Is this a copy? Or “inspired by”?

Just when the latest brouhaha and accusations about copying and copyright infringement dies down, another one will start up and bad feelings fester. Angry posts and harsh comments get written. It’s awful. It’s awful for us to read about and it’s an awful time for the people involved. But it’s also awful for the poor hobbyist who looks at her inspiration pictures on Pinterest and then looks at her most recent creation and then hears a nagging voice in her head, “Is this a copy? Is this my artwork?” Her pride at making something new starts to crumble as she doubts herself, doubts her creativity, and even worse, wonders if she has violated some law. How can you tell if what you just made is a copy? Here are my thoughts on the subject, and a very glaring example.

I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here and talk about copyright law. I’ve discussed that before and you can find the answers to many of your questions on that really epic post. There’s even a handy flowchart that helps summarize and make a confusing topic more clear. Today I’m just going to talk about the ethics. Manners. And that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you know something’s just not right.

I’m a copier. Oh yes I am!

When I started playing with polymer clay in 2001, I didn’t know anything beyond the information included in the Sculpey frog kit that I bought for my kids. Soon I saw some polymer bracelets in a gift shop in our town and I realized this material could be so much more. I looked online, found some instructions, and began to play. I found Polymer Clay Central and worked through the listed tutorials like a steamroller, making identical copies of the tutorial examples. I learned SO much. It was fantastic and I never once gave the issue of copying a second thought. After all, I was just having fun. But I had an insatiable desire, and pretty soon ran out of tutorials. And ideas. And I started looking at the work of artists I admired, deconstructing and reverse engineering their work, improving my skills as I went along. Does this sound familiar? (I thought so.)

Soon someone told me that I should sell my work in a craft show. Being a single mother, I was really interested in making some money, so I went into production mode and filled boxes with beads and bracelets and votives and switchplates and pens. But I wanted to have some higher dollar items, too, so I took a polymer clay clock off my wall and put it on my craft table, with a hefty price tag on it. I didn’t really want it to sell. And do you know why? Because I knew, deep down, that it was wrong. I knew that THIS particular clock was a copy.

Copied polymer clay clock, done as a copy of Irene Semanchuk's tiled clock.

You see, it was a copy of a tiled clock made by Irene Semanchuk in 2001. It wasn’t just “inspired by”. It was a copy. I came home after that show and had a hard talk with myself about the integrity of my work. I realized that I didn’t feel guilty about copying other artists for my own education, practice, and entertainment. But I did feel guilty about showing that clock in public. Even if nobody at that craft show had ever seen Irene’s clock. It was wrong to pass that clock off as my work, and that feeling in the pit of my stomach told me so. That clock has lived on the wall in my living room ever since (even if the clock mechanism died several years ago).

Tiled clock by Irene Semanchuk, 2001.
This tiled clock was made in 2001 by Irene Semanchuk of Good Night Irene and she holds the copyright to the design and the photograph. Photo is used under Fair Use Provision to illustrate and examine the ethics of copying.

Lessons Learned from Copying

But making that copy of Irene’s clock taught me some lessons. A lot of them, actually, and not just about copying. I learned:

  • About the fine line between copying and inspiration
  • How to make faux ivory, faux fossils, mica shift, and antiquing.
  • UTEE turns cloudy over time.
  • Mosaics need a firm base. Using polymer clay won’t work. It bends and flexes under its own weight
  • Bead spacers make good embeds into polymer clay.
  • You don’t need to seal polymer clay.
  • Cheap clock mechanisms won’t last.
  • Standard clock hands don’t match the style of very many things.
  • Mosaics work better if the sheets they’re made from are all the same thickness.
  • It’s really hard to do things as well as a pro, even when you DO try to copy.

That experience led me to make new clocks after that, inspired by Irene’s basic shapes and concept. These clocks are most certainly not a copy and are my own work. Here they are.

Blue flowered mosaic clock.

Silver mica shift mosaic clock made from polymer clay. Mosaic clock made with polymer clay.

What Makes a Copy?

So…why is the first clock a copy and the others aren’t? Well, first off…I knew I was copying when I made it. It was intentional. I looked at the picture of Irene’s clock when I made mine. If you’ll look at the two clocks, there are differences, of course. But the overall design is the same. I made specific design and aesthetic choices to mimic Irene’s clock. Notice the distribution of the blocks, the colors used, the details. It’s a copy. There are so many other ways I could have taken the design had I not been trying to rely on Irene’s experience to create “my” design. You see…I USED her intellectual property to create a copy of her design. Not an exact copy, but the essence of the design was copied.

I see techniques in the other clocks that are created by other artists…why aren’t those copies, too? There’s mica shift, TrueLeigh Rose Cane, the Chrysanthemum Cane, and the Hydrangea Cane. And I used some commercially available texture sheets, too. Those aren’t my own techniques (or art), doesn’t that make this a copy? Well, no. Nobody owns a technique. And when someone creates a tutorial for others to use, there’s nothing wrong with using that technique in your work. It’s like buttons you sew onto clothes that you make. It’s a material. Like beads in a necklace. And while giving credit to the writers of the tutorials for those techniques is a kind and polite thing to do, it’s not necessary. As for copying, it’s only a design that can be copied anyway, and when you look at the three lower clocks there is no way that you could say the design is Irene’s. Or anyone else’s, really. I’m sure that they’re accidentally very similar to designs by many other people who made tiled mosaic clocks back in the early 2000’s. We all learn from each other after all! But these are not a copy of a specific design.

Many fine artists want to make sure that their designs are as close to 100% their own creation as possible, so they don’t use any commercially available stamps, texture sheets, image transfers, silkscreens, etc. And they don’t use techniques that are taught in tutorials. (Except for the basics like jellyroll canes and skinner blends.)  Though many artists do. But that doesn’t mean you’re “breaking the rules” if you do. Those parts are not truly, completely and technically your own design, but there’s no reason you have to think you’re copying just because you’ve used borrowed elements in your work.

Copying vs Inspiration

Copying is when you intentionally imitate something, making the same holistic design choices as the original artist. It really doesn’t matter if the techniques, the materials, or even the colors are the same or not. If the overall feeling of the design is the same, it’s a copy.

Using the same techniques as another artist or even doing something in the same style as another is not necessarily copying. When I look at Irene’s clock, I see many techniques that I use in my work today. But unless I’m copying the design itself, unless I’m plagiarizing another artist’s design, then there’s nothing wrong with it. We all bring elements into our work that we learned from watching nature, the work of others, and even the work of the classical masters.

Still confused? Still not quite sure if something’s a copy or not? That’s because it’s not a black and white issue that can be immediately determined. Judgement is involved, and any 10 people can have 10 different opinions about anything. But rather than worry about shades of gray, rest assured that if you’re trying to do your own original work, chances are high that you ARE doing your own work. In most cases, someone knows if they’re copying, just like I knew I copied this clock.

Is Copying a Bad Thing?

Keep in mind that we all copy when we learn anything new. It’s a way of removing difficult design considerations while we learn technique and process. There’s nothing wrong with this. And it’s part of a healthy learning process. Know that your own art will be something that grows from these early copying exercises. If you’re still in the copying phase of learning, that’s fine…keep working on it. And keep growing! You’ll soon be making work that you’re absolutely sure is 100% your own.

And if you make something you think might be too strongly influenced by another artist, then by all means enjoy that art for yourself. There’s no need to share it as your own work. Just like my copied clock on the wall, you can still love what you made.

22 thoughts on “Is this a copy? Or “inspired by”?”

  1. Thank you GInger for this article. Your honesty is refreshing and brings clarity to a confusing situation, especially for beginners like me. The previous longer article was clear too and explained all we need to know, but this real life example is very, very helpful.
    Best wishes for a creative 2015!

  2. Well said. Being original is not always easy when exposed to so much and with so many artists out there, but if you pay attention to what your heart is telling you you KNOW how you came up with your design! Thanks for taking the time to elaborate on this sticky issue. Luv

  3. I get so much inspiration from all the beautiful artwork I see and if I feel a piece is the ‘”flavor” of the work of another artist I make sure to list them as my inspiration. But usually after the first piece or so I add my own ingredients and I feel the work becomes my own. I use what I have in my generous stash of supplies and my own eye takes over.

  4. Melissa Terlizzi

    Well said. I was very recently burned by this. I was scrolling through FB and saw a photo of something I made a couple years ago pop up on another person’s post. The woman was copying the piece and turning them into Christmas ornaments. She used my image to describe her ornaments, which of course, led people to believe that the work in the photo was hers. I was sick over it.

    In the end, I don’t believe the woman meant any harm. She wasn’t making them to sell, and is, as you put it, “in the learning stages” of polymer clay. She apologized and I’ll leave it at that. However, what really made me angry was that when I asserted that the work was mine, and pointed out that it is wrong to pass another’s work off as your own, there were people who blasted me. I was accused of being a bully, a ‘pot stirrer,’ and of getting upset when really I should feel flattered that my work is admired enough to be imitated. That day the rose colored glasses were ripped off my face.

    I agree with you completely–we learn new things best by imitation, and none of us makes art in a vacuum. But I truly believe that the best original art comes from an artist’s heart and imagination–copies will never have that same spark.

    Thank you for continuing to raise awareness about these sorts of things that matter to our community!

  5. Very interesting subject Ginger, and one that touches us all I think.

    I saw a stamp, stencil or mould of a tribal mask a few months ago, the mask was one part of a set of things all on one sheet or set of masks, I can’t remember where I saw it, or in what connection. But I love making little faces, usually ugly ones, like the Easter Island heads, and the next time I was making heads/faces, I found myself making one like the ‘tribal’ face I’d seen.

    I think it was a set of masks, with perhaps a palm tree as part of it but I can’t remember.

    I wasn’t looking at the moulds, stencils or stamps while I made the head/mask, but once finished I felt that it looked too like my memory of the photo for me to be entirely happy to show anyone the result, certainly not happy to sell it.

    But I can’t find the picture of the mould set (or stamp or whatever it was) anywhere, so I can’t satisfy myself as to how divergent my effort actually is.
    So all I can do is hide my ‘tribal’ face.

    So what should I do in a case like this?

    1. franontheedge, what you described sounds very much like a mold that I have from Penni Jo Couch at Best Flexible Molds. It is called Tahiti Treasures and includes a tribal mask, some Tiki beads, and a palm tree among other things. I don’t know if you will see this reply since it has been a while since you posted, but I completely understand when you can’t find the original source for something because I have tried without success to find the book that got me started in polymer clay many years ago. So, here is a link to Penni Jo’s page for that mold. I hope this is the one you are looking for! http://polyclayplay.com/molds-tahiti-treasures/

  6. Fredrica Van Sant

    Hi Ginger…your article…good thinking; good advice.
    I would just like to make a comment related to the subject. Sometimes I see something I love that sends me straight to my work table…for example, a small flower painting done by an extremely prolific artist who sells like crazy.
    Now, as I take out a piece of 100 lb. watercolor paper, and get out my watercolors, perhaps start with a similar basic color – all hell breaks loose, and my little similar copy takes on a life of its own. I go with it and when done (a quick and dirty little experiment) nothing in it remotely resembles the piece that got me started…it just took on a life of my own creation.. This isn’t just a happenstance, it always happens…much as I might try, I cannot copy, but I do appreciate inspiration to get me to work. What point I am making, is that it is wonderful to use someone’s art as an inspiration. Actually painstakingly copying demeans ones own artistry.

  7. This article comes at just the right time for me. I recently found one of my photos shared on Facebook with the simple statement: “Should I make these?” I didn’t know this person, wasn’t familiar with her work, etc, so I commented that I hoped she would be inspired by my work but not copy it. That was it. What I got in response was friends of hers flaming me, calling me rude, and that I had a lot of nerve… with a follow-up from the original sharer insulting my work in the photo she had shared. Oiy!

    I will be referring to your article, with a link, if this ever happens to me again. Thank you for your eloquent thoughts on such a touchy subject.

    Kate Tracton

  8. Teresa Pandora Salgado

    Thank you so much for all you do. My stand on copyright remains the same: Regarding my art and designs: Everyone, everywhere can use anything of mine, any time. I’m a teacher first, so If you’re making something I taught you, I’ve succeeded.

    1. Thank you Pandora. Personally, I’m a believer in sharing as well. But the devil’s advocate in me wants to pose a question. How would you feel if someone re-uploaded your videos with their own branding on their own channel? I think too often the very real problem of IP theft gets glossed over in our community because people a)want to share freely and b)focus too much on copied style. I’ve actually had people tell me that I don’t have a right to sell my tutorials because everything should be shared freely. But see…there are limits to that! Interesting line of thoughts, no? Thank YOU for all the sharing that you do, too. Isn’t this just about the most fun you’ve ever had doing anything? 🙂

      1. This is a terrific topic and very timely for me.

        I think Teresa is unbelievably generous in that attitude. I love her videos and watch them more than once because, especially as a beginner with polymer clay I miss things; I recently shifted over from ceramic pottery to polymer clay with the idea of making jewelry that I would sell.

        I’d been making faux mosaic plates in ceramics (no grout so they’d still be functional) and when I saw Teresa’s caning patterns, such beautiful mosaic mirrors, I felt that polymer clay could be my new home, it just doesn’t get any more gorgeous than what she can do. (Though it will be ages before I master the caning process!)

        And, I read Laurie Mika’s Mixed Media Mosaics and started working at it immediately – felt much more accessible. I ended up making some pieces that I really felt proud of; then realized they were copies. ;-( It turns out my artistic sensibility was more like Laurie’s than I had realized – even though I used my own hand made ceramic stamps for patterns they were very similar to Laurie’s. I don’t know – it’s only a few pieces, but now I’m not so sure I can sell them; plus that was where I learned how to imbed beads.

        I want to make mosaic patterns but am thinking alot about whether or not what I do will end up just being copies of others’ and of Laurie’s work specifically. I bought lots of Gilders Paste and its the same colorations that she uses.

        I’ve read all the posts and replies, and am really feeling in a quandry over this issue. I do see lots of re-creations of styles and patterns of polymer clay work all over the place as is also true with much of ceramic pottery.

        I’ve got lots of thinking/soul searching to do here.

        Thanks for this article as well as the many others!!!

        1. It’s a hard one, isn’t it? Bottom line, though, is that you have to remember that similar techniques and color palettes are going to give very similar appearing works. But as your art expands and advances, however, you will begin to go past that and not rely on techniques but on the intended outcome. Soon, each piece will be more than a collection of techniques, but will begin to take a life of its own. That’s when art begins, and your voice will come through.

  9. Pingback: Co wolno, co należy, a czego nie robić nigdy – prawa i zwyczaje autorskie | Polskie Rękodzieło

  10. I’m really keen to make some mosaic clocks, but seeing you say to not use polyclay as a base, I wonder what you ended up using, and what you used to stick the clay to the base?

    1. Polymer clay will work as a base, but it’s flexible and tends to droop. For subsequent clocks, I applied the baked tiles to a wooden base using glue. That way I could paint the bases to match the tiles.

  11. Thank you Ginger,

    You wrote an excellent article on a topic that I have seen resurfacing for 25 years. Here’s my contribution because no one should struggle with guilt or restrain themselves creatively. Of course we have to copy – just to see if we can do it. We can’t (do it), not really. The resulting work is only derivative and underdeveloped. So we have to invest the time and personal expression before it becomes our own work.

    We all receive the creative gifts of others each and every day. What speaks to us is meant for us. It is our own path that matters, so embrace that path – including all the ‘ways’ we get there. We are a community and that energy flows through all of us. It is not something we can separate, control or squelch. We learn constantly from things we see, even in subconscious. Pinterest has made infinite concepts available, but you can still tell what is fresh or original and what is a knock off. But when someone takes a concept or technique I recognize – and makes it their own – I can see that too. That knowledge comes with years of exposure, it is impossible for someone new to the field to differentiate.

    I can tell you that I am terrified of people copying me! I have great investment in much of what I produce because ultimately it’s my income. Guess what – my worry is futile, distracting and unproductive. As some of the comments have revealed – calling someone out, opposition or accusation can backfire, as a host of support comes from friends of the offender – no matter what the circumstance.

    Videos? Stamps? Templates? Fairies? The list is long. What’s to stop anyone from doing exactly what I am and be better at it? Sometimes I am afraid to open Facebook and see that someone has released the very things lying on my design table (with no cross exposure at all). I’ve covered tea pots with clay – do I ‘own’ that? Would I have ‘owned’ that if I were first? Who ‘owns’ covering a teapot? Do I own it because they are ‘my’ fantasy images? I think not. It’s certainly annoying if someone says (before I’ve even made a sale) – hey! what a great idea! – I think I’ll use that concept…… It hurts in a fundamental way because I haven’t even recuperated my investment before it’s grasped by another. Sometimes that generates a great discouragement. But it’s only fear and if I am looking over my shoulder, I can’t move forward. One lesson I’ve learned, the customer doesn’t usually know or care (Ouch!). In most cases, they are purchasing what lies before them, not it’s history.

    A patchwork clock is somewhat familiar to me and I have seen countless renditions over time – but Irene intentionally made it her canvas and voice. I believe it is excellent marketing directed towards a specific audience. Her work resonates with a lot of people, especially because of her craftsmanship and choice of subject matter. Now Ginger has recognized what resonates within her and made a clock that reflects her own voice and that will speak to people that hear ‘her’ song. She worked diligently to put her song into it – by her own self discovery, without following the ‘rules’ of adjusting features by copyright law. It comes down to personal integrity – who wants to be an identity thief? Some will – for instant gratification, money or praise. In the long run, they are usually exposed.

    Dress makers, musicians, architects, all receive influence and outright replicate bits and pieces of what has been done before. Creativity doesn’t stagnate. It moves and grows and doesn’t remember who initiated the process. Creativity isn’t exclusive to anyone. We are more alike than different and it’s very natural that even with ‘trying’ to be different we end up in the shadow of our mentors. But Geez, do you really want to be someone else? Do you want their face, their touch? Their thoughts? No, that’s absurd. I promise, your own identity is lurking beneath the process, even if you are creating the same ‘thing’. Keep creating.- until it surfaces. You will know when it arrives.

    Be kind! Be grateful for your influences. Be respectful. Be open – absorb everything. Trust in your own expression, don’t compare and don’t resent others getting there first. There is room for everyone. Reach, Discover, Experiment, Grow. Be true to your heart’s desires. Trust in yourself and believe that is good ENOUGH. That is when your art will emerge and resonate as you – no matter what the influence.

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