When Does Inspiration Turn Copy-Cat?

When Does Inspiration Turn Copy-Cat?
by Donald Clark

Courtesy of Handmade Business

''I've read many things about how to handle someone who wants to or tries to copy your work, but what if I'm the one who wants to gain inspiration from something else? I saw a line of jewelry at a show that was very similar to mine. The artist had some great ideas that I think I could incorporate into my own work without making exact replicas. Is this OK? Or is it crossing a line? How far can I go before I am technically copying instead of gaining inspiration from their work?''
Chaz Gutierrez
This question brings up all the ethical issues we each must confront as we make our way in the handmade realm. Jewelers in particular are confronted with the rigors of continually producing new work as the seasons and fashion dictate. At first look the copyright law is clear. The law states, ''A work is automatically protected by copyright when it is created, that is, ''fixed'' in a copy.''

Unfortunately, it doesn't stay clear for long. The discussions of what constitutes copyright infringement go on and on, in and out of the court system. Take a look at the court proceedings around the Patrick Cariou vs. Richard Prince case that was decided by one court and reversed by another, without establishing any infringement ground rules. It appears the short answer to your question is that even slight changes in size, color, texture, or material negate any fear of an artist ending in court. But is that the way you want to build your business?

Triggers to inspiration are around us even as we move through the most mundane moments of our lives. Why not cash in on the worry-free ideas sent your way? In addition to the obvious events in nature, inspiration could come from the way a pot of soup bubbles, the twist of the laundry in the washer, or the cracks in pavement. Personally, I'd rather turn to these idea pools rather than another makers' designs.

On the other hand, can we avoid being influenced by the images we see in our day to day lives? Probably not, and that would include designs made by others. The concept of a ring is by its very nature quite limited. It fits around a finger. After that, anything goes, and has for millennia. What's left that hasn't been done? Not much, but that doesn't stop jewelers from making rings that appear new and unique. I'd speculate that nearly every new ring idea exists in some form in another jeweler's line or in a museum collection somewhere.

When I'm in the studio I don't plan to copy the designs of another maker, however I know full well that to some level I am. Can that work for you? Develop your line drawing from the ideas in you, knowing that they have been influenced by what you've seen. Just avoid the temptation and risk involved in outright copying.

''A friend suggested to me recently that I could manufacture some of my items in China to make more money on them. At first I scoffed at the idea, but then I started really thinking about it. My jewelry is fairly mainstream and hardly one-of-a-kind, so I think I could manufacture some of my lower-end items to really turn a large profit. Should I pursue this or would it potentially harm my entire line and my business' integrity? I don't want to be labeled a sellout but I also want to keep my business afloat.''
Christine Donnelly
Here we go with another ethics question. I think this one goes all the way back to why you do what you do. Many artists don't have a choice; they came wired that way. I often hear stories about a maker's first experience with their material and how life changing that moment was. They joyfully go to their studios each day, often seven days a week and don't think they're at work. This devotion to their work doesn't always return a living wage, but they go on and figure out how to make their life in craft work for them. They believe the only way is by hand, and they really mean their own hands.

Conversely, there are makers who are more comfortable designing the work and have no issues about allowing others to actually make it. Until recently, that typically meant hiring someone to work in their studio. Globalization hasn't passed over the craft world. The Internet allows us to sit at our benches and see what makers are up to all over the world. The global market lets us shop all over the world. So why not have our work made somewhere else in the world? This is certainly working for the big guys for some big-name retailers. Why not for you?

I see two issues with off-shore manufacturing for small makers. First, it's quite difficult and often expensive to find the right partner in other countries where the work will be done without your direct supervision. You send samples, they send samples, until the product is what you want or isn't; in that case, you start the process over again with another potential partner. Once you have a partner you will likely be required to order a large, if not huge number of pieces of each design. You will then have to find a way to market them; this will also require finding new outlets since these items are no longer handmade in the USA.

Secondly, the real ethical issue, such as it is possible your work may be made by people working under conditions you'd find unacceptable. They may be working for wages far below what is considered acceptable in the US. Questionable working conditions and unfair wages are often what allow those types of manufacturers sell your designs for less money. The only way to be sure this isn't the case would be to visit the factory you're considering. If you really want to go this route I'd suggest you check Aid to Artisans, aidtoartisans.org, a non-profit organization with partnerships in place with makers in countries around the world. They help make connections and insure the makers are treated fairly and then help market the products when they arrive in the US. Jonathan Adler found the factory in Peru that produces his ceramic designs through a partnership with ATA.

You'll have to put serious thought into what this arrangement will do to the brand you have established for your work. I'd suggest you create a different name for your off-shore work and a second marketing arm. You can't mix the handmade here with the handmade there.

Pulling this off won't be easy; you'll be working a lot but there are rewards. Take a look at MollyHatch.com. She's not a jeweler, but her model is certainly adaptable and I know for a fact it makes her very happy. Perhaps it could work for you too.