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Alibaba and the Copycat Thieves

Illustration by Harriete Estel Berman

Illustration by Harriete Estel Berman

Illustration by Aryn Shelander

Illustration by Aryn Shelander

Illustration by Aryn Shelander

Illustration by Aryn Shelander

Illustration by Harriete Estel Berman

Photo gallery (3 images)

Editor's Note: Artist and author Harriete Estel Berman blogs extensively about copyright issues on her blog, ASK Harriete. We asked her to share her thoughts with our audience in today's guest blog post.

The craft community is under assault by copycat thieves. These intellectual property (IP) pirates are raiding the craft marketplace, often right before our eyes, yet we in the craft community seem to ignore the symptoms, whisper in embarrassment, or even defend the practice of copying.

Our collective reluctance to mention or openly discuss the issue emboldens a thriving pirate industry and weakens any individual resolve to expose copycats or to protest copycat practices. With globalization, the craft market is being exploited by opportunistic international manufacturers through online exchanges like Profit-minded companies, unfettered by any respect for IP rights, overtly copy work shown by makers at major shows or on personal websites. Corporations with large distribution channels pirate ideas from isolated artists and makers.

The wonders of the Internet have also fostered a culture of copying where less creative individuals copy and sell work based on tutorials, instructional materials, or Pinterest images. Let’s be truly honest: Ethical boundaries are crossed when amateur and casual makers rationalize copying with naïve compliments like, “I love your work so I made my own copy” or “I want to make something just like this.”

Every single one of us has a shared responsibility. We cannot simply ignore the problem and stick our heads in the sand/studio. We cannot rely on creating new ideas fast enough to stay ahead of the digital copycat thieves. Neither should we ignore the copying and misrepresentation of what is “original” work. Copycats are not compliments, especially when we are on the cusp of technologies that can virtually copy work from a photograph or object with negligible craft skill.

Here are some suggestions:

Teachers and instructors from academic programs to weekend workshops could lead the discussion about finding “inspiration,” the appropriate use of practice copies, and suitable self-limiting ethics for sharing and using workshop content.

Instructional materials from magazines or books should not be copied as the basis for a similar workshop unless you wrote the content yourself.

Stores and galleries should not sell derivative work. Seek out the originator. Support the innovator.

Commissions should not duplicate another makers style.

Designers should not be surfing Pinterest or the web for ideas. Products “inspired” by original artists and makers are derivative copies and unethically pirating IP.

Use the megaphone of the Internet. Publicize side-by-side photos of the original work and the copycat with the name of the copycat person or company. State your case. Share this information with your social network. Bad publicity for the offender(s) is the least expensive and most effective tool we makers have. Support your community with advocacy against copycats and IP piracy.

Yes, it is a challenge for every artist and maker to protect their work, but with minimal search effort, makers can investigate whether their work has been copied,  reproduced, or mass produced. The time it takes to protect your ideas with levels of advocacy has become part of the “cost of doing business in the Age of the Internet.”

Perhaps the international IP pirates are largely beyond our legal reach, but the most effective tool we have against theft of intellectual property is raising our voice and raising awareness within our own community.

Our best defense is awareness, dialog and public exposure. We all know that taking property from others for one’s own benefit should not be tolerated. Let’s practice good behavior. Create a social norm that deals with the copycat issues openly with transparency at every level.

Harriete Estel Berman is an artist and author of ASK Harriete and the Professional Guidelines for the arts and crafts community. You can also read about her project Pick Up Your Pencils, Begin in "Pencils Make a Point" from the Dec./Jan. 2012 issue of American Craft magazine.



I'd like to encourage everyone in the crafts community to share a link to this blog post as an advocate for change. A quote from this post, and link to the original source is encouraged so that we "be the change we want to see." Quote from Mahatma Gandhi At this point, I am betting that everyone of us has been a victim of a copycat, or knows someone that has been copied. The only way that this climate of copyright infringement will change is if we become informed about the issues. ASK Harriete has many posts about the topic. If you are on Facebook there is a new group the Copyright Collective that offers useful information. "The solution can’t come from me alone, or a committee, or even one organization. The solution is everyone in our craft community. The power lies in the community to create an expectation or social moiré for ethical, moral and legal behavior." Quote from the lecture: The GOOD, The BAD, and the UGLY in the Age of the Internet.

What should be noted is artists/crafters who do call infringers out, need to be cautious in wording. We live in a litigious society, and though they may own the original design, the unsavory company allegedly replicating that design could try (without merit) to countersue.

Unfortunately artists who find their wares mass produced without their permission need to be cautious in the language they use when pointing it out publicly. If possible, consult a lawyer throughout the process of documenting alleged similarities to avoid being smacked with a defamation suit. There would most likely be no merit to such a suit, but they're potentially expensive and scary. As I understand it, it doesn't mean you're not owning your design or your right to claim your design, just a precaution.

Harriete has been on a crusade to make this copycat issue known for a few months now, but what I see happening is that now on Harriete's blog and on her facebook page is artists are sharing their " I was at a show and someone SAID that they wanted to copy me". This is not copying, this is commenting. I honestly think that everyday people who say these things really DO think they are complimenting you. I hear it all year at shows. I don't really feel threatened by this at all. This is now negativity for negativity sake. It is not helping the issue of copycatting and it is not finding a solution. What Harriete isn't thinking about is the next generation of art lovers. Would she be this angry at a child who said that? The big picture to me is to see art and craft appreciated by young and old alike. People are inspired in many ways and a comment like that may just mean that they want to create SOMETHING, not just what they see in front of them and that's ok with me. These are the same people who are going to the shows, buying pieces on-line and are following our blogs and facebook pages. Getting angry at a silly comment and attacking regular people online is counterproductive.

"Designers should not be surfing Pinterest or the web for ideas" That kind of advice goes against what art has been for century. If you want to learn painting, you'll study the work of all the great masters. If you want to be a musician, you have to listen to lots of different styles and lots of different musicians. If you want to learn the secrets of photography, you study what the great photographers did. It doesn't matter where you find it (in a library, in a music shop, on the internet...). What matters is what you do with it. If you just duplicate that great Miles Davis solo, that won't make you a great musician, just a good Miles Davis copy. But you won't have any of his genius until you understand what he did and learn how to apply it to you own style and develop it more to come up with your own ideas.

I was told by someone today that one of my pieces looks like Artist xyz and that she wouldn't be happy to see it. So I felt properly bullied and took the listing down. The piece was using a technique from a book I got in an auction, by a totally different artist. But the artist "who wouldn't be happy" just became more famous for whatever reason. Then the artist who was acting in her friends behalf tells me she went on pinterest and found a picture that she drew inspiration from and "now that is MINE" . So it's ok for her to do that but not me....? So many ideas overlap and many artists will let an idea sit on the back burner for awhile before it come to fruition. I feel like as soon as I read something that I "might" get inspiration from I have to plant my flag on it and lay claim just in case I decide to use it. I don't like big companies copying original artwork but as the Beatles said ..nothin' you can do that can't be done

Ironically I was told recently by someone (fairly famous) that one of my pieces looked like something her friend did and that her friend would be hurt. Never mind that I have been doing something similar for ages. Then this person goes on to say that SHE was surfing Pinterest and found an image that she is making and henceforth it will be HER idea! Whaaat? Some times I think that when people get to a certain level there isn't enough oxygen for their brains to function properly.

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