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Last week there was a lot of hubbub regarding the discovery of some jewelry Urban Outfitters was carrying that looked too similar to a certain indie designer and Etsy sellers products. Notice how careful I was in my choice of words there…because it is all too easy to simply slander the corporation and go off into a spiral of hate. Maybe it’s easy to blame it on the company, but it happens between designers as well. One accuses the other of copying ideas, it goes viral, hate is thrown all over, people get pissed off, debates and points on both sides. Lots of ranting, unhappiness and I guess publicity as well, in the end. I understand the stinging pain you feel when robbed, stabbed in the back, been done wrong, shanghaied into an uncomfortable situation…whatever you want to call it. Yeah, it really sucks. And now, with all the technology we have…it’s easy to go off and spread something like wildfire…whether it’s completely true or valid or not entirely… Once it’s out, it’s out! It’s not like you get to rehash it all and people will still listen. (I’m thinking of that episode in Glee and Sue’s tactics for spreading rumors!)

I must sound like I’m leaning towards defending Urban…but I am not. I’m not proclaiming to be on anyones side. My interest in looking further into the particular story was to understand this idea of ripping off an original idea. Nonchalantly we can easily say there is no original idea and we all create based on our influences, blah blah. To a certain extent, I believe that…even though I’m sure it would feel like crap to have your work “taken” and perhaps the stealer becomes more successful than you. It’s hard to draw the line at times. I feel there is the extreme of direct copy and paste to reprint in China and sell for cheap ripoffs… definitely BAD! Or taking an existing piece and copying it, even if in your own hand. Or if someone copies your entire product line, you know it wasn’t a collective consciousness coincidence thing. That straight copying seems clearly wrong, but then there’s everything else… how some folks decided to go with the trends and start designing similar things or they came up with a similar idea maybe. It’s hard to judge what is okay or not okay once you move away from the straight copy example. It’s also hard to judge when something is very…general, if that is the right word.

For the particular case last week, you can do a search on Etsy and find other sellers creating the same or very similar thing. I am not accusing these designers of anything though, because I don’t know if maybe they are reselling, co-operating or who designed it in the first place. Does anyone have a legal copyright? Or is the idea out of copyright and open to all? Can you even copyright jewelry designs? I’m not claiming expert knowledge of this stuff…I’m just sounding off, because as a working artist I hear of these copycat stories again…and again…and again…and again. It’s draining and puts a bad taste to the whole industry.

I started thinking about all those Keep Calm posters…you’ve seen them in every permutation, right? Since the original comes from the British government in 1939, it is out of copyright and you can riff off of it as much as you like. Sadly, we don’t even know the original designer’s name! So because the time has run out or it’s publicly accepted to do so, then it’s okay to rip each other off? The idea might not be original, but I think certain versions are quite clever and I wouldn’t want artists to NOT create them. It’s all very gray area-ish and difficult to come up with rules to sort it all out. Of course, there are rules…the law…even if it might take a lot of money and time –  and laws change, always up to interpretation.

I know it’s been talked about so much already…if there is anything ever original or not. And of course, it seems to make news and ruffle feathers only if you are making money off of the copy. Fan art and tributes…that seems okay most of the time. I suppose, I am still lost in a sea of thoughts regarding this topic…but in a way, I feel sort of sad that we can be so bogged down by these issues. I wouldn’t want to spend my career having to chase down copycats…that doesn’t seem like any fun at all. At the same time, it’s horrible to imagine innocent hardworking designers getting gobbled up and destroyed because someone else took their idea and ran with it. That sucks too. I was reminded of this Ted talk by Johanna Blakley and how the fashion industry works. How fashion designers can sort of rip each other off under the law. It gives you a really interesting perspective. When she pulls out the slide on the numbers and where our money is spent…does it make you think perhaps we might not be struggling so much as artists if we opened up the industry a bit? Hmm…

I know I’m going to get some strong opinions on this subject… 🙂  I was prompted to write out my thoughts because I too, was tempted to rant and hate on Urban. But upon closer inspection, I don’t know who’s idea it really was to begin with. Who gets to decide when something is general enough that many designers might have come up with it. What if I started making a tree shaped pendant with a heart cut into it…same idea, right? Is that inspiration or copying? Maybe someone has already created it, but I haven’t seen it and just thought of the idea. BTW, you can take it if you want to…isn’t a heart on the tree trunk a totally general design idea? Hmm…


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