thoughts on copy culture

Recently a California-based organization called Zócalo Public Square invited on me to bring a fashion illustrator/blogger’s perspective to a conversation on intellectual property theft. The discussion included a mixologist, a photographer, a dance director and a web developer also sharing their own fascinating and diverse philosophies on copy culture. Here is my extended contribution in response to the prompt, “When is it OK to take an idea?”

I work as a professional fashion illustrator. I am also an enthusiastic, non-professional fashion blogger. Of these occupations, illustration is more clearly governed by law when it comes to intellectual property. Although I’ve discovered that explaining the nuances of copyright to clients unfamiliar with the concept is so confusing in the digital age, the conversation can be counterproductive to developing relationships and doing business. Once the illustration is released into the online realm, its value becomes impossible to quantify – there is no way to control how many times it is used or copied. The tangible value of my work to my clients seems to be my ability to visualize their ideas. This means that my business is often run more on intuition and good faith than on copyright and contract. As an illustrator who works in the fashion industry for a wide variety of clients, my laissez-faire approach to enforcing the usage of my work would horrify illustrators who work in traditional publishing. But, with my limited time on Earth, I’d rather draw than practice the law.

Fashion blogging is a virtual Canal Street of grey-market intellectual property violation. A lot of this is lazy blogging—just appropriating other people’s creations. Then there are a few clever bloggers who are combining existing images and ideas in startling new ways, creating a fascinating and viral universal cultural pulse. Regardless of the quality of the appropriation, however, watching concepts spread with incredibly liquidity is invaluable to understanding and predicting trends, which is an occupational obsession of mine. Controlling copying inhibits culture.

When is it not OK to take an idea? That may be the more cogent question. I believe the answer relates to power dynamics. When a wealthy corporation profits off copying an idea from an independent creative, something feels unjust about that. But if a teenager somewhere throws an appropriated image up on their Tumblr, logging it into the stream of consciousness of modern youth, throwing the book at them just seems petty… and old-fashioned.


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3 thoughts on “thoughts on copy culture”

  1. What are your thoughts on Pinterest? I hate Tumblr because so few people actually credit the image sources. With Pinterest I try to always find the name of the artist/designer and it seems a lot of others try to as well. I don’t see that as misappropriation at all. If anything that helps artists get their names out faster to a broader audience.

    “Then there are a few clever bloggers who are combining existing images and ideas in startling new ways, creating a fascinating and viral universal cultural pulse.”

    This comment intrigued me. Could you share a few bloggers who do this well? Truly thoughtful and creative curation is becoming more valuable now that everyone fancies themselves a curator (thanks to Tumblr/Pinterest culture). I’m always hungry now to see people doing it in a unique way. I like your comments from a previous post about how still the most valuable thing these days is creating original content, because that’s obviously much harder and gutsier than curating other people’s stuff.

    Thanks for all your thoughtful posts!

  2. Sarah – I haven’t used Pinterest myself, I tend to be a bit slow on the take with these new platforms. It took me ages to get into Tumblr, but now that I’m on it I love it. I do my best to credit what I can but sometimes it’s impossible to know if the credits are even correct, or if you’re just crediting whoever reblogged it first. It’s not an ideal system.

    There are “reverse image” search engines like that may go some way to helping with attribution and tracking down your errant images, but I’ve found it to be a very tedious, if somewhat enlightening, task. As a fashion person, I’m philosophically aligned to cultural liquidity over cultural control and protectionism.

    The challenge now is to adjust my business as an image creator to reflect how images are actually used now – which is not an insignificant challenge… let’s face it, like most visual creatives, I am struggling to solve my career like a cryptic crossword.

    Here are two bloggers that came to mind that do marvelous things with collaged images/words:

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