Don't miss a post! Follow me by Email!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Fine Line Between Artistic Inspiration and Crafty Exploitation

Color.  Texture.  Design.  I am a big fan of visual stimulation.  I spend hours each week surfing the web --- popping in on artsy blogs and conducting countless google image searches to discover the best of  what is happening in the crafty world.   The time spent in this creative revery is always a treat...throw in a cupcake or a glass of wine and I have myself a Happy Meal.

While this sort of research is important for business purposes, there is a secondary benefit as well.  Oftentimes, I come across a piece that ignites my own creative spark and I will obsess for days until I find an opportunity to give birth to my own creation.   Sometimes my finished piece reflects the inspiration that I received, other times the connection would not be obvious to anyone but me.

 So---when does INSPIRATION cross the line to EXPLOITATION? While the line is a fine one, it is often quite murky and not particularly absolute.  It makes for a lot of hard feelings and wasted energy for artists involved in a dispute over a design.

When does the work cross the line? 

I had a customer contact me a few months ago. She was frustrated and irate, having just been accused by another artist of copying that artist's work.  The two are not true friends, although she thought they had a friendly relationship.  They would see each other at the occasional trade show and kept in touch throughout the year.  Accordingly, she was shocked when she received the following email in response to a text that she had sent with some helpful information relative to a sales rep:

I got your text today and so I wanted to write you back an email instead of a text since I actually have quite a bit to say.  I am rather confused by your actions.  On the one hand, you text me about reps, asking how the show went, leave Facebook messages on my page about my designs though we were friends, and then on the other hand, you have taken an idea of a necklace from me and are exploiting my design through what you consider your own....

  ....Before you texted me this morning I had actually posted a link on my Facebook to an article that I hope you will read regarding exploiting someone else's work.  If you get the idea for a piece by using someone else's work, then that is stealing.  Regardless of what you think, I am hurt by your actions and do not desire to be friends with someone who would do that.  I go to great lengths to offer unique products, and have copyrights on all of my designs because I believe in what I am doing and I design my work without the use of others to take ideas from. 

What confuses and hurts me the most is the fact that you seem to think that what you did was ok because you still remain in contact with me.  I tried a while back to very subtly let you know how I felt about your taking my idea, but either you didn't pick up on what I was saying or you didn't care.  The very fact that you starting creating pieces just like mine is why I chose not to share a booth with you at the [tradeshow].

I guess in the end, you will do what you want to further your business and your choice of ethics is ultimately up to you, but due to the fact that I feel ripped off by you, I do not wish to remain friends. I am sure you would feel the same if the tables were turned.

Ouch.  Pretty harsh stuff.  Clearly, The Accuser felt wronged and  The Accused felt wrongly accused.  Both women are very talented.  Both do a great job marketing their work. My take is that they are both good, kind women and I would proudly sport a necklace made by either.    

So where is the disconnect?  

First, lets take a look at the work at issue:

 Each necklace has the same 27mm  Swarovski Crystal 1201 stone (in different colors)  hung on a simple chain. 

I pondered long and hard about the karma of this dispute and came to the conclusion that  my customer should be able to sleep at night.  We are talking about one Swarovski crystal stone....albeit a spectacular stone....on a chain.   Period.  The stone is widely available.  No special techniques were employed, no complicated construction was required.  If you like sparkle, you would probably hang either --or both--around your neck.  Both designers have expansive product lines.  This is the only item in dispute.  They ARE different.  One has a romantic, vintage quality.  The other has a clean, modern look.  Yet, one human feels victimized and another feels under attack.  It sucks.

I have been on both sides of this issue...early in my art career, long, long ago...back when I was a naive young thing... I was accused of copying the work of another artist.  It totally freaked me out.  No doubt, I was definitely influenced by her work, but  I honestly did not think my product bore a close resemblance. I still don't.   Regardless, the original artist saw my piece and went NUCLEAR.  I thought she was crazy, but I  backed off the design.  The juice wasn't worth the squeeze and I didn't want to find my pet rabbit  boiling on the stove top A La Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.  On the other hand, I have also had my work copied on a very large scale.   The product involved a basic design and was easy to it was.  Yup...It sucked...but it wasn't personal---it was business.  C'est La Vie.  No doubt about it....Simple designs have a shorter shelf life.

I am a fiber artist.  I have long avoided using the classic "felt ball" in my work because I found the humble fuzzy ball to be kind of silly...silly, that is, until I happened upon the work of Gail Crosman Moore.  Gail is talented in many genres...she is innovative and has a killer grasp of color and form.  During one of my web surfing Happy Meals, I happened upon this photo:
OMG!  Be still my heart!  Felt balls that were not just interesting....they were SPECTACULAR!
I couldn't wait to get to the felting table!  Here is my version:

They are both multi layered cuff bracelets featuring felted balls embellished with bead work.
Uh Oh.
OH. MY. GOD.   
They are both multi layered cuff bracelets featuring felted balls embellished with bead work!

Should I be able to sleep well at night?  

Honestly, I have had no problem catching ZZZZZs but was curious....what would Gail Crosman Moore think?  I looked at the two photos carefully and I still felt good about it....but then, I don't see a big issue with the two pendants described above.    Hmmmm..........I decided to shoot Gail an email and ask her opinion:

Hey there, Gail!  I messaged you via FB, but wanted to make sure that I touched base with you with a more complete explanation of my quest.   I am a fiber artist/crafty business owner.  I have been making fiber jewelry for years and use beads/crystal embellishment in every piece.

I am writing a blog post on the difference between being inspired by a piece and copying a piece.  It is always such a hot button and “in the eye of the beholder” so I wanted to illustrate my point regarding inspiration with a photo of a piece you did that inspired me to make my own. 

You made a killer cuff bracelet (photo of your piece is attached) with embellished felt balls that knocked my socks off.  I have always been a bit of a felt ball snob because most of the work that I have seen is pedestrian and kind of clownish.  Your bracelet has a sophistication that wowed me and got me looking at felt balls in a whole new light.

I have attached a piece of my finished product, which I perceive to be an original piece inspired by your incredible piece.   I am curious as to whether or not you agree.  You are the artist of the piece that inspired me…copy or inspiration?  Inquiring minds want to know!

Please feel free to be as honest as possible.  It would be helpful to blog readers and shed light on the whole process from both perspectives, even if you want to bitch slap me.  

Pat Riesenburger

I sent the email......and then I started sweating.  I looked at the photos again and compared them closely.  She made a cuff bracelet.  I made a cuff bracelet.  She embellished with beads.  I embellished with beads.   NOOOOOOOOOOO!   How have I been sleeping at night?

Much to my relief, within a few hours the following message appeared in my In Box:

Hello Pat,

Thank you for your thoughtful and complimentary project.
Absolutely no worries re: copying, I love that this bracelet of mine inspired you. Your piece is very different from mine and it makes me happy that I was a springboard towards an excited energy to carry out your piece. Well done!

I am also happy that my piece framed a material in a new light to make it useful to you!

Enjoy, with many thanks for your openness.



WHEW! I knew how I felt about it and it was nice to know that Gail agreed....I could breathe again.  Thank you, Gail!  

I tend to think along the same lines...I am flattered on those occasions when my work serves to inspire another.  I consider it an Art Hug.

The thing is.....Art is derivative.  We are naturally influenced by the world around us.  Artists who post pictures of their work online, or publish patterns in magazines, are putting their work out there for others to see.  It is lovely affirmation for the artist and the exposure is good for those seeking to promote their crafty careers.   However, what about the work that you see in the course of living your life?  What if you decide to sell the work?  When are you INSPIRED and when are you EXPLOITING? 

I think that it boils down to INTENT.  Did my customer intend to copy the design of the Accuser?  I don't think so.  I think that she was excited by it, and that she was inspired by it, and that she loves Swarovski Crystal.   She saw a stone that she admired and she wanted to use it.  The construction of the necklace in question involved one stone, one bezel, one chain and a clasp.   She has a large product line and this is the only item at issue.   I just cannot get my panties in a twist over this one.  

The Accuser acknowledged that the Accused treated her as a friend, offering encouragement and support; yet, she was willing to believe that this woman would deliberately screw her over.  HUH?  She then handled the matter by dropping a "subtle hint" about her feelings, and when no response was forthcoming she became hurt and then angry.    I have watched a number of artists respond the same way over the years.   Sometimes  people really do steal designs and the anger is legitimate. On other occasions, two people have similar taste. Again....I would point to the matter of INTENT.   Look to the character of the person involved.  If someone does something that is inconsistent with the behavior that I typically see, I do not automatically assume the worst and then write them off.  I inquire.  I ask about it.  I COMMUNICATE. 

Life is short.  I don't want to spend my days mulching a Bitterness Garden, tending each grievance so carefully that it thrives, growing bigger and more toxic over the days. time is better spent mulching a different sort of filled with wonder, and creativity, and peace.  Give folks the benefit of the doubt until they prove unworthy----it will make your life more pleasant.



  1. Thanks Pat! This is a fabulous post; you're a smart gal, and your writing is superb. I may be thinking the same things you're writing, but when I speak it usually comes out like mush.

    I feel that the world is full of amazingly beautiful things...beaches and fall leaves and storms and gardens and sunsets and even tall skyscraping buildings; so full, in fact, that we can all be inspired without encroaching on on one another.

    Your experience with the snazzy felt bracelet really hits the nail on the head...way to go :)

    And I, by the way, don't think the two necklaces share anything other than my interest to wear them.

  2. Your felted ball story is about the diff between being inspired by a TECHNIQUE and making a COPY. Encouraging folks to ASK THE ARTIST is the best advice. (And Gail is so gracious and amazing! I love her answer to you!)

    I agree completely with your post on my own Sleepless Beader blog about selling work copied from learned projects -- that gifting and selling locally is fine, but mass sales on Etsy is going too far.

    In the end, ASK THE ARTIST should be our mantra if there's any doubt or hesitation. Then we can all sleep well at night...!

  3. Ashley:
    Thanks for your kind words! It IS a big ole world and there is plenty of room for all of us!

  4. Leslie, you are spot on! When in doubt, run it by the artist! Gail has a generous heart and an amazing talent...what a treat to have gotten her lovely response.

  5. Absolutely agree...ASK THE ARTIST. This is the difference between what you did with Gail, and what the two "friends" did. This is a great lesson for me, and from now on, if I am inspired by someone and go on to create a piece then the first person I share it with will be the artist who inspired me. If that artist has a problem with me publishing or selling my design, I'll drop it. My relationships with my fellow artists are much more important to me than any one particular design.
    Where I have the most worry is that I might be inspired by something I saw a year or two ago, and might not make a direct connection to the design and thus be accidentally derivative of another's work.
    thanks for a very well written, thought provoking post, Pat!
    Sparkles and smiles,

  6. I think you are 100% right. I love it when someone takes one of my ideas and runs with it - I've been known to return the favor and run even further. It's an art relay - and I love it.

  7. Diane:
    Thank you for your thoughtful response. In candor, I did not contact Gail until months after I did the work. Initially, I didn't give it a thought because I felt secure in the thought that it was inspired by her work, not copying her work. It was only when I considered the pendant dispute that it occurred to me that "exploitation" was in the eye of the beholder....I thought it would be an interesting exercise to ask Gail directly. I am glad that I did and will do it regularly in the future. It spreads warm fuzzies to the original artist and provides an opportunity for her to object, if she is so inclined. I think most artists (me included) are delighted to know that our work has inspired someone in some small way.

  8. Pat you are absolutely right, about intent. Inspiration by a piece does not reach the mark for copying of a piece. Where would the world of artisans be without studying and emulating those ahead of us to learn from.

  9. Cynthia:
    I LOVE the concept of an Art Relay! Hmmmm...I am going to have to noodle THAT idea around for a while...what a great concept for a Craft Challenge!

  10. Laura B:
    Agreed...and as we grow more confident in our work we become secure in the knowledge that our creativity will not run dry. Not surprisingly, it becomes easier to approach this thorny issue with a generous spirit when we don't have so much to prove to ourselves!

  11. wheels are turning. Stay tuned!

  12. Thank you, thank you thank you. THIS is exactly how I feel about my beadwork - while I am as original as can be, I DO find inspiration in the work of others, and don't feel that I should have to apologize for that. I think I'm going to incorporate "Inspired by many, created by ONE" into my business marketing somehow. Love this post. Sharing this post. Well done.

  13. Sheryl:
    We would all have to live solitary lives in caves not to be influenced by the work of others. Of course, we would still be influenced by the world around us! I think your tag line "inspired by many, created by ONE" is a dandy!

  14. This is such a relebant topic for me and I so appreciate your writing about it. I recently had a teacher e-mail me to let me know that my creative process made her uncomfortable. What!? I responded rather quickly and tried to dissect what the hell she was talking about and the whole thing ended up with me saying goodbye to her. I had taken two seed beading classes from her. I am a glass bead artist of many, many years who is trying to expand into other areas and find different mediums to incorporate into my glass bead jewelry. I happened to really love seed beading in the little that I did learn. This experience sent me into the bluest funk of a personal and artistic nature for about a month. So it really got me thinking about this issue. When I learn something new, I may try things that other people have done to teach myself a technique, etc. . . but that is part of my process of getting to my own version or to become something totally different. I have come to the conclusion for myself that using a time honoured technique to design a new product is not stealing and that technique is different than say using the exact same beads in that technique and creating the same thing exactly. Make sense? A lot of people buy magazines and/or books with specific designs and instructions and copy these and sell them all over the place. So I pose this question. If you buy a book or a magazine and make a piece exactly as written and shown and sell it, is that stealing? Does it make a difference if you paid for the mag/book? Does it make a difference if there is no disclaimer in the mag/book about making the piece and selling it? This is different from say buying a tutorial with a disclaimer from the artist about their intent regarding reselling etc... I share freely and always because once I put something out into the world, it no longer belongs to me and I have absolutely no control over what happens with it after that. I will not live in this world as an artist walking around scared of what might happen to my design once I let it go. What a scary, scary place to be. Even though all I had been taught by that teacher was peyote stitch and a couple of variations, she had the gall to "be uncomfortable" with my artistic process. She should never, ever teach again. What nerve!

  15. Great post, Pat! Looking at those two necklaces, in my opinion, they couldn't be more different. Each piece is an individual expression that happens to use similar elements. Are we to believe that because one artist made a necklace using that spectacular Swarovski crystal, that no one else could make a necklace using that same Swarovski crystal......ever? If so, we must also believe that because one artist made a cuff using beaded felt balls, that no one else can make a cuff using beaded felt balls.....ever. What a ridiculous notion. Brilliant of you to draw that comparison and take up a dialog with Gail Crossman Moore. In my view, Gail is one of the most talented artists/craftspersons around. But most of all she is confident, generous and secure in her talents. I think insecurity is at the heart of this issue with your customer and her "friend". I just read about a lawsuit brought by Christian LeBoutain against St. Laurent because the later dared to design a shoe with a red sole. LeBoutain lost the suit! Who is to say he was the first to ever make a shoe with a red sole. Who can say where inspiration comes from? It is the stuff that fuels us and keeps us creating, and I for one am deeply grateful for it.

  16. LavaLampwork:
    You were just bitten by an artist who is confusing the right to own her work product with the right to own a technique. No one owns the right to peyote stitch or has the sole authority to use a 1201 stone as a pendant. I would not waste another moment angsting over her petty silliness. Stitch on!

  17. Arlene:
    You NAILED IT! Insecurity is at the heart of the issue in most of these disputes that involve "interpretation." Early in my career I read about an established bead artist who refused to copyright any of her work because she wanted it to serve as inspiration for others who traveled after her. She was confident and secure in her talents and knew that she would always be growing in new directions. It was a great lesson for me and I have always endeavored to emulate her generous spirit.

  18. Great article. No way was the swarovski a copy, if it was, your ex-friend owes Tiffany a lot of money cause all she did was replace a diamond with a swarovski. Thanks again for the article.

  19. Just this year, I was reminded of this difference: A wonderful customer took the technique I developed for my Blooming Bead and applied it to a cuff with fantastic results. I was angry. Not at her, but at myself for not having published my own version of the cuff first. lol She didn't steal from me; she was inspired by something I had created. AND she gave me full credit for the inspiration. ;)

    That is so very different from someone copying a design, so very very different. It's cool to provide the launch board for someone else's muse; it is very not cool to be the fodder for someone's copy machine.

  20. I too agree with inspiration being acceptable and copying being beyond wrong. No, we cannot own a technique... is anything in this worldwide completely original anyway? But use others designs as a stepping stone to blazing your own trail. Be inspired by nature and things around you. If there is any question, contact the artist you were inspired by and run it by them.
    The 2artist necklaces are nowhere near copies, I cannot understand the problem. As mentioned, just because one person used the crystal as a pendant, does that mean that noone else in the universe can? I see the closeness in the realm of pottery as well...

  21. cryssT:
    You made me laugh! Tiffany's does have something similar...

  22. Carol Dean:
    Yes, yes, yes...and boils down to intent. Such a fascinating dialogue. It seems that most artists agree in theory. It is finding the happy ground in reality that often proves more difficult.

  23. Higgins Design Studio:
    I started out in clay and yup,...the copy v. inspiration drama was endemic in that community, as well.

  24. What a great, great discussion and dialogue! Many thanks!

  25. Awsome post and comments! I come from a long line of cratsmen and crafters and I LOVE this debate. Personally, I think they both owe homage to Swarovski, what else could the crafter have intended with such an enormous crystal? But they (Swarovski) cater to us, the diehard DIY-ers, and sell their ideas to us…in pieces…and so they're absolved of their creative due? Where do we draw the line? I view art in the same way I do thought…we must share to grow.

  26. Oh! This is a GREAT post!
    I often worry myself when I am inspired by another's work if it will be seen as a copy. However, usually what strikes me is one aspect of that inspiring piece as apposed to the whole thing. Yet, I still struggle with the notion about copying someone else's work. Your clear, concise description of this makes me feel loads better about that internal argument I have with myself over this issue. Thank you!

  27. CraftyHope:
    It is kind of wild, isn't it? There are those who angst mightily over the possibility of "inspiration as copying," while others will copy every single detail down to the last eye pin and give it nary a thought. What a funny world populated by interesting humans........

  28. Excellent post and I wish more artists would take the time to think about intent and harm carefully before they publicly humiliate another artist on the social networks. So often these disputes become a public mob to what benefit? For a short time the accuser feels vindicated but at what cost? I'm with you Pat, life is short and the time I have to create is's important to limit my battles to those that really matter.

    For those that still copy every last detail; you are missing and limiting yourself. The greatest compliment I get at shows is "this is unique, I haven't seen this before". There's no greater joy that than the moment you are inspired by a great artist and have it wing into something new and wonderful, something uniquely yours. For the original's a shame to take that moment of joy away from an inspired artist by holding on so tightly to your original that it can no longer breathe life into this great creative world. You may just devalue your original and destroy a few friendships. Make sure it's worth the cost (sometimes it is, but most often it is not).

  29. Well said, Christine! Seriously. In fact, your generous heart is visible and it led me to visit your website.


    I think I have an Art Crush on you! I ordered one of your "Coke" cuff bracelets...Total Industrial Salvage Chic. The stone closure is genius and the fact that you included the name of your source for those stones (StoneSudiosToo on Etsy) is further evidence of your generous heart and peaceful spirit. Rock on, girl!

  30. Pat,
    You absolutely made my evening. I just returned from Parent Teacher conferences (where I couldn't be more proud of my daughter's progress) and saw your note and sale. Thank you!! Aren't those stones fabulous! I'd been searching forever for cinch (slide) buttons and stumbled across her shop and found these stones...even better than what I had in mind.

    I was so happy to have found your blog and this great post on a often touchy subject. Thanks again!

  31. My profs always said that imitation is the highest form of flattery.
    When I first started to publicly show & sell my work at shows, I was sooooo stupid, I would allow people to photograph my work! Daaaa, not any more, however, the people that have copied my work with literlly the same materials, here's the thing, no two pieces will come out exactly the same, not to worry or fret, if one truly is an artist, there will be plenty more ideas flowing out of the brain.
    The two pendants, WHAT??? I am confused about that one; technique, we all need to learn technique, that one confusess me as well, and from a teacher???
    My latest inspiration was a vintage festoon necklace, doesn't look a thing like what inspired me (used your fantastic swars Pat, WOW),
    But hey technique, it's there hence the name of the style of work. Maybe the pendant girl should be told that "solitaire" is a style too.
    Don't usually post stuf, but this one hit a cord. Thanks for sharing Pat!

  32. Dear Pat~
    Yes a touchy subject! I too have been on both sides of this debate... not a great place to sit when one is trying to create that's for sure. We don't live in a vacuum so it is natural to duplicate the masters whilst we learn the techniques, it is after that part is mastered where the messiness comes in, isn't it?
    I have witnessed many who just want to stop there and make dozens perhaps hundreds of said item to sell to the masses. Where does that leave them?~ stuck in a rut! Customers today are much more savi and probably "feel" the energy behind it therefore they probably don't even sell! For me, when I am the one being copied it gets to me....but I try to move past it and come up with something even more fantastic so it keeps me moving so I don't get stuck in a rut either...

    And as far as the two pendants being identical I don't see that it could have even been copyrighted either. If I were to create something to be copyrighted not only is it too expensive, the law changed 26 years ago from 20% to 10% so now all one would have to do is change the materials!

    Thanks for your blog Pat-always a pleasure, Klew

  33. Hi Pat,

    This is one of the first threads or blogs on this fiery topic that I have read that did not dissolve into a "Battle of the Biatches" and I think I know why. Most of the other places I have encountered this has been in smaller community forums where people "think" they know each other. I agree that the battle of the pendants was a moot argument. Thank you Pat, for pointing out the only problem, that being communication. I guess we should be careful about how well we may really know someone from these forms of communications.

    I am a beadweaver with lots of experience in creating but not much in marketing or selling and I have a specific question about a Christmas project I have started. I feel that my art form is just about 50/50 when it comes to technique and design. I am making some star shaped ornaments to sell locally. To get the star shape, you use a variation on peyote stitch. In my late night surfing expeditions I found no less than 5 patterns/kits/free instructions on how to make a star shape with this variation of peyote stitch. The embellishment and purpose of mine is different from any of the ones that I have seen. My question is, how many people do I need to acknowledge, if any? Is this similar to the Teacher and Technique example? I wouldn't want my Christmas stars to hold any bad mojo.


  34. Suze:
    My thought is that this falls into the teacher/technique example. Reach for the Stars (sorry...couldn't help myself...) and SELL, SELL, SELL those ornaments!

  35. Klew...somehow your comment slid past me and I just saw it this morning. Pithy and brilliant...I am glad to have read it!

  36. You always provide great insight and this is post is no exception. I agree wholeheartedly with Arlene that often insecurity is at the root of those who end up feeling bad about being copied. I personally never get bothered.....I will continue to innovate (at least that is my hope!) and I will strive to present projects that are not immediately copiable. If they serve as inspiration that is great, I'm all for it.

    1. You have a generous and giving heart, Marcia, and the inspiration you provide goes way beyond beady things...

  37. Oh, wow... those two necklaces are nothing alike in my opinion. That's not a "design"... it is a rivoli glued into a setting and put on a chain. Any client of any bead shop can buy a rivoli cup and do the same. I'd chock that one up to a "technique". The second one required manipulation of a filigree piece and is a completely different style.

    If you and Cynthia begin a relay, I am so there!!