Saturday, February 8, 2014

Imitation-- Not the Sincerest Form of Flattery

You may have heard the phrase “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. It's not. It's unethical and usually illegal. I'm not talking about an individual who sees something in a tutorial or on a website and tries a technique or copies a colorway. That's how we learn, as we grope our way to our own authentic voice.

I'm talking about an individual who deliberately took original content she learned in my workshop and then shoehorned into a mixed-media class that she then shopped to a major jewelry venue, with nary a change in that content (right down to using the same phrases used in my class description!) and most certainly not the significant amount that the US Patent Office would deem necessary to claim that a true innovation had been made.

And the thing that's most appalling is that the way many people choose to deal with this is to let the imposter get away with it. We are so averse to confrontation in our society these days that we would just let people steal our ideas, ideas which were so hard-won, that we birthed from our creative souls and nurtured so they could grow to eventually inspire others.

Things people have said to make me feel better: “Artists XYZ used to send “Cease and Desist” letters-- now they just laugh” (really? What's funny about being ripped off?) “Ms. Artist-Well-Known said people copy her all the time so she's just decided to 'let it go'--the implication being “better artists than you just 'let it go'-- why are you persisting?

Because it has to stop. And it won't by itself. It will stop because we, as a culture of artists, demand that original content cannot be used without permission. If I teach you a technique, you can use that technique for your own work but you may NOT teach that content, under any circumstances—not to your guild or to your niece or to your neighbor and definitely not to workshop participants at a national jewelry venue. I love that you were inspired by my class but what are you adding to the content to make it really yours?

As Harriete Estel Berman cautions:

If you haven't made a significant leap, not a stepping stone but a leap onto a new path, then you're teaching derivative content and run the risk of being a “workshop imposter”. And if you don't really surpass the “workshop master” into new territory, everyone will see you as a “workshop imposter".

Here's an article from the American Crafts Council called "Ali Baba and the Copycat Thieves"

Lots of food for thought here.


  1. Christine, I had no idea you were facing this, but I am so sorry. I wish to say this is unbelievable to hear, but you are right it is going on far too often. I'm as irked as you to here those placating lines about moving on and rising above, and keep on innovating and all the like. Theft is theft and you have every right to be upset about it. We all should be, since it hurts us all. Students want to learn from people you have experimented and refined innumerable times so they can anticipate those next questions, those next hurdles. I hope you an continue to share your story of editing this wrong. Cheering you on!

    1. Go Christine! It is totally unethical of a student to use techniques learned in a class for their own teaching career. How many times does this need to be addressed before people get it? I wish you a good resolution to this! The organizations that run these conferences need to do their research more thoroughly with respect to the provenance of ideas.

      What's most interesting to me is how few comments this post has generated. People hate confrontation and I think most would rather not admit that this happens. It takes strength to stand up for what you believe in, and energy to see it through, something I lacked when it happened to me. I had the EXACT comment said to me about the cease and desist letters, as though it was somehow mean spirited of me to resent having my ideas used, but it is an argument that helps to perpetuate these thefts.

      We are all seduced by, in love with and influenced by the artwork of those we admire. Useless to pretend otherwise......but we'd do well to remember the words of Issac Newton ( yeah, I know it's a science context, but original ideas are original ideas wherever they are found...) who said:

      " If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

      To me, the operative words are "seen further".....


  2. Adverse to confrontation is everywhere these days and doesn't mean it is right. I do admire anyone who lets it be known to the one who did the coping, it is wrong. Keep up the good work and let those in the wrong know, and so everyone else will also know. I see it also in church, if you say anything you are made to feel as the bad guy, and as if you are the one wrong. Stand up and let it be known how you feel, I say yeah. Iona Heck

  3. I developed a purse class years ago, spent hours on step-by-steps and written instructions. One week after holding it for the first time, I discovered that a participant was teaching the same class out of her house, using copies of my instructions. She seemed shocked that I was angry and promised to cancel, but I never trusted that she did. Of course, I spread the word and doubt she was ever able to take any local class after that.