Are You Stealing From Other Artists?
Maintain Your Artistic Integrity and Steal Responsibly While Creating
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.)
The Truth of the Matter
When you are an artist, you are an inspiration sponge. You can’t help but look at the world as an unending source of creativity. You never know when something will pique your curiosity and act as a catalyst for a new piece of work. It can be something in nature, something from your imagination, or even a 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.
Copying is Stealing If you Call iT your own
It’s not a bad thing to take ideas from other artists. It’s one of the ways we grow and find our personal styles. (Austin Kleon “Steal Like an Artist”. You should read it.)
For the purpose of this blog, there are two types of stealing. One: copying an artist and calling the work your own. Two: 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.
If you attend art courses at any level of your 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.
So why can people copy the masters over and over again without someone crying theft? The pieces are so well known that it’s unlikely anyone would be daft enough to claim that work as their own. We know it’s a copy and we assume everyone else knows as well.
Now if you copy the work of a living artist that doesn’t have worldwide recognition yet, fail to credit them, and display the work– that’s the 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 it, it’s not yours.
What’s the difference between copying 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. 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 you can. Other people disagree. The law seems to disagree as well.
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. 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.
If you display it, don’t claim copied work as your own, especially if you consider yourself a professional artist.
If you are a hobby artist and do it 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.
Make sure to credit the original artist if you display it. Always.
But, according to the copyright world, you shouldn’t display it at all (at least, I think that’s what I read…)
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.
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? If your integrity as an artist means anything to you, the answer will be obvious.
If you want to avoid any negative consequences or feedback don’t sell copied work. If someone walked into your home and you had a copy of one of my pieces on the wall and they said “Hey, I will give you cash right now for that piece of art.” I give you permission to sell that art, but only if you go buy a burrito after and then tag me on Instagram. #treatyoself
But I can’t speak for the other artists.
What about being inspired by artists, but not copying them? Are you supposed to give credit to every source of inspiration in your pieces?
No, that would get tedious. 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.
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.
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 stealing YOUR work.
- Are YOU stealing 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 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. I care more about my brand as a whole.
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 stealing your images, you can always tastefully watermark them as well.
If you are worried about people copying what you do–well 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 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. So, 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.
- I’m having fun and I want others to have fun too.
- If copying my work will help others find their style, then I’m happy to be a part of it.
- It feeds my tiny little ego.
- 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 LOVE building a community around Messy Ever After.
- 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.
So, 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! You can leave comments below for a short time or reach out to me directly. I love hearing what you think. And again, I don’t know much about copyright law, so check out the links below to do your own research.
Also, I apologize for my hiatus from blog writing. Who knew that a complete change like uprooting your entire life and moving across the country could be so distracting 😉
Now go steal responsibly and get messy!
Sources and Further Reading:
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/