Alibaba and the Copycat Thieves

Alibaba and the Copycat Thieves

Illustration by Harriete Estel Berman

Illustration by Harriete Estel Berman

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 Alibaba.com. 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.