How to Maintain Your Artistic Integrity When Copying Art
And also avoid copyright infringement…
(*Disclaimer: I am not an expert on copyright law! Also, links to products in my blogs are affiliate links. I will earn a commission if you buy things.)
Inspiration Doesn’t Come From Nowhere
We all copy.
When you are an artist, you are a sponge for inspiration. We can’t help but look at the world as an unending source of creativity. Never knowing when something will pique our curiosity and act as a catalyst for a new piece of work. It can be something in nature, something from your imagination, a random prop from a movie, and the list goes on.
Quite often, the inspirational catalyst is the work of another artist.
I have been directly inspired by many artists. Gustav Klimt inspired me to use gold in my work. Alphons Mucha made me fall in love with Art Nouveau. Emma Lindstrom made me want to try fluid techniques. Brandon Boyd is responsible for my organic line work.
I have absorbed the techniques and styles of many artists over the years. Did I steal from them? Yes. Did I steal irresponsibly and lose my integrity? No, because I didn’t copy their work.
Stealing and Copying Art are Different Things
It’s not a bad thing to steal ideas from other artists. It’s one of the ways we grow and find our personal styles. If you haven’t read Austin Kleon’s “Steal Like an Artist” (<–Amazon affiliate link), you should.
For the purpose of this blog, we are going to look at two actions:
- Closely copying an artist’s work and calling the final product your own.
- Taking an idea from an artist and manipulating it until it becomes your own.
Option one is bad. Don’t do it.
Option two is the responsible and supported way to steal. Do it.
We Are Taught to Mimic the Masters
If you attend art courses at any level of schooling, you’ll experience instructors encouraging you to mimic the art of the masters. How many impressionistic landscapes, Starry Nights, and versions of the Mona Lisa have you seen in your life? Probably too many to count.
The work of masters are art lessons, and it is a widely accepted practice to literally copy brush stroke for brush stroke. So why can people copy the masters over and over again without someone crying theft? These pieces are so well known that it’s unlikely anyone would be bold enough to claim that work as their own, or get away with it if they did. We know it’s a copy and we assume everyone else knows as well.
It is okay to mimic the artists throughout history when you are learning how to create, but this art is not yours. It is practice.
When Does Mimicry Become Extra Problematic?
If you copy the work of a living artist that doesn’t have worldwide recognition yet, fail to credit them, and display the work, and even sell the work, that’s the very bad kind of stealing.
When you are learning how to create art, it’s inevitable that you will copy another artist. You can copy the work of others, but it’s not your work. Always remember that.
Say it with me. If you copied the art, it’s not yours.
We know when artists are copying the masters, but it’s harder to tell when artists are copying lesser known living artists.
This is why you should always be mindful of whether you are copying an artist or stealing in the right ways. It’s okay to be inspired by other artists. So–
What’s the difference between copying art of an artist and being inspired by an artist?
When you have no idea who you are as an artist, it’s easy to find yourself copying artist’s work. Legit line for line copying. I have sketchbooks from when I was thirteen filled with copies of artist’s work. Maybe you add a different element here, or change a color there, but it’s still a copy.
Now, being inspired by another artist is when you take the ‘idea’ or ‘concept’ of the art and make it your own thing. You pluck a subtle element from a piece and mash it into your style. Then mix in ideas from your past experiences, with hints of this new inspiration and birth a wonderfully unique piece.
You can imagine that there is a lot of room between these two concepts for the definitions to get blurry and overlap. How different does a piece need to be from the inspiration to be its own thing and become wholly yours? I don’t know that there is an exact measurement, but I sure do like to make graphics:
This is the scale in my mind for my artistic moral code. I always aim to be in the safe zone. You can tell my art is inspired by other artists, but somewhere between “Most Art” and “Whoa, Cool!” is my sweet spot at the moment.
I also want to say that nobody is completely original. All we can do as creators is try and rearrange the concepts and forms around us into new combinations. That’s when you start to become a creative genius. Like putting candied habanero on an orange custard tarte. You wouldn’t think it would go together, but it does and it’s magnificent.
How to Copy Without Being an A**butt
If you are still learning, copy all you want. This is how we grasp the basics and discover our own styles. Now the sticky part is when it comes to displaying or selling these copied creations, and if you can be liable for copyright infringement.
Let’s imagine that you just created a piece that is a ‘copy’. You saw a piece, you copied the composition, the colors, maybe changed a couple of things, but if your piece was sitting next to the original it looks crazy obvious that you did not come up with the majority of that piece on your own.
This is not your piece. Yes, you physically remade it with a few differences, but it’s someone else’s baby.
Should you display it?
Personally, I say yes it depends. The law seems to say no.
In the social world, it can depend on your intentions. For example, on Instagram, if you caption the work with who you copied and a link to the original creator then you may be safe. If you reach out to the original artist and get permission to post, then you’re even safer. But, if you post the copied work and claim it as your own, you run the risk of being exposed as a fraud, and even open yourself up to legal issues.
The arts community is pretty tight knit. If the artist you copied has a large following, odds are pretty good that one of their followers will call you out eventually. I’ve seen it happen multiple times. You will not be looked at favorably. But, people view professional artists and hobby artists differently.
Are You a Professional or Hobby Artist?
If you are a hobby artist and you make art just for fun, it’s totally reasonable that you would want to show off your skills of being able to recreate amazing artist’s works. I love when I can master a technique of an artist I admire. But it’s not your work. Yes, you physically made the piece, but you didn’t put in the creative labor to conceptualize the piece.
As a hobby artist, make sure to credit the original artist if you display it. Always. Reach out to the artist for permission if you can. But, keep in mind according to the copyright world, you shouldn’t display it at all (at least, I think that’s what I read…)
Professional artists really shouldn’t display copied work at all. If you’re a professional and you’re copying another artist’s work–well–that’s a problem.
Should you sell copied work?
The law says no. Other artists say no. I’m a little more flippant when it comes to copies of my own art depending on who is trying to sell it.
Honestly, people do it. Sometimes the mentality is as simple as “I created this product with my own hands and now I will sell it.” Regardless of where the original idea came from and not at all considering the underlying meaning of ‘fine art’.
You’ll probably get away with it as long as you aren’t widely known and you’re not copying content from large well known entities, but should you profit from the creative work of others? No, that’s kind of a dick move. How would you feel if someone copied your work and sold it?
I’ve seen multiple examples of artists copying other artists and then selling that work. Especially in the abstract world. If you disregard the legality of it, just ask yourself if you want to be the artist that copies, or do you want to be the artist that others copy? Your integrity as an artist matters. The answer will be obvious.
To avoid negative consequences of any sort, it’s best to entirely avoid displaying and selling copied work. Professional artist and hobby artist alike.
Back to work that isn’t copied…
For every piece I create, I can trace the influence of multiple artists, random emotions, an imaginary scene I created in my head when reading a book, and even the way my wet hair looked on my arm in the shower.
We are all inspired by something. It is not copying when you are creating from various inspiration sources (or in Kleon’s world: when you are stealing like an artist). Copies are close, one-for-one replications (or “derivative works” which I will discuss below). “Stealing” or being inspired by artists is not copying.
As your list of inspiration sources grows, your work becomes as original as art can be in this world of recycled ideas. No idea is 100% original, but you can combine a bunch of common design elements to create something seemingly new.
Stealing Ideas and Inspiration=Good
Should you worry about copyright laws?
As much as I hate to put limitations on creativity, you should worry about copyright. Now, I am no expert in copyright. I am just an expert at being overly anxious about somehow getting f*%$ed over. If you are an artist, you have two things to worry about.
- Is someone copying YOUR work.
- Are YOU copying another artist’s work.
For the most part, I have heard about the law failing independent artists. I choose not to worry about other artist’s copying my work. It’s been done. I actually encourage it (I’ll explain more below.). Now if a corporation took my work and made money off of it, I’d get pissed. But, I don’t have a team of lawyers behind me and honestly can’t afford to pursue legal action. Public shaming would be my recourse.
But number two is a huge thing that all artists should keep in mind. Corporations with protected characters can be aggressive when it comes to copyrights. Don’t even try to use a Disney character in your work and then sell it. The lines are a little blurry when it comes to the power individual artists actually have (because money), but it’s good etiquette to not rip off another artist for your own profit and recognition. So just be kind and don’t try to profit off of other people’s creative ideas.
Copyright, Derivative Works, and Sh*t I Don’t Like Thinking About
This is where copyright law feels limiting. Derivative works. When you create a piece, you own the copyright and rights to any derivative works created. This means, if someone copies your work, but maybe tweaks a few things, you can seek legal action. If someone copies your work, but tweaks a lot of things, then it may become “transformative” and the new work may not be protected under your copyright. Remember my graphic from above? See what I mean about blurry lines?
My understanding of the law is limited. I’ve been spending way too much time trying to read through legal jargon as I write this. I’m not a lawyer and wow, do I never want to be one. Don’t take my legal interpretation as ‘fact’, but I can speak to integrity.
Legal consequences or not, push yourself as an artist and don’t rip off another creator. You should be proud of the body of work you create and it should reflect who you are as an artist. Being an artist isn’t just about making things to sell.
Should you copyright your own work?
I have no idea what’s right for you. You technically own the copyright of a piece in the United States the moment you create it even if you don’t go through the legal registration. It just depends on how much legal protection you want.
The view of my own work is this: I don’t care about copyright of singular pieces of art. I know I am going to come up with new ideas by the time someone snipes a piece of mine for their own gain, so I don’t waste the time or money to register my pieces. My brand as a whole is my concern.
I’ve had multiple Instagram accounts take my photos and repost without credit, but if you work through Instagram’s reporting form they will remove your images quickly. If you are worried about people taking your images, you can always tastefully watermark them as well.
If you are worried about people copying what you do, then don’t show it to anyone. You can’t put your work out there and expect recognition without also influencing other creators. To truly protect your work, keep pushing your own limits and develop your unique voice. It’s not easy to copy a well-developed artist.
It’s up to you to decide what’s right for your work.
What is your responsibility as an artist?
If you are an artist, you understand how hard it is to get recognized in the art world and how arduous it is to develop your personal style. Don’t threaten the work another creator has put into their passion by too closely ripping off what they do.
You owe it to yourself and the art world to find your unique style.
Why do I encourage people to copy my work?
There are many reasons why I don’t mind when people copy what I do, and why I literally tell people to copy.
- Copying is how I learned. If copying my work will help others find their style, then I’m happy to be a part of it.
- It helps with my branding and recognition. The more people who are inspired by or copy my work and tag me on Instagram, the more people will learn about my art.
- I want to encourage a sense of community around my work.
- Most importantly, I plan to continue to evolve as an artist, so someone copying my fluid flowers today isn’t going to hurt my style development in the months to come.
If you have ever copied, mimicked, or been inspired by my work I am not going to throw a fit if you post your creations on social media. Tag me and I’ll be your cheerleader in the background, because the art world should be controlled by mutual respect for each other and not fear of legal action.
But I will always encourage you to find your own voice. Practicing art is a gift and we all have something to say to the world through what we create. Don’t just repeat the words of others.
Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or comments please send them my way! Comment below while commenting is open or reach out to me directly through Instagram or email. I’d love to hear from you! Make sure to sign up for my email list below to never miss a blog post.
P.S. You probably know by now that I am here to help artists with these posts. If you need help with your online branding, Instagram account, or just want a creative accountability coach, then check out my consulting services. You can easily add a session to my online calendar now.
Copyright and Derivative works: https://www.legalzoom.com/articles/what-are-derivative-works-under-copyright-law
Copyright Act of 1976: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_Act_of_1976
Examples of copied work: https://www.boredpanda.com/people-caught-copying-plagiarism-stealing-art-knockoffs/