Candace has a great post up about inspiration, copycats and ethics on Etsy in light of our latest run-in with a plagiarist. You should go read it. She sums up a lot of what we discussed when this was all going down. I'm sure this won't be the last time we're ripped off. Our print has garnered enough popularity in the handmade and craft community that it's a sure target for sellers who want to make a buck without putting in the effort of creation. Which rankles, but hey, what can you do besides call them on it and hope they do the right thing? Thankfully, these people are in the minority in the community.
I mean, inspiration's one thing, and a very valuable thing at that, but wholesale plagiarism is another thing entirely. Picasso's quoted colloquially as saying that good artists copy and great ones steal, and that may be so, but when I read "steal," I think of it as a classy thing, you know? Like Danny Ocean and his boys knocking over a humongous, intricately-planned heist. Or David Niven in The Pink Panther. Artful stealing isn't looting, where you throw a brick and grab whatever you can without paying for it. A real thief, like a cat-burglar or a pick-pocket, steals with a style and effortlessness that leaves you, for a time, unaware that such theft has taken place. For a while, you don't even notice that the silverware drawer is emptied or the Ming vase is gone or your trouser pocket is one wallet lighter. And once the theft is realized, you're sort of amazed and a little envious that they pulled it off.
Like I said, inspiration is key when you're working creatively. But inspiration isn't appropriation. Inspiration is taking everything you experience – visually, psychologically and, yeah, spiritually – from the color of a traffic light in the afternoon or the composition of a comics page or a record in a thrift shop or the way you misread a word on a billboard or some TV show you remember from when you were a kid – and filtering that through your training and ability to best communicate what you're trying to say. Art, if you're doing it right, is communication. And if you're unwilling or unable to use your own words to communicate, well, that's just sad. This is why I don't use too much reference when I'm designing; it becomes a crutch that stands between you and real, honest-to-goodness inspiration. Which is not to say I haven't done an homage or utilized visual shorthand to get my point across. I have, (for example, my TARDIS poster is an obvious homage to the famous "Keep Calm & Carry On" posters of WW2 Britain. But for me, this made sense, as Doctor Who is another famous and instantly-recognizable British icon.) but most of the time, I prefer to arrive at my conclusions naturally.
One more apocryphal Picasso story and then we'll close. (Seriously, the dude's like the Buddha of Art with all these stories and sayings.) Legend has it that Pablo Picasso – who, I'm told, was never called an a**hole – was sitting in a café, just being all awesome and stuff, when somebody approached him for a portrait. He doodled for a second on a napkin and handed it to the person. Yay, Picasso! When the guy asked how much he owed Picasso, Picasso gave him an outrageous sum. The dude balked, saying "Look, I know you're Picasso and all that, but there's no way it's worth that much. It took you like 30 seconds, tops. And half of that time you spent looking at that lady's boobs."
"No, dude. It took me 40 years to make this." said Picasso. "You know, because I've been doing this for that long and so that's how I was able to do it so quickly. Get it? Also, I am Picasso and I an awesome. So, pay up."
Is the story true? Yes, it is. I know because I was there. But seriously, it makes a salient point as to what you're paying for when you pay for art. The physical act of creation (or copying) is not the sum of that creation. A lot of time is spent thinking, planning, wool-gathering, on top of the years of formal training and experience in order to produce a piece. Simply copying a term paper in one's own handwriting is still plagiarism – in fact it's the textbook definition of plagiarism. So, even though you spent the time and effort to rewrite every word from the original and even though you changed some words around and used a different colored pen, it's still a copy and a fraud. It's still devoid of original thought and feeling.
Bottom line: copying isn't cool. Don't do it.