Someone’s Copying Your Art? Life is Tough. Buy a Helmet

By John Stillmunks in Misc > Art Opinion

A photographer friend of mine (who is also a former war correspondent) made an interesting comment after we had a discussion about plagiarism at art fairs.

He said, “Life’s tough, buy a helmet.”

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Neither of us could remember who said that phrase first—Dennis Miller? George Carlin? Lincoln? (Nothing’s funnier than a Lincoln/helmet joke.) Something from an old movie? Maybe an inspirational speaker?

Whoever said it first, it’s a great quote. I’m not stealing it, so please don’t come to my studio and call me a plagiarist. I’ve just been thinking a lot about plagiarism for the last few days, specifically when it comes to all the recycled/copied artwork I see at art fairs and festivals.

How is plagiarism determined?

I suppose the first test would be to see if the average person thinks it is plagiarism. If more people think it’s plagiarism then those who do not, then it must be plagiarism. That’s the “any man” test—plain and simple.

Of course, there are also volumes of all kinds of material and case law on the issue. Lawyers and CEO’s have a heyday with that kind of thing. But what I’m interested in is art plagiarism.

(And by the way, I think it’s important to say that not every person that sells stuff at an art show is an “artist” and probably shouldn’t be labeled as such.)

Frank Zappa said: “Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.”

Who would dare to argue with Frank? He wisely avoided any kind of modifier for the word “art” when he made the statement. Art can be “bad” and it can be “good”. It can be cerebral and highbrow and it can be simple and primitive. There are no hard and fast rules with art. Frank Zappa knew it, and you do too.

So we start with nothing and sell art for anywhere from a few to a few thousand dollars. Right off the bat you can see how plagiarism could be big business. Art is a goldmine for a successful copycat.

What does plagiarism mean for the artist?

First, it says to the “copied” artist, “Your work is easily copied.”

In other words, SOMEONE out there feels they can make what you make at less cost, yet at a high enough quality that the buyer is still willing to purchase it.

Without getting into the grindstone of copyrights, patents, and registrations, plagiarism means someone’s work is too simple. Too easy to copy. It is worth someone’s time to plagiarize the work, to steal the idea.

What this means to the artist—the true artist—is that he or she must develop a style or idea that is not easily copied or replicated at a similar or lower cost. The artist either needs to step up the quality of the work or lower the cost of the production.

(And sometimes it’s not even plagiarism, it’s just competition. Art history is packed with stories of artists getting “influencing” by, or “borrowing,” or “rejuvenating” a style of art. Everything comes from somewhere. Nothing is 100% original in art.)

The second point that plagiarism makes—besides saying an artist’s work is easily copied—is actually the ultimate compliment to the original artist.

Plagiarism is a statement from the copy-er that says “Your work is fantastic, I am willing to take what you have done, risk my reputation, and make work better than yours thanks to your trailblazing. I can take what you started and improve it.” After all, if the original work was lousy, who would want to copy it?

Plagiarism at art shows

I do what are called “B” list shows in the art show world. I do some “A” list shows as well, but I prefer the “B” list shows overall because generally—not always, but generally—there is more interest at the smaller shows on the part of the patrons.

They want to see innovation in design, concept, and price. Sometimes people are actually waiting outside the booth before the show begins. They are eager to see what the artists are bringing.

“A” list shows might offer a sense of invincibility, a feeling that one has “made it,” but all too often they’re full of “safe”, non-threatening, boring, stagnant, interior design-friendly work that is formula-driven with less and less of a sense of artistic vision and more a feeling of stamped out, easily copied designs.

The work then becomes a “product” and is more susceptible to copycats and plagiarism.

So how do you beat the copycats?

Copycats are inevitable because someone will always think it’s worth their while to copy your art. Sometimes it’s thievery, and sometimes it’s admiration. The effects of plagiarism can be minimized by innovation, creativity, competition, drive, risk-taking, and increasing the overall quality in your design and execution. Finding more educated consumers will also give a copycat less leverage in stealing your ideas and methods

So take risks, adopt new styles, and try new things. Don’t paint yourself into a corner by clinging to just one style.

Making and selling art is not easy, and copycats will always be a part of that. They’re as inevitable as the evolution of art throughout history. Don’t let it bother you.

Life is tough. Buy a helmet.

To learn more about John Stillmunks and his art, please visit his blog or flickr page.

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