simple designs, is the same mentality of blaming any victim for being victimized." END QUOTE
Going back to the copycats:
This flock of predators pick over the craft community for mainstream manufacturers and marketing venues. The stores with their distribution channels, brand names and superior marketing budgets assume that the artists/makers will never find the copycat version or we will just walk away in defeat. They are counting on our collective passivity.
As a community we can change the culture of defeat and tolerance of exploitation. We can raise our voices in a chorus to call out copycat abusers.
It can be worth your time individually and collectively. Design fees could range between $2,000 to $5,000. (That is a guess...anyone want to tell me clearly what to ask for as a fee? There are many variables.) Typical terms could be a flat fee or a percentage of sales or both. Ideally, a contractual arrangement should be agreed upon before the company starts manufacturing and selling the product.
My hope is that these posts and the numerous discussions on Facebook bring visibility to the ethics within the design communities.
It is time that we ask our craft organizations and marketing channels to support a voice against copycats.
Help make the change you want to see in crafts. Do not let copycats continue to steal from the arts and crafts community. Raise visibility for these issues from within and without.
Are you an artist reading this? What actions should you be taking to protect your work?
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