Who owns what and what can be used where are often difficult questions to answer when it comes to the arts. In a recent kōrero artists who’ve had experience with ‘bad exposure’ talked about walking the fine line between being inspired by other artists and outright theft.
The main takeaway points? Give credit where credit is due and be a decent human about it.
Copyright vs copywrong
Creativity never develops in a vacuum and is never 100% original. Artists behind the work are a product of everything they’ve grown up listening to, looking at, or experiencing; all of which influences what is done creatively. In general too, each work is made in reaction or engagement with something else.
This is one of the beauties of art; it’s responsive, it’s emotional, it’s been filtered through life experience and immerges from the viewpoint of the artist.
This being the case, there seems to be a continuum between outright copying and completely original. Most art lands somewhere in between.
One of the common areas of copywrong is where someone, anyone, takes an artist’s work and uses it for commercial gain. Whether it’s a corporate taking a photo of your mural and creating sellable calendars out of it, or finding your art printed on the side of a campervan, stealing is stealing and selling stolen goods is selling stolen goods.
Artists across genres know you need to go through the amateur stages before growing into your own thing. At the beginning of an artist’s journey a lot of work will be closer to the ‘copying’ end of the spectrum. Slowly, with confidence, experience and skill, creative work tends to move towards the ‘original’ end and the ability to produce work that’s their work.
In any case, identitcal is bad, remix is good.
Once all the same-same is out of the way and artists have developed a solid foundation and toolkit for creating their own work with their own flavour, it becomes easier to be inspired and craft new original works.
It can get blurry though. There are certain artforms like hip hop and collage which have a long and deep history of taking what’s been created before. The very foundations of the cultures of these artforms are about taking works and somehow remaking them. In these worlds the taking part is celebrated and even encouraged.
But it’s within these worlds too that protecting original stuff is often policed from the inside. Hip hop artists policing hip hop artists. Collagers policing collagers. If you steal, your fellow people will call you out on it.
So, to use or not to use? It’s a little grey. And cultural appropriation is a whole other ball game.
What can you do to make protect yourself from stealing or being stolen from?
- Have a clear record of what you’ve created and when, even if its a digital record of you emailing your creation (or even a photo of your work) to yourself so it has a timestamp on it.
- Have a clear contract in place for commissioned works. Bad exposure has a great contract checklist outlining what needs to be covered in a clear written agreement.
- Think “What would upset you?” This could be financially, ethically, or morally. Asking this can help you judge if you’ve crossed the line or someone else has crossed the line with your work.
- If you’ve been copy-wronged, hit hard with your first confrontation. Get an expert to help you write a letter explaining why you’re feeling ripped off and explaining the consequences of this. A solid letter can be a great motivation for whoever’s ripped you off to make amends (so they don’t have to deal with any reputation damage) and stop making copywrong choices, this is all without you having to engage in legal battles.
- Do due diligence. While creating your work, if you need to, check if you’re actually free to create without stepping on anyones toes. Are you infringing on their privacy (like painting an image of someone without their permission)? Or breaching trademark rights (like completing a work that impacts on someone’s reputation)?
- Be a decent human and give credit where credit is due.