Dealing with copycats comes with the territory of being an artist…
And I don’t believe it’s a bad thing.
You’ve spent days, months, years, and even decades honing your craft. Experimenting with materials. Finding your personal style. Making a name for yourself as an artist. Then one day, an artist comes along and decides to take your creation and copy it. They see everything you’ve done, copy it, possibly bastardize it, and leave you feeling used and frustrated.
It happens to all of us, but I don’t think copycats are the worst thing in the world. In fact, I look at copycats as a good thing.
Copying is what we do as humans.
We are born to copy others until we figure out our own identity. Language, clothes, traditions, holidays, mannerisms, body language, slang, jewelry, music, books, etc.. We copy and then we build on what we’ve copied with more copied material until we figure out what feels right for us.
When you scroll through Instagram and see your favorite celebrity styled in a way that’d make you look awesome, the urge to recreate the ensemble is the same urge that artists have when they copy your work. You copy. I copy. We all copy.
When one influential creator introduces something new to the public, that design concept trickles down and gets manipulated over and over again. Other artists will build off of it. They will cut things out. Rearrange components. Introduce new changes.
This scene from The Devil Wears Prada keeps popping in my head…
Gah, I love you, Meryl.
A lot of what we do as creators is built off of the artists before us. Techniques, supplies, and styles. It all gets copied and reworked.
To fight the urge to copy is a losing battle, and to control how people interact with your art is impossible. If you show somebody your art, it’s going to inspire something inside of them.
What about copyright and all that?
It’s reasonable to want to protect your art. I mean, it’s your baby, right? I know that feeling. There are legal actions you can take against copycats. If you want to concern yourself with those things, go ahead, but I personally think it ruins the fluidity of the art world.
If you want to truly protect your artwork from ever being copied, the only way is to never let anyone see it. Never. Period. Keep it locked up. Take no photographs. Keep it off the internet. Don’t display at local events or galleries. Don’t show your art to anyone.
Here is the thing about art: It’s like a virus. When you come into contact with art of any kind, it does something to you. It makes a home inside of you and compels you to share it with others. It compels you to make creations of your own. Then others become infected by your art and the propagation of creative ideas continues.
Your art will get copied if you share it. That’s how you know it’s working.
Be the voice of a new genre.
How do you think new art genres are formed? There was one guy who was like “I’m going to create the impression of a landscape…” and then so many other people copied the style that it became its own genre. Impressionism.
Same with Pop Art, Expressionism, Surrealism, and so on. One artist does things a little differently and their work inspires a whole new group of people. It’s kind of awesome.
Which is why I think you should WANT your art to get copied.
Yes, it can be frustrating to have someone mimic the work you do. Whether it’s an exact replica or just work inspired by your creations. Every artist has this territorial gut reaction when they first see their work copied. It can be painful, annoying, or devastating, but rarely do we feel something positive when we see our work copied, because we feel threatened.
But, I think we should be excited about seeing copies of our work.
When someone copies your work it can mean quite a few good things:
- You are influential enough to inspire another creator (High five!!)
- Your art is being exposed to a wider audience. (Double high five!)
- Your work is pretty cool. (Woooo!)
- That artist has no idea what their own style is yet and your art is helping them discover it.
- That artist looks up to you.
In my experience, the majority of copycats out there do not have malicious intent. They don’t mean to step on your toes. They don’t mean to be your competition or take your business. A copycat is not a threat for the most part. Those copycats are actually your biggest cheerleaders and can help you grow your brand.
Have you ever witnessed an artist (or you may have done this yourself) recreate the art of a more well known artist and then post it on social media saying something like “This was inspired by @artist”? Because I have seen this over and over again and it’s beautiful!
If you encourage people who have created art inspired by yours to share it on social media and tag you, it will only be good for you. (I do this with #messyeverafter.) The more people who see your name, the better. Build a community around your art and your brand.
Yes, you will have copycats recreate your work and post it without credit, but just think back to the days where you were learning how to draw and you went running up to a friend and showed them your version of your favorite piece of art. It’s pretty much the same thing.
When Copycats make us lose our sh*t.
This last year, I have seen a few situations of copying/suspected copying turn into incredibly stressful confrontations. If someone copies your work there is one thing you most definitely need to do: Give yourself time to work through your emotions before confronting the copycat and/or putting anything on a public forum.
If you are reacting with your emotions, it’s quite likely it will turn into a sh*ts show real quick. Sleep on it. Talk to a close friend or another artist. Let the emotions pass. You don’t need to react in all situations.
When non-professional artists (novices, beginners, hobbyists, etc.) copy a professional artists work, it’s usually safe to assume this is in the pursuit of their own personal style or just for having fun. It’s almost definitely not a threat to the artist being copied. This is the type of copying that has been most common for me and I actually encourage my followers to do this. It’s likely not going to harm your business or your brand at all unless you fly off the handle and publicly shame them (and that’s on you).
If the copycat is a professional artist and they don’t credit it, or they choose to sell the work, this is where things get frustrating. It still might not be worth your time though. I always think about these things: Are they making direct copies or are they interpreting it with their own style? Does the artist have a large following? Do they appear to copy others too? Do they have their own distinct style? Is this going to affect my business? Am I just feeling threatened? Most of the time, after I run through these questions, I deem it’s not worth my time to do anything more than show a picture of the copied work to my other half or artist friends, vent, and move on.
If a well know artist copies your work and you aren’t well known, they take credit for it, and probably make money off it then by all means confront the sh*t out of that situation. Never take advantage of the little guys. It’s not cool. They should know better.
If a business or corporation rips off your work and sells it, this is where you have every right to put your sassy pants on and make a lot of noise. There is no excuse for this, and this is where I feel copyright laws are appropriate. This is not done in the spirit of creativity, but only with greed and they should be punished and shamed.
Since I’ve established copying isn’t always bad, I should go over some rules.
We all copy, but it’s important to be a courteous copycat. Here’s how:
- If you are making nearly identical copies, don’t claim the art as your own and make sure to give credit to the original creator. (Depending on the artist, you may need to ask permission to display your recreation.)
- Copy in the pursuit of developing your own art style and not with the intent to profit off of another artist’s ideas. It takes a really long time to develop an art business. Don’t try to take shortcuts at the expense of another artist.
- Understand that some artists are more protective of their work than others. I openly tell people to try out my style and share it on social media, but you will encounter the exact opposite artists out there. Respect their wishes.
- Keep your copies for yourself. Don’t try to sell the work that you copied in a business setting. Sure, selling to friends and family is more acceptable, but the moment you go to an art fair to sell copied work is the moment you start to lose integrity as an artist.
When I see my work get copied, I celebrate, and I think you should too. Being an artist is a lifelong journey and the more you create, the more your art will evolve and inspire others. An artist copying your work can help you build your brand and grow your audience if you react in a positive manner.
Encourage community interaction. Encourage other creators to explore their artistic identities through your techniques.
But, if you really want to prevent your art from inspiring people, don’t share it with anyone. At least, that’s how I look at it.
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