Should artisans avoid copying the work of other artisans? Is it ethical to use another person’s design in your work, especially if you are selling it?
These questions and ones like them come up regularly in the craft world. For example, in an impassioned blog post at the American Craft Council site, Harriete Berman says that, in general, artisans should sell only original work, not copies of other people’s work. She urges stores and galleries not to sell “derivative work” and that “designers should not be surfing the web for ideas.” She especially has in mind unscrupulous artisans who are looking to make cheap knock-offs for a quick buck.
On the other hand, carver and turner Robin Wood writes in a recent blog post that he encourages novices to copy excellent work in order to learn the craft, though he also says it’s annoying to see near-copies of his own work offered as if his design were generic. He allows that his own designs are not absolutely unique but are based on historic designs, but he also maintains that his designs are identifiably his. (If they weren’t, why would anybody attempt to profit by copying them?)
Going even further, if you read a few of the critiques of first and second pipes posted over at Pipemakers Forum, the experienced pipe makers will often suggest that a novice pipe maker start with classic shapes, such as the billiard, the poker, and the bulldog, and they will urge new makers to try to copy good examples of those shapes. Anybody who can execute those shapes well (and I certainly can’t, yet) is well on his or her way to being an excellent pipe maker.
But where is the line? Legally, we can consider intellectual property laws, copyrights, and trademarks–these are serious legal issues that professional and semi-professional artisans need to know about. However, the health of a craft and the creative process must look beyond legal questions for guidance. (Not all legal actions are moral actions; on the other hand, some actions that are moral in themselves may not be legal in certain circumstances.) If we persistently discourage artisans from imitating each other’s work, we will kill our crafts within a generation, for imitation is at the heart of learning handicrafts.
To begin with, I hope we can agree that forgery is unacceptable. We should not tolerate one person offering his or her own work as if it were made by somebody else. In Academia, we call that plagiarism, and it happens across all the arts. An article at the Poetry Foundation, for example, reveals a disturbing trend in the contemporary poetry scene: up-and-coming poets will sometimes take another person’s poem and publish it under his or her own name, essentially stealing a good poem from another poet.
I hope, too, that we could accept full disclosure as standard practice. If you make a billiard pipe, call it a billiard–don’t claim it’s an original design. If you make a chair in the style of Chippendale, call it that. A reproduction of an existing piece should be labeled as such. And if you’re inspired by a design you found on the internet, then give credit where credit is due. If you’re not sure whether a design is original to a single artisan or whether it’s a traditional design, you haven’t done enough research.
As a teacher of writing, I have to help students see the difference between legitimate fact-finding and plagiarism. My guideline is the same as I give my students for determining whether a certain fact is “common knowledge” or whether it needs a citation: if you find the same information in three different, credible sources, and none of them acknowledge a source for it, then consider it common knowledge. Similarly, if you see the same design produced by several respected makers, it’s probably a traditional design.
I might also note that Thomas Chippendale is dead, as is whoever first designed the billiard pipe. You can stay out of a lot of trouble if you only copy from dead people. That’s what we mean by “traditional design.”
Beyond that, though, I think that novice artisans don’t copy enough. We live in an age that prizes originality and uniqueness–at least, we say we do–to the extent that we often dismiss old patterns and traditional designs, however well executed. But somebody who has never learned how to reproduce another person’s designs has not yet learned the craft, just as a musician who cannot play a Mozart piece has not yet learned to play well. But once that person can imitate a master, he or she is well on the way to developing a unique style.