Is It Okay to Copy?

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?)

Pipe #29 Bodark Billiard 2014- - 1

I made this billiard pipe in imitation of many other billiards I’ve seen.

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.

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7 Responses to Is It Okay to Copy?

  1. Earl Miller says:

    Illuminating, thank you. As someone who’s beginning to learn the craft of carving spoons and bowls, I strive to emulate examples I consider “perfect.” If I ever reach a point where I’m proficient enough to consider selling my work, I’d be horrified to sell something that was even close to someone else’s unique design. Traditional, vernacular forms are OK, I think, because there are only so many ways to produce a usable spoon. I’m not going to ape Follansbee’s chip carving or Stone Dahl’s details. Aside from climbing up the learning curve, where’s the fun in that?

  2. mbholden says:

    One thing to keep in mind: For centuries, the accepted method of becoming a better artist was to copy great art. Even today, I don’t know of a single art museum that does not welcome the artist to set up his easel in their galleries. Most go so far as to have classes, drop-in and formal, in copying the works on their walls.
    The problem comes when the copies are passed off as the original.
    How many plans, classes, and DVD’s have you seen for “Maloof-style rockers”?
    Is that valid?
    I think the craftsmanship is the paramount thing, not the design.
    My 2 cents worth.

    • kaisaerpren says:

      I think if you make a Maloof style rocker for sale and tell everyone clearly that it is “your Maloof style rocker” you are legit. If you try to pass it off as an original concept of your own then not so much. if you really love making Maloof style rockers, and if you are getting them sold, you may establish yourself as a maker of maloof style rockers.. but in 10 years they will slowly evolve to be slightly different from your original ones. you will see where you think they need “improvements” and you will make the changes, but they will still be Maloof style rockers. Which are evolved from Danish modern forms and construction techniques, yet not exactly Danish modern.

  3. Whether you copy a master painting or well known design by a woodworker, the line in the sand is saying it is your own. Your ability to paint or work wood is immaterial when you try pass another person’s idea and execution as something unique to you.
    I copy a lot of lot other peoples work(alive and dead) but I would never sell it or make it for another person. I tell them that up front

  4. I had an ex-friend that stold all of her so called art from others. As a collection your work will show that it came from you if it did. There will always be some similar to others, that happens. If you feel you are taking someone elses ideas you have not twisted it enough to make it yours. You know when it came from you!

  5. Jarrod Stone Dahl says:

    I think coping to learn is awesome and necessary. I also think that that photos of this derivative work should not be published or the like. Keep it for yourself, for learning. I have copied lots of others spoons. I’ve never published a single photo of them. That’s not the point of it. But the work that comes after or built from the experience. This is original work. Keep in mind I’m very specific on that coping has to do with deliberate intent to copy, not me looking at 100 different spoons and then carving one from memory, but actually looking at a photo and using it fro reference to make another. Even if I cannot make a good copy the intent is the same…..

  6. kaisaerpren says:

    ALL wood work is derivative. Indeed all craft work is derivative. We do not live in a vacuum! The Notion that someone should not emulate what they like is foolish in the extreme. Even Mr. Krenov and Mr. Nakashima’s work is derivative. Even as a bowl turner cannot make a bowl that does not reflect all of the bowls he has ever seen (otherwise they wouldn’t BE bowls), no one can be expected to make a chair that does not look like other chairs or a cabinet that is not like other cabinets. In articles intended for use, Form Follows Function. We learn by studying what was made before us. All of us eventually express our own tastes in the work we do, but the opportunity to truly be novel in our work, does not exist. Modern art aficionados (not the artists) want to see “original” but they don’t know what they are talking about. Even a brief examination of history will show how each “new” style emerged from components of the past. And how “individual” styles (Krenov, Nakashima, Pollack, Picasso) are just evolutions from what they learned by copying what was “happening” when they were learning.

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