Saturday, March 06, 2010

Copy Cats Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

photo from

I have designed posters, invitations and wedding programs for a little while now. Thanks to my friend Yvonne Terney, I have gotten more orders to create wedding invitations to the point that I am now charging people for my services. Charging people has opened a whole new can of worms for me. Now I have to consider the fact of paying taxes etc. etc. But the thing that has been weighing on me the most is the idea of plagiarism. I want to be more conscientious of other designers and give credit where credit is due.

A couple of months ago (before I began charging people), I had a last minute request to whip up a wedding program. I didn't think twice, and copied an idea off the internet and had the programs printed. I didn't think twice because I didn't think I would get credit for the design, nor was I getting paid for programs. It was more like finding an image from an image bank and inserting it into a generic wedding program. However, the clincher was that the couple thanked me on the back side of the program for designing it. I took the 'thank you' as them thanking me for the time....but guilt came over me when the guests of the wedding started complimenting me. I quickly thanked them for their compliment, but I also clarified that I copied a design off the internet. I don't feel too bad only because I didn't charge the couple for 'my designs', but I think that I am in the wrong because I blurred the line between creating an original design and plagiarizing.

Sometimes, I have requests that ask for the most basic of basic designs: a 'floral' image coming out of one corner of a program with accompanying text. I believe this format of design is used by so many artists that one can not make legal claims for the format itself. However, I wonder if I need to be careful in where I gather the 'floral' image. I think, 'surely people know I took that image off the internet and the copyright isn't mine?'. Is it okay that I assume that?

In this day and age, where images are readily accessible on the internet to scan, copy and manipulate, what is considered copy-catting? This applies not only to the world of internet images, but to art in general-- fashion, jewelry, crafts, writing, music and so on. The line between originality and plagiarism is often blurred. In general, when I am making a design, I 'research' other designs for 'inspiration,' and therefore it is inevitable that the ideas of others will spill into my designs. In other words, when I research the work of other designers, the designs that I like will often influence my own design; however, I won't cut and paste those designs into my own. I believe that I am creating something 'original' as long as the end result is mine. However, this is easier said than done; what does it mean to say that a design is 'mine'?

This question-- of what is 'mine'-- is one of the reasons why I don't entertain the idea of having an etsy account. This doesn't necessarily apply to my printed designs, but rather to other items I have crafted, such as earrings, t-shirts, baby items and cards. I've crafted gifts for friends, and some have kindly suggested I sell them on sites such as etsy. However, I have a hesitation to make such a move, because I feel that in doing so I'm making some kind of claim that the ideas are 'mine'. If I start selling these crafts, I believe that I am obligated to properly follow up on the unstated ethics of craft (e.g. where did I come up with the idea? are there existing copyright issues? am I respecting other craft-makers? am I giving credit where credit is properly due?). I'm not sure I am prepared to look into these questions. Therefore, I don't sell my crafts. If I don't sell, I can craft away without the fear of breaking any unsaid craft-making ethics. I can craft away to my hearts content!

There might be a good analogy for this in the culinary arts. I have friends that make delicious dinners and desserts. I compliment them on their cooking, but I also know that they generally followed a recipe. Now, are they charged with plagiarism? I don't think so. But if they were a chef in a fine dinging restaurant, they would have a different set of obligations to give credit for their dishes. The chefs and bakers I know often jealously guard their secret recipes. Once you begin to sell a product, there is a new set of ethics that applies.

We make art because we are inspired. But we have a responsibility to give credit where credit is due. What concerns me the most is that credit is properly given, especially when you're marketing your art. Of course, determining when and where this is necessary is not always easy. Nevertheless, artists have a duty to borrow well. There is a sense in which we need to strive to be original. And there is another sense in which we can never really be original, cannot escape being copy-cats. I agree with Michelangelo: "Only God creates. The rest of us just copy."


Sienna said...

Originality is the art of concealing your sources. -Benjamin Franklin

(I think your "designs" rock. and I also think you should give yourself more credit for them.)

Damien said...

this thought is attributed to both picasso and t. s. eliot:

good artists borrow; great artists steal.

Kiko and/or Vincent said...

Sienna, Thanks for your vote of confidence!

Uncle Damien, I was actually looking for that quote! Someone had just recited it and I couldn't remember it for the life of me.

And So... I guess what ya'll are saying is that I need to be a better stealer and a concealer!? That's not encouraging :). *sigh*