Inspiration or Copy: Where is the Line?

If you see someone's work, and you’d like to make an exact duplicate of it for sale, describing and listing it exactly the same way, is that good business instinct, following a popular trend and therefore fair game, or a compliment to the artisan who made the original? Emphatically, no. It is intellectual property theft. That’s right, theft.

The person you are mimicking is a business person as well as a creator. They intend to make a profit from their own designs, as they should. As you should not. After all, if you admired someone’s taste, and broke into their house to steal their stuff, would you expect them to be flattered? Praise your business acumen? I think not!

Being a copycat derives from one of 2 things (and sometimes both):

1) a malicious intention to make a profit with unethical practices

2) entering a marketplace as a seller without having spent the time to develop a body of work of your own

To recap, it is never “inspiration” to look at someone’s work and decide to do one like it, even if you add very minor tweaks.

MerrittHyde and I see the world through a similar lens, and it shows in our work. She recently said that she admired this piece of mine:

Here is Merrit’s current work:

We already have 2 similar elements, the wood body (even though mine is faux bois), and the leaves.  While looking at my piece, she envisioned using her metal leaves as a canopy, similar to mine. This is inspiration. Merritt is mentally progressing something in her own body of work. Her new piece will have elements similar to mine, but it will not be a copy.

Have you had your work copied? How does it feel?

Are you ever tempted to copy a top selling Etsy artisan? What stops you?

Do you make something similar to another artisan? What do you do to avoid copying?

editorial by Lee Wolfe


Sarah said...

i. love. this. post. can i just hug you???? couldn't have said it better myself!!

VerbenaPlace said...

I emphatically agree!! Well said!

I would further add that serious artists should copyright their work and assertively pursue design thieves!

EvesLittleEarthlings said...

I wonder why artisans bother to copy anyway. Based on the stats I read about how much etsy sellers make on average, it seems that hardly anybody is making a lot of money here and I would think that most of us are motivated by the desire to create our own original works and have them seen and bought by others.
Copying just seems so petty and unfufilling.

Merritt Hyde said...

Bravo, Lee! I love this post - may call for a group hug. I am constantly inspired by amazing artisans and would not even consider copying their work.

I have, however, thought ... man, I wish I had thought of that.

GlitzGlitter said...

So well put, Lee! I purposefully will not look at any of the work of artist's I admire for fear it will creep into my subconscious. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery it is also the most hurtful.

Genevieve said...

I recently came upon outright copies of some of my work listed for sale on Etsy. I am not sure if it was ignorance or audacity but the person even linked to my shop and said I was their inspiration!

PoleStar Jewelry - Handcrafted said...

I agree, and from what I've seen it takes just as much work to try to copy and sell as it does to just make the items and develop your own artistic vision, without the same payoff, and that is the payoff you see not only monetarily but the personal fulfillment of doing something that you love.

The originator will always be more successful because their clients feel the passion in their work and share that experience.

Inspiration is definitely awesome but knockoffs are not.

ira said...

I agree with Jen, I think pouring your energy to your own design is more fulfilling than trying to copy others. The result will never as good as the original one, what is the point? But I don't think the copycat thinking about that, I can't help not to think all start by no self confidence and greed, very sad...

SignsByDiane said...


I agree that it stinks and it's not a compliment at all to the person being copied. It seems like people who copy others are desperate for either a sale or people to comment on how nice their work is but deep down they must know that it's cheating and theft. It's very disheartening to find someone who's copied your work (and yes it's happened to me). Getting inspiration is completely different than copying. It's a seed of an idea that can grow to be something very different as in your example.I think we all give and get inspiration from one another.

colette said...

Great article - thank you for using the image of my cupcake print! Ironically enough that is a design concept that I copied from my lulubugjewelry sister, Sue. We play nicely together (now), so it's more like brain-sharing than thievery.

A few weeks ago someone asked me to do a quote (she didn't see that I already had the quote in my shop) and sent a link to a blog post, writing "I'd like something like this, but I trust your creativity." I went to the blog and the author had copied my design and painted a poster of it for her nursery. Needless to say, I was able to fulfill the customer's request :D

On the other hand, this particular quote wasn't my own...quotes are not always black and white when it comes to copyrights. I like to think that I do things in good faith, but the authors may not see it that way.

For me, the best solution is "don't look." This helps me too: when I get a custom request that I don't fancy doing (read: I see the train wreck coming), I suggest they contact a few specific sellers that seem to have styles similar to mine and wish them all good luck!


steinschmuckdesign said...

Thanks Lee for bringing this up,
a other top Topic!!!
I do get inspiered of some other Artists Jewelry or also of a totally different Piece, but I never copy,
why should I?
agree, designeing and creating your own, is much more forfilling!!!
I see copycats arround,
but I realised the copy is never ever as good as the original!

donauluft said...

very interesting topic Lee!
I was asked many times by beadworkers where they can get the patterns I use!
obviously in that community copying is normal!
I often have to tell that I only use my own patterns, and I really want to be the only one who uses them.

Somebody once even wanted to buy my silver earring components,..... "the beadwork I can do by myself"...she said!!!

Inspiration is everywhere and total ok, but I really would be unsatisfied not to create my own work!

Thanks for the great post!

A Knit Storm said...

Great points and very well and simply stated! I agree entirely that it's not flattering to have your work flat out copied. It has happened to me with the mug cozies I designed and sell on Etsy (KnitStorm.com), finding quite a few other sellers blatantly copying my cozies to the T.

But then there are other sellers I have found who have taken the idea of mug cozies in their own beautifully original directions, and I truly admire them and their ideas for it.

To answer your question, having my idea/design copied really does feel like a kick in the butt, and as though these copiers are just trying to make a quick buck (and really, they price their items so much lower than mine that it is painfully obvious that that is what they are trying to do). I can't understand the mindset of copy cats, or how they can feel it is at all ethical to do.

Sue said...

Excellent post! Anyone who says that we should be flattered that someone has copied us has obviously never had their own original ideas copied. It is terrible and leaves one feeling sick. People do come up with the same ideas all the time, but it's usually pretty obvious when someone is blatantly copying.

The example given about inspiration is exactly what I try do when I see something that inspires me. I really look at it and try to figure out what elements intrigue me, and then I think about how I could incorporate them in to my own style.

heathertorre/MySelvagedLife said...

Excellent post Lee! I'm bookmarking it so I can give the link to the next person that sends me a convo asking me to give them my supply source so they can make one just like mine, "but only for myself - I don't have a shop on Etsy...yet."

themagiconions said...

Yay, I LOVE this post... I'm so sick and tired of people suggesting I should feel flattered for being an inspiration... NO! I feel violated!
Thanks for this well put and well thought out piece.
Blessings and magic,
Fairyfolk and DovieMoon

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post - a complicated issue very simply explained! I've just had someone post on my Facebook that they're copying one of my designs and is that OK? Er, no?

But I do think it's important to educate people about the value of the both the work they see - the finished piece of work - and they work they don't - inspiration, design, development. A copy cat is someone who appreciates the former without understanding the latter.