I’ll never forget the first time my creative work was ripped off. It was the summer of 2006. I discovered a designer was trying to claim credit for a brochure I had created. Actually, she was an acquaintance who had designed one page in the piece. But what she featured on her website was not her contribution, but mine—my illustrations, cover art and design—without any credit or explanation. I felt angry and violated. I sent a note requesting my design be removed immediately. Eventually, she agreed. But after a few frustrating e-mails, I realized the problem wasn’t so much malicious intent as it was her confusion about what she could rightfully claim as hers.
It seems there are some blurred notions of what constitutes original work these days. It was brought to the forefront this past year in a viral story in which well-known independent artist Lisa Congdon publicly accused gift wholesaler Cody Foster & Co. of stealing her artwork, copying it for ornament designs and profiting by selling to large retailers. Soon after, however, compelling evidence was discovered that Congdon herself might have traced unlicensed photographs for the basis of her paintings.
Did Congdon commit the same offense as what she charged the company of doing? Nothing has been proven. One could argue that while it appears Cody Foster replicated the artist’s work with little alteration, Congdon reinterpreted the photographs she allegedly traced into something new by adding and subtracting elements with her stylized painting. Still, when her work was superimposed over the photos, the resemblance was striking. If she did, in fact, trace the images and try to claim originality, you could also argue that her actions were as shameful as Cody Foster’s and she should be held equally accountable. Yet artists use reference materials and photographs all the time to help nail perspective and details in their drawings. Perhaps Congdon was simply confused about where inspiration ends and copying begins?
I admit I’ve been a bit jumbled about this. I always thought one of the best ways to learn technique was by emulating the masters. I learned to draw by copying comic strips. As a design student, I had assignments that required me to mirror the style of my favorite designers. And nearly every teacher and creative director encouraged scouring design annuals as a core means of finding inspiration. By the time I started my freelance career, I had spent so many years focused on everyone else’s work that I had lost touch with my own creative voice. I “borrowed” more than I care to admit. I’m not saying this as an excuse, but I can understand how others could potentially get muddled about where to draw the line.
The definition of originality is not exactly clear. Could you ever copy something and claim originality? In a landmark 1992 case, contemporary artist Jeff Koons asserted that one of his sculptures, nearly a dead-on replica of Art Rogers’s copyrighted Puppies photograph, was a parody. While Koons made a few changes and claimed fair use, the court deemed the likeness between the two works to be so undeniable that anyone could tell it was a copy, and Koons lost the lawsuit. However, in photo-realism, a style of painting so precise it’s nearly indistinguishable from photography, tracing someone else’s licensed photograph onto canvas is considered a commonly accepted technique. Does that mean the artwork isn’t wholly unique to the painter? Norman Rockwell, who was also a photo-realist, conceived his own visuals and hired photographers to capture his concept. While it arguably diminishes his work that he traced rather then drew freehand, the artistic vision for the creations was his alone.
Is anything ever truly original? I’ve heard people say, “there are no new ideas,” that everything we see and create is just a remix of past concepts. I think that’s a dangerous sentiment and encourages a lazy attitude: don’t even bother trying to be inventive—because hey, what’s the point? I think that’s hogwash. I get the notion of using existing concepts as creative springboards and I do believe we build upon previous knowledge, but I think there’s a limitless supply of fresh ideas. I see amazing, inspired, innovative work every day. I applaud it, encourage it and want to safeguard it.
The bottom line is, we need clearer standards for what we can rightfully call our own. And with sites like Pinterest and Tumblr making it far easier to share and access images without permission or credit, the urgency is ever more crucial. It’s like we’re playing a game without fully knowing the rules, which makes it that much harder to protect ourselves. And if we, the creators, are unclear, how can we hold ourselves, and our colleagues, accountable? ca
Editor’s note: To further explore the complex issues of originality and copyright as it pertains to your own work, we recommend reading the excellent resource list and in-depth follow-up of the Congdon case compiled by artist and writer Katherine Tyrrell in her blog, Making a Mark