Monday, October 4, 2010


I've been mulling over my thoughts for this post for a while now-- so much has been written in the past couple of months in the jewelry world about copying, infringement of ideas, theft of intellectual property, etc. As an artist who works primarily in polymer, I was feeling a bit smug as our little piece of the artistic pie has been relatively free from these sorts of public spats. The polymer world is well-known for its art retreats, dating almost from the introduction of the medium, where polymer people get together to work and freely share ideas and techniques.

But lately there's been trouble in Paradise. An officer of the International Polymer Clay Association wrote an article for the October issue of the IPCA newsletter that pretty baldly wondered what the big deal was about copying another artist's work and selling that product once the artist had shared their technique for it in a publication. Nan Roche, a pioneer in polymer and author of one of the first important books on polymer technique, made some very clear distinctions about what constitutes copying in her article published back in 1999. She talks about what is and isn't public domain: techniques are, subject matter is and combinations of colors and/or particular shapes are. But she cautions that “The problem arises when one uses a particular technique+subject matter+color/shape in the same configuration as a particular artist. It stands to reason that if you combine all the same components in the same way, it's going to look very closely like the original artists' work.” I think it's pretty much common sense that it's a no-no to sell this product, publish it or teach it. But here's another reason why it's really a bad idea to do this.

Luann Udell, in her excellent and informative blog, responds directly to the IPCA article in the organization's newsletter and references her insightful blog post, titled “What is the Story only you can tell?
She wonders about people who copy and why they would want to substitute someone else's story for their own powerful and wonderful one. As she says “ YOU, is a story that only YOU can tell.
Because it is YOUR story. It happened to YOU. And it changed you--how you look at life, how you look at yourself, where you fit into the world.”

I interpret this to mean, when you copy, you basically rip yourself off, even worse than you've ripped off the artist that you've stolen from. Your piece has no "authentic voice", it's just a manipulation of objects or colors, it has nothing of you in it.

Personally, I find it impossible to copy anyone's work exactly. I always have to do my own thing. I love to look at other people's work, I find it a very rich source of ideas but I never want to copy it. The first thing I think is “oh, that's a good idea” and my very next thought is of what I can do with it to make it my own. Usually the idea inspires something completely new, not derivative in any sense. It just jogs my own imagination and creativity. Just as the natural world does this for me, inspiring me to try colors and textures in my work. I've seen some blog posts lately in which people claim that they keep their art “pure” by not looking at others' published work in popular magazines. That's just limiting and you're deluding yourself if you think that you're not noticing what's out there around you.

So I've been wondering to myself, what is the antidote to all this angst in art? What positive statement can I make to address this worry about what's mine vs what's yours? So I decided to recruit my old friend, Collaboration! In my Flickr surfing lately I've discovered two polymer artists whose work I really admire and adore and so I asked the two of them if they would like to collaborate on some pieces together and they cheerfully agreed. This first piece was designed around the folk-arty and sculptural cat focal of Rebecca Watkins  (ArtyBecca) for my annual Hallowe'en necklace, joined by the quirky and stylish beads of Claire Maunsell (StillPointWorks). Both these ladies have techniques that I thought would complement my own aesthetic, while at the same time, would inspire some beads by me that would meld their styles into something entirely new.

KatManDo necklace collaboration

It's titled after Rebecca's name for her cat/man focal bead. The long textured beads in black, white and gray are by Claire, and I also used some of Rebecca's gold textured beads with integral metal loops and a long ivory one in the design. After adding three chunky, textured and highly antiqued beads I newly made to coordinate with my collaborators' pieces, I ransacked my older beads for some with red accents and made some wire-wrapped and beaded sticks to add color and texture. After watching a tutorial by Maggie Maggio on making polymer links for a necklace that I found on Cynthia Tinapple's blog, Polymer Clay Daily, I experimented with making my own interpretation and created textured black antiqued links for the focal's bail.

"Ritual" -  earrings

With the clay left over from my beads I made these, adding Dalmation jasper to the copper dangles and finished them with handmade copper earwires and coils. My collaboration buddies have spurred both my interest in and experimentation with texture and antiquing and I've been just knocking the work out so expect to see more in the next few blogs.

So I think we can all play together nicely if we just respect each other's stories and celebrate our own. Simple, isn't it?


  1. What a wonderful post Christine. I agree, who would want to copy one's work verbatim? I love having my own voice in my pieces. The necklace is "to die for"...the earrings too!

  2. I feel the same way as you do...very well said :) Thank you!

  3. I've heard fellow jewelry artists give some pretty strange justifications for copying. When I commented that a bracelet in a booth looked like I made it, she said "Oh yeah, I made that bracelet like you showed me." (We had been hanging out beading. I didn't give a class or demo. I realized later how many questions she had asked and I had willingly answered.)

    Another acquaintance says "artists learn by copying the greats like Picasso or Renoir, so I can copy other artists." I have (almost) no problem with people copying to learn a technique. I am getting more militant every day about someone selling something she/he copied as if it's an original work.

    I used to be very willing to share information. I've learned the hard way that some people want to pick your brain and will suddenly become deaf and ignorant when you ask them something.

    I'll stop before I get on my soapbox...

    I LOVE the collaboration piece in your post (and I will not copy it).

  4. Well said, as always, Christine. I appreciate your informed approach to this topic, thank you for sharing them.
    Your new pieces are fabulous. KatManDo has such a nice weight to it with fantastic colors and that great cat/man focal. I love it! And your Ritual earrings are are a texture and pattern rock star. :-) They look ancient and yet they were created in the here and now! I'd love to see these two pieces enlarged to see all of their amazing details!

  5. Great post, Christine!
    I guess everyone would agree that intentionally copying someone's work is not okay.
    Love your collaboration with Rebecca Watkins and Claire Maunsell! The finished piece is so rich in texture and pattern and colour! Love the bail and the earrings!

  6. Beautifully said, Christine! The thoughts flow when they're your own ... amazing how that happens. I've had some similar instances as those of Carol Bradley. It's downright discouraging ... but I don't see it changing. Besides, the only thing we can change is ourselves and our attitudes towards things. Love the necklace ... there are so many things .... the branches, the scary pumpkin ... the rest of the beautiful beads ... just too much to mention!

  7. I don't know how, but I have missed your last two posts, dear! My reader must not be working hard for me...

    Very insightful, probing and informative. I especially love how you turned this conundrum into a celebration of collaboration. You created an absolutely stunning piece that references all the styles of the artists involved. You know how I feel about collaboration and the power that it brings to all the parties involved!

    'It just jogs my own imagination and creativity.' Precisely. There is inspiration everywhere but you need to tell your own story for it to be yours. If you feel the need to copy something bead by bead beyond the mastery of the concept then you have a fundamental lack of confidence in your abilities. It mystifies me that someone who should know better like the IPCA VP would say something so callous. It is outrageous really.

    I also believe very strongly that publications have a responsibility to not only provide the step by step instructions, but also lend equal time and weight to following your own inner voice and making it your own. We all have the God-given gift of creativity but at some point we lose the ability to see it or trust in it. So it is a skill that needs to be honed in order to develop your own style, your unique story. I know that publications say in some fine print that you can only use these instructions for learning purposes and not for resale. And I also believe that most people are not malicious but rather ill-informed. We all need to speak out about it and add our voice to the clamor. I would like to see regular features in popular trade magazines that challenge readers to interpret styles that they see. Wouldn't that be a cool thing to see?

    Thank you for writing something instructive and inspiring at the same time. And also thank you for continuing to put your beauty into the world.

    Enjoy the day, Christine!

  8. I do agree with you, basically, about copying, but I think some people are making much ado about very little. If it's actually cutting into your profit, you have every right to object to it.

    That said, it's inevitable that if someone likes one of your pieces enough to spend money on it, others will like the same pieces enough to copy them. It's a fact of life...and art!

    I have a friend who was chastised by someone who teaches a certain paper arts project at large conventions. My friend had returned to her hometown and taught the same project to several people, and yes, she did make money on that class. The woman who teaches at conventions found out about it and blew up, accusing my friend of cutting into her livelihood. But that woman has no plans whatsoever to come to our town and teach the project, and the women in my friend's class aren't interested in investing the time and money to go to large conventions to take classes. My friend did not cut into the first woman's livelihood, as the woman's market and the local market don't intersect. While I can understand having a tug at one's heartstrings to hear that one's work is being done somewhere else by someone else, that's a reality of any creative endeavor. If it genuinely is taking revenue away, that's one thing, and a very legitimate concern. But there are a lot of popular beaders right now who are raking in substantial profits, while whining about being copied by people who are making very little money at all.

    I recently bought a tutorial by a woman I admire very much. She's got a statement in the back of it about not selling anything we do with that method, unless it's incorporated into our own jewelry. She sells the components she makes with the method, and doesn't want anyone else competing with her. It's reasonable for her to expect others not to directly compete in the same marketplace she uses, but if I decide to sell some components locally, I don't think she has any right to object. Whenever you put yourself and your work "out there", you have to expect some use of your ideas if they're good. You have a right to protect your income, too. But if it's not directly competing with what you're doing, move on!

  9. While I agree that it's a "fact of life" that other people may copy your work, especially if it's been published in a magazine or book, ethically it's NOT ok to do more than make one for yourself. Know that the person you're copying has worked hard to perfect that technique and for you to learn it and then make a direct copy without any of your own style and ideas and sell it OR-- worse yet, teach it-- is just artistically and morally corrupt. It's theft, plain and simple. I can only guess that in order to justify your friend's actions you yourself have never taken the hours and days and maybe weeks to develop a concept and then work up the materials list, handouts, etc. to teach it. I've worked very hard designing my classes to give excellent value for the money my students pay me. The real reward for me, however, is the joy that I get from teaching and the inspiration that comes from working with students that are keen to learn and develop their creative talents. This is true for most teachers. How would you feel if you were teaching a class and everytime you thought of an interesting or helpful tip to give out you stopped yourself, thinking "I'll just keep that one for myself" so you could protect a bit of your intellectual property, knowing that your class would probably show up on one of the numerous sites online that sell tutorials that have been copied from magazines and books with no attribution to the originator. I can't believe that you could justify your friend's behavior by thinking that it doesn't infringe on the instructor's financial territory! In this virtual world economy with blogs and websites and social networking, the whole world marketplace is your territory. When my good friends Cindy Wimmer and Jeanette Blix realized that there were no art retreats available in the DC area, they put a positive spin on the lack of venues and created their own, ArtBliss-- and believe me, they worked hard so that people in their area could benefit from classes with nationally-known teachers. They didn't just grab a copy of Belle Armoire Jewelry and round up some locals to teach a class based on an article in it.

    And stating that Shannon LeVart has “no right to object” to you selling components made by using the techniques in her informative e-book as long as you're not directly competing in her marketplace-- since Etsy is online and available to millions of people worldwide, I'm assuming you must live on Mars! Why don't you do as Luann Udell suggests in her blog post, support the artist whose work you claim to admire and don't steal her work-- buy it and tell your friends about her great components available on Etsy. And for crying out loud, don't go and make copies of the tutorial for all your friends! Do you see how insidious this lack of respect for her hard work becomes? Use her techniques, make your own pieces and sell them if you need to. But I have to strongly and passionately disagree with you that this is acceptable behavior!

  10. Thanks so much for posting. You're exactly right talking about each person finding what their voice has to contribute to the conversation.

  11. I wholeheartedly agree with Christine--there is no sin in copying another artis'ts work you admire in order to learn and broaden your own horizons, but when you make commerical use of it, presenting it as your own design, technique, inspiration--you're plagarizing--cut and dried. We live in a global market, and the notion that you're not competing directly with an artist because they haven't physically come to your town is mere sophistry.If it walks like a duck, honey, it IS a duck.

    If you must rationalize your behavior in realizing commercial gain from the efforts of another artist, at least have the decency to acknowledge your source, and the courtesy to ask the artist if they would like a royalty!

  12. Jenny,
    You have made an inaccurate statement about the tutorial you purchased from me.
    In your comment above you said;

    "She's got a statement in the back of it about not selling anything we do with that method, unless it's incorporated into our own jewelry. She sells the components she makes with the method, and doesn't want anyone else competing with her."

    The statement I wrote, copied directly from the text document, which you are misrepresenting here, is as follows;

    "Jewelry items you create using this tutorial may be sold for profit as long as they remain handmade.
    Selling components you have created using this tutorial will put you in the place of a competitor for So consider the pros and cons carefully before making that decision.
    Much Love & Respect,
    Shannon LeVart"

    Both sentences are well within my rights.
    Please research copyright laws here

    Keep in mind, I have yet to break even from the investment I have made into bringing the patina-ted technique to the handmade jewelry community.

    Legally, I would not be able to stop someone from offering patina-ted supplies. Ethically, they should search for ways to create their own techniques.

    There are so many ways to make this your own; change things, move it in another direction, add your own personal story to it, why would you want to churn out patina-ted supplies when the market is open for so much more?

    Even more distressing, why would you act so friendly over emails we exchanged, asking about my husbands health, and then speak about me in this manner? You know what we are going through as a family and you know I am fighting for my family's survival.

    This is how I am making a living.

    Why should you go right into making a profit off this technique when I am still trying to break even and hopefully begin to profit before the year is over?

    Where is the admiration in that?

  13. I am glad someone finally broached this subject - of using someone else's ideas for their own profit.
    I have noticed that there are people, well, one in particular, that will take an idea that is shared by someone else on the internet for FREE - and then offer it at HER OWN and charge for it. There is not much difference in the techniques. It is pathetic that she is taking advantage of people that don't know how to use search engines all that well, but, it is even worse that she is taking an idea that was not hers, and is then presenting to the world as hers, sometimes adding a catchy name, and profiting off of it.
    The anthropological argument can be made for the collective unconscious and that fire was not invented by only one person at one time at one place a gazillion yrs ago.
    But...i'll bet the firestarter in the North didn't name the fire after himself, or charge the other prehistoric peoples for instructions on how to start fire.

    This analogy reminds me of an idea for some jewelry I came up with this summer- June to be exact. I posted hints about it on Facebook, and made drawing of it in my notebook. Now, I see something very similar. What do I do? Am I precluded from making something I thought up months ago....


  14. Back in 2010, I was that 'officer' of the IPCA, who wrote the piece in question. It made a lot of heartbreak for me, because the voice I used was meant to be hypothetical, not that I would or want to make blatant copies of a talented and known artist - but maybe the voice of someone who was thinking through the arguments for and against. 8 years later I have a much deeper and mature stance and understanding of this thorny and emotive issue, and as many new people come to polymer and creative art, this is always a new, bewildering and often conflicted area to think about. Perhaps in a more supportive way we can educate and nurture new and growing artists in how they can learn from artists they admire without accidentally or deliberately 'ripping' from other's designs and ideas.