Steal Like an Artist?

A few years ago I read, and reviewed, a book called ‘Steal Like an Artist’ by Austin Kleon. The book is predicated on the idea that nothing is truly original anymore. Everyone is influenced by what has come before, how could you not be? The sort of ‘stealing’ that Austin espoused, was to study a great many artists and works of art, absorb their influences, then transform, and remix their ideas and methods and honor their work by creating something that is your own…inspired by work that has gone before, but never directly copied.

Copying is a topic that comes up occasionally among those of us who sell our work. Every so often you are going to encounter someone who is making and selling something that looks suspiciously like something you make. Is it copying? Sometimes it is very hard to tell. There is such a thing as spontaneous discovery where more than one person comes up with a technique or design at about the same time. Do you or can you have a copyright on whatever your idea was? Maybe, but not necessarily.

Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship, including music, computer software, works of art and architecture. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works, and you don’t have to apply for, or receive, a copyright to have  your work protected. But, copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.

At Guild School we often discuss the copying question. Teachers put in a lot of hours to develop projects and the methods they will use to teach them successfully to their students. Is it fair for students to go home and use those same materials to teach local club members? Is it ethical for them to go home to make and sell 5 more of the same project, using those same directions? You’ve paid to acquire those skills, but not necessarily the right to use those directions to make a profit.

The whole idea behind classes is to pass on skills. So, if you go home and practice those skills, figuring out how to make other styles, shapes and designs, I think you have every right to sell your product whenever and wherever  you want. You’ve mastered a skill and the techniques involved, you’re not just copying the same project that was used to teach those skills.

What can you do if someone appears to be copying you? Start with a conversation. If it seems like there is a real case, consult a lawyer with expertise in the field, but be aware, it can be costly, and not just financially-you never know how people will react to the accusation, you can wind up alienating friends-theirs, not surprisingly, but sometimes also your own!

What do you think? Hit the comments section and let me know if you’ve ever had to deal with a copier.


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