Copycat or Coincidence?

February 13, 2010 at 5:57 pm (Artist Musings)

The  January 2010, the winter issue of Metalsmith Magazine, Volume 30/No.1/2010 includes an Opinion article written by Harriete Estel Berman entitled, Copycat, Copyright, or Coincidence.

“How often have you said or heard,  ‘That looks just like . . . (some other artist’s) work.’   The arts and crafts community is suffering from ‘copycat-ism’ or more accurately, infringement of intellectual property or copyright infringement.  It is infecting the entire art and craft community, from schools and universities, to wholesale/retail shows, stores, galleries, books and even award competitions….” [Harriete Estel Berman, Copycat, copyright or coincidence? An Opinion in Metalsmith Magazine]

Although I haven’t read the article (just Harriete’s blog post summarizing her opinion), I LOVE the fact that she has opened this up for discussion.

A few years ago, I mentored an aspiring young artist. She worked with me in my studio and at shows for just about a year. After she graduated, she decided to start her own jewelry business. Now, I have to say, when she first started working for me, she showed me her sketches, which I thought were brilliant.  She saw the world much differently than I did, in three dimensions. So, when she went out on her own, I was proud, just like a mama bird seeing her baby fly out of the nest.

A few months after she graduated, I ran into her at a show. I had a booth. She had a booth. After the first day of the show, several other artists accused her of copying my designs, some actually confronting her and upsetting her deeply. While I did see similarities in our booth display (and I suppose some of the designs), I did not take offense. At another show several months later, this young artist told me that she was sorry and that she never meant to copy my designs or hurt me. She asked me for advice on how to grow her business.  I told her that she didn’t have to look to me for inspiration because if she stuck to her original design aesthetic, those early sketches which made her jewelry unique and special, she would be successful. That is exactly what she did, and today she is a successful designer creating brilliant, unique pieces of wearable art.

This wasn’t the last time another artist was accused of copying my designs. Many of the images I use in my designs are in the public domain and widely available. At another show, one of my customers asked me how I felt about another jeweler copying my work. She was using the same images I use and transferring them to polymer clay (which is exactly what I do). Her finishing techniques were not as good as mine nor was her attention to detail or craftsmanship.  I assured my customer that most savvy collectors would be able to see the difference between my work and her work and that I wasn’t concerned. That other artist went on to find her own “voice”, experimenting with her own techniques, and started designing jewelry that was unique to her and looked nothing like mine.

I was accused in both of these instances, particularly the first instance, of being a coward… not saying enough or doing enough to stop these artists. I didn’t think of it as being cowardly. I thought of it as taking the high road and sticking to my own design aesthetic, having faith in the fact that my designs were unique to me and that the buying public would know it.

So, having been a victim of copycat-ism (more than once),  here’s my advice to young artists to avoid being accused of being a copycat…

1.  Find your niche. I often tell young artists, “do one thing well and try to do that one thing better than anybody else, then you will be successful.” If you try to incorporate a lot of mediocre techinques into your work, mixed media, metals, clay, found objects, and wire wrapping for example, you will end up with at best an inconsistent body of work. What makes my work unique are my signature, hand-formed image transfer beads, a technique which I have perfected over the last six years. The end results are pieces that are easily recognizable as mine. For example, a few months ago, a woman walked into my Raleigh studio. She had purchased a necklace of mine at a gallery in Philadelphia. Even though she and I had never met, she was able to make the connection between her necklace and my work because of my signature, hand-formed image transfer beads. In my opinion, that is the secret of my success as an artist.     

2. Take a class, learn a technique (not a project). For me, I find that the most offensive copycat-isms come after someone takes a class. Often times a student walks away with a finished project, reproduces that project over and over again, and tries to sell the end result as their own. I have been very fortunate to take classes from some great artists. In almost every case, I left the class with a finished project. In every case, I waited months (sometimes years) before I figured out a way to incorporate the techniques I learned in the class into my own work. For example, several years ago, I had the pleasure of taking a class from Nan Roche. Nan taught extruding and chain mail techniques using polymer clay. Several months later, I incorporated Nan’s chain mail technique into my Les Regrets necklace. As you can see, my necklace looks nothing like Nan’s class sample. 

Nan Roche: Braids, Plaits, and Chains: Exploring Extruded Clay

Lauren Van Hemert: Les Regrets Necklace

 In another example, I had the pleasure of taking a class from Louise Fischer Cozzi. In that class, Louise taught translucent coloring techniques using acrylic paints. Years later, I incorporated Louise’s translucent coloring techniques on my Trapeziste pendant. Again, my necklace does not look anything like Louise’s beautiful Sophie Necklace.

Louise Fischer Cozzi: Sophie Necklcace

Lauren Van Hemert: Trapeziste Necklace

In both of the above classes, I took a class, learned a technique, and figured out a way to use that technique as a tool in my own work. 

The only time I ever had a concern about someone copying my work came at a wholesale craft show. A gallery owner, also an artist, approached me about my Trapeziste necklace. He was interested in every detail of the piece and came back to see it several times. After asking me how it was made, sculpted, and painted, he decided to buy it, although he didn’t want the one I had on display, he wanted a new one, a perfect one, sans fingerprints and cracks (trademarks in my opinion which make the piece look handmade and not mass produced).  I was convinced that this artist, gallery owner, was going to copy my design, make a mold of it, and cast it in glass. I ended up copyrighting the design with the United Stated Copyright Office.

Copyrighting a piece is a very easy thing to do and just requires three essential elements: a completed application form, a non-refundable filing fee (around $35), and a nonreturnable deposit (a copy of the work to be deposited and registered with The Copyright Office). I do not copyright every piece, however, in the case of my award winning Trapeziste necklace, in which Catherine Thornton and I worked hard on creating a one-of-a-kind pendant that could be easily molded, I thought it was better to be safe than sorry.

I thank Harriete Estele Berman again for opening this important issue up for discussion on her blog. I encourage you to post your comments to continue this discussion. Until next week…

“Under the present copyright law, which became effective January 1, 1978, a work is automatically protected by copyright when it is created. A work is created when it is ‘fixed’ in a copy or phonorecord for the first time. Neither registration in the Copyright Office nor publication is required for copyright protection under the present law. There are, however, certain advantages to registration, including the establishment of a public record of the copyright claim. Copyright registration must generally be made before an infringement suit can be brought. Timely registration can also provide a broader range of remedies in an infringement suit.” [Copyright Registration for Works of the Visual Arts, Circular 4o, Rev: 11/2009]


1 Comment

  1. Adrienne said,

    I’ve read alot about copycats and some artists think that just because they haven’t seen a design similar to theirs that they own it. Ie: using postage stamps in polymer clay projects is very common, yet one artist thinks since she has never seen it that other artists who use them are copying her. I have not been published and I’ve made stuff I designed and then will see designs that have been published that are very similar to mine. It happens. To quote Christi Friesen, “great minds think alike”. Talk about copycats, I’ve seen her designs reproduced with the artist taking full credit and no reference to being inspired by Christi on her designs. Very disgusting. So I certainly relate to your frustration. Hang in there!!


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