I’ve been hesitant to write this blog post for fear that it would be taken the wrong way, but the truth of the matter is, we need to talk about the conversation around creating original work and copying.
My creative law firm has officially been up and running for five months now, and as I’ve said before, my most frequent potential client issue has been copying. The people who come to me either have been copied, are afraid of wanting to be copied, or are fearful that their work potentially too closely coincides with another creatives’. Honestly, I always get off of those calls so proud of those people, regardless of whether or not they turn into clients, simply because they are actually taking action to rectify the situation. For that, they have my respect.
But then, there are those moments online (I’m looking at you, Instagram and Facebook groups), that make me cringe. Talk of copying, seeing someone’s work who just maybe might resemble the accuser’s (with no follow-up action), or lamenting the fact that nothing in the creative industry is original anymore just drive me crazy as an attorney.
Don’t get me wrong: copying, clearly borrowed work, etc needs to be called out when it happens. But if all you are doing is talking about it, yet you refuse to do anything about it…therein lies the problem. And I’m not just talking about an abstract, ethical problem…much of the time, what I see is defamation-i.e., the tort you can be taken to court for.
I mentioned this frustration to my business coach and friend, Katie O. Selvidge this summer, and she immediately related. Katie has a unique perspective on the issue of originality in the creative industry due in large part to her role as the founder and editor of Cottage Hill Magazine, Editors Course, and a business coach for creative entrepreneurs. As Katie noted when I sat down to speak with her, there is such an interesting dynamic and the intense conversation of copying as well as our authentic support for the #communityovercompetition movement.
When it comes to copying, Katie and I find ourselves coming back to the same quote:
I believe in the #communityovercompetition movement wholeheartedly- I’ve carved out time almost monthly since I started my firm to prepare resources for the Rising Tide Society, and I personally can trace my path to starting my own practice to getting connected with the RTS online, and getting involved in my local Tuesdays Together groups. However, I also believe that being a good steward of your work means 1.creating original work, 2. Taking all necessary steps to protect that work, and 3. sometimes this means you have to compete with yourself to become the best possible artist.
On Being A Higher Artist
I believe wholeheartedly that part of having integrity in your work means protecting it in every way that you can. I’ve made a career out of it, in fact! But that being said, I believe that many of us get so centered on the idea of fearing copycats around every corner, that we forget to focus on what matters most: creating.
I know that is an unpopular statement to make, and likely polarizing to many, but once you put those initial safeguards in place, it’s time to just put your head down and do the work. Is it possible that you could create your best work, and someone might try to borrow for it? Yes. Could your best work be somewhat similar to someone else’s? Yep. Is it possible to protect your business in those instances? Absolutely.
Being a higher artist just means creating what is truthful for you. As Katie so succinctly summarized, if your focus is on those around you and you become paranoid about being original, you’ll be distracted from being a higher artist. Your focus is in the wrong place. On the other hand, if you’re honest with yourself and really ask yourself what your honest, truthful opinion is, you’ll be original without even trying. And the more original, i.e. truthful, your work is, the harder it will be to replicate by copycats.
Stay competitive with yourself, and continually ask yourself what you can do to raise the bar of your work. This is a message I have to tell myself: honestly, when I started my own business I was absolutely paranoid about seeming too similar to the handful of other creative attorneys out there. I was absolutely obsessed with trying to be different. However, that just left me frustrated and distracted at the end of the day, and it wasn’t until I just focused on just raising the bar on my work a little higher than it was the day before that I started experiencing progress.
The Hard Truth
Here’s what I’ve been hesitant to say: Many times when I see people say that they are being copied, they’re just adding to the noise of a hot-button topic, or in a worst-case scenario, opening themselves up to liability for defamation.
First, as Katie and I talked about in our chat, the role of the artist is to observe the world around them and use their art to translate or create a commentary on what they see. Therefore, if we’re influenced by the same confluence of events, it’s natural for us to have similar responses, and create works derivative of similar influences.
I’ve found one very quick way to discern whether or not someone has actually been copied: they will take the necessary steps to protect themselves. It will happen once, and then you’ll see them put the appropriate documents on their website, register their trademarks, confront the copycat, etc. Now, if my only purpose in writing this article is to lament the fact that artists are just complaining too much about originality and copycats, that’d be highly ironic of me, wouldn’t it? Not to mention, a little sanctimonious.
Here is why I’m taking the risk of rocking the boat a bit: a lot of times when I see creatives raising these concerns in online platforms, it crosses a line into the realm of defamation. Written defamation is a tort called libel- a published false statement that is damaging to a person’s reputation. This is something that could land you in court. Aside from discussions on professionalism, this is a huge factor behind me telling my clients not to share about their stories of copying online, or to do so conservatively. If it furthers a discussion or has a positive impact in some way, that’s fine, but many times we see it, it doesn’t.
Photo by Avner Road Photography, Florals by Brooke Olsen Consulting. Claims about copycats seem to be especially prevalent
among florists, where artists are dependent on seasonal supplies to create arrangements.
The paradox is, of course, that in order to be a responsible business owner, you do need to protect yourself from being copied, or from inadvertently becoming too heavily influenced by someone else’s work. However, if your work is too “heavily borrowed” from, but you choose not to take action or change things for the future, then just adding to the noise accomplishes nothing, other than compromising you as a professional.
From the unique vantage point of being both an attorney and a creative, I would challenge you to take the high road of “a higher artist”. By this, I mean be discerning, but disciplined with your reaction. Reach out to them in a careful, non-accusatory manner to begin. I’ve even written out exactly what you need to say here. Just as Katie told in her own example, by reaching out to the person who crossed the line with Cottage Hill, she was able amicably fix the issue by the next day.
If you are able to create from a place of honest originality, you don’t need to feel deterred from creating something that might be somewhat similar to another person. Of course, take that with a grain of salt- but remember that spending all of our time focusing so hard on not copying one another just pulls us in circles and keeps us from truly creating. If the line is crossed between originality and copying, take action to fix the situation first- and then only share about the experience when it serves a tangible purpose.
What are your thoughts? Do you think I’ve oversimplified a larger issue in the creative world, or do you think the word “copycat” is used a little too liberally right now? I’d love to hear your thoughts- let me know in the comments below!