One of the worst things that can happen to an artist is to have their work stolen. I don’t mean just in the physical sense – although I have had that happen, and it’s awful as well. I’m speaking here in terms of intellectual property.
Your ideas are your property. Being kind enough to share them with the world does not give other people the right to profit from them without your permission, or without compensating you. It is impossible to be aware of every instance, and frankly, I’m not interested in keeping track. The instances that I have experienced over the years have been so blatant that they often made me want to stop communicating with other artists altogether.
I’m not writing this seeking sympathy and I waited until I was no longer angry about my recent experiences to put my thoughts to words. I spent much of 2019 setting boundaries, many of which I will discuss at length later. For now, I wanted to focus on intellectual property because it seems to be something that people either do not understand, or feel no need to respect on a professional level.
I understand that artists get inspired by another artist’s work and that themes or technique may later show through in their own art. That is not what I am talking about in this post. I often share my work in progress photos and I am happy to answer questions about technique if another artist expresses interest in my methods. I often learn new things or find inspiration in conversations where I am sharing creativity with my peers.
I’m talking about blatant appropriation of another artist’s ideas. If you know you are using another artist’s concepts or you are directly including written content by someone else (poetry, music, pop culture), give credit AND post links on social media. I sometimes use quotes, song lyrics, literature, or movie dialogue in my artwork. I always make an effort to give credit when I do so, usually in the artwork itself, as well as in my writing about it. I always tell patrons where the text came from in a piece of art when they make a purchase.
About a decade ago, I started focusing on crows in my art. I put in a lot of time making studies, building concept and symbolism around specific characteristics and scenes, and writing lengthy descriptions of the paintings. The series was immediately popular and has been critical to building much of my current patronage.
At one point during the development of this series, a lady I had known from high school reached out to me about my work on social media. She was embarking on a creative journey of her own and had begun painting. She was interested in understanding how I used symbolism in my art to tell a story. Naively, I answered all of her questions and elaborated on a series of vultures I was planning to start in the future.
Not long after that, I started seeing her posts of art – vultures, with the exact symbolism I had described to her. Soon after, she started using crows as well. It was an obvious infringement on my intellectual property. Unfortunately, I had explained it all to her.
My best friend is a photographer. She goeas above and beyond to accommodate her clients, many of which are her friends. As is standard, she has a logo that she includes as part of her images, much like the gold Olan Mills stamp from my generation of portrait photography.
Now that we’re in the digital age of photography and social media, the game has changed. Out of respect for her clients, she was placing her logo near the edge of her images on social media and proofs. Next thing she knew, people were cropping it out and reposting the photos without giving her credit or sharing a link to her business. There’s no excuse for this behavior.
Worse still, she recently saw another photographer using one of her photos to advertise their upcoming mini sessions at a venue she has been booking for photo shoots. When she confronted the parties involved, she was told she was being emotional and over reacting. This is not ok.
My last example involves both of us. We have a collaborative project called Wild Woman Portraits that includes photo shoots, networking and relationship building events, and self awareness and empowerment ceremonies. We have put many hours into these concepts. Countless hours have been spent on branding, promoting, creating copy for written materials, designing backdrops, costuming, and props, and talking to people about our project.
Last year, we attended several meetings with a group focusing on women in business. We gave our pitch at each meeting and answered questions from individual members. After the first meeting where we pitched our story, another photographer in the group began giving the same pitch – nearly word for word. In the corporate world, this would be grounds for a lawsuit.
To make the situation even worse, at the last meeting I attended, the woman in charge listened to our description of our empowerment ceremony, turned to the other photographer, and said “You should do that with your clients”.
Needless to say, I won’t be back, and now I’m writing this article. People in the business community should understand intellectual property more than most. I don’t know if there is a disconnect because these ladies don’t view art as a business. Perhaps they don’t understand intellectual property at all – most of them are in sales for companies like Pampered Chef or high end Makeup and clothing. They receive copy from a corporate entity outside themselves, rather than having to write it themselves and their products arrive via mail rather than being handmade.
That’s not the case for the other photographer. She knows exactly what she’s doing. The behaviors I have described here are all unacceptable on many levels. They have made me realize that I should not share my ideas at all in a public forum, and that makes me sad.
I could give more examples from the years I have shown work publicly or joined art groups, but I won’t. This post is already long enough and I didn’t write it to complain. I wanted to put some examples out there for people just getting started in the arts.
No one has a right to use your ideas or copy your art. When it happens, you need to be prepared to confront them and tell them to stop. If you think legal action is necessary, seek advice.
Rather than being angry and bitter, I am tightening my circle. It’s time to work exclusively with people I can trust; people who respect me and my work. I will no longer stay in a group or work with a partner/venue that does not respect my intellectual property.
In 2019, I set boundaries. In 2020, I am focusing on personal goals and eliminating distractions. Walking away from toxic relationships is the first step.