Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Whitney Smith opened a Pandora's box with her blog post, The Double Edged Sword of Etsy, in which she wrote about how she took action regarding another Etsy hobbyist potter who is copy catting her work. With 35 comments now posted, and a spillover discussion onto the Etsymudteam thread spanning 30 pages, about the only noncontroversial thing to be said is that this is a hot topic with indignation, passion, defensive stances, and lines in the sand. (I made my soapbox stand here, bottom of page, as OneClayBead, if you are interested).

The subtext that causes so much controversy is in how we use the word 'inspiration.' If I say 'I am inspired by Martin Luther King', it means that I want to become as much like him as possible, and we generally think of this as a good thing. I want the things that I do to look like the things that he did, and that, too, is a viewed as a good thing. There is a messy carry-over from this to saying that I am inspired by Whitney Smith, or a particular piece that Whitney made, and so I want to make pieces of pottery just like hers, or so rawly derivative of hers that they are knock-offs.

To think like this is to interfere with a process of unfolding that takes place within every artist if you let it. There is a source inside you that drives you to create, to make something, to rearrange pencils on a table even, until they are just right, and the whole thrill and payoff from being an artist is to let that unfolding happen. Pottery is only fun when I'm lost in becoming myself.

This iris ^ may look somewhat like the one next to it when it reveals itself down to the anther hidden within, but the beauty and splendor of nature are in infinite variables, of an evolution from one generation or season to the next.

There was a time period of 2 years when I cancelled subscriptions to pottery mags, and refused to let my eyes linger on other artist's work. It is when my unfolding began.


  1. Yeah, this is a tough one to deal with as there is a lot of gray area inside. . .
    I'm with you in that it is ok to be inspired by another artists works and want to pursue a similar style etc, but to out and out copy "letter for letter" someone elses work and then sell it in the same shop so to speak for a lot less is going over the line.
    Just as those knock-off designer goods which even have the designers name tag on it is illegal, so is copying another artists work letter for letter and selling it.

  2. Really, Gary- I'm sure it comes up with photographers a lot, too. How many people have tried to become Diane Arbus instead of becoming themselves? The thing that made her great was that she wasn't trying to be Ansel Adams- she was showing us life as she saw and felt it.

  3. Deep insight here! How can we ever be real and be ourselves if we are copying someone else. Not only is this person harming the other artist, they are doing themselves a huge disservice.

  4. Thanks for standing up for me and for your comments on your blog and the thread. I think copying violates your own artistic sense of integrity, and once you start down that path, you've lost your way on your own artistic journey. Many people don't even know or care what that means or what they are missing. Copying is ultimately a worthless pastime, and a waste of energy.

  5. in2l-

    That's the bite, and its true of many actions, maybe even every action in which we think we are pulling one over on someone else. We are usually doing ourselves a far worse service. I have learned this by experience!

  6. Whitney-

    "I think copying violates your own artistic sense of integrity, and once you start down that path, you've lost your way on your own artistic journey."

    That sums up my thought on it precisely. Plus, its no FUN! I've gotten to a place many times where I was just copying myself- just cranking out predictable pots that sold in the past and would sell again this month. Borrrrring!

  7. Interesting stuff... I see creating as something that goes in cycles -- part of the cycle is trying to produce work 'in the manner' of someone whose work you admire, and part is really digging into the deep well that is oneSelf and creating -- we ALL work from what we see, we ALL incorporate previous artist's work --

    having said that the whole copying thing is icky... how does one KNOW exactly, though --

    I make pin cushions and plushy owls -- items that are (almost literally) a dime a dozen on Etsy -- they are fun, however, and easy to make, and formulaic -- so where is the copying? I truly am asking?

    Then there is the 'being very careful' me -- I learned a certain style of collage-quilting that has been perfected by Susan Carlson -- who makes extraordinary butterflies -- now, I have been teaching my young sewing students how to make butterflies for almost ten years, but I have never felt like I could make a butterfly quilt and sell it -- should Susan Carlson really be able to 'lock up' butterflies?!!! again, I'm asking....

    (and btw, this comes from me, not Susan -- I have another sewing friend who knows her, and who has obtained permission to sell HER butterflies -- and all Susan asked was that my friend not UNDERPRICE her...)


  8. dee,
    Thanks for joining the discussion. We've had this for 40 pages now on the etsymudteam, and there are diverse opinions. Personally, I see some creative ideas and techniques as generic- so common that they are available for anyone's use without infringement. I don't know what they are in your media but the "dime a dozen" should indicate that they are common, generic ideas.

    Sometimes it is the way an artist uses or combines generic ideas that makes it their own. Ans sometimes two people can arrive at the same place visually without having ever seen each others' work. We all know and accept that.

    My definition of copy catting is to see another person's work, and think, "Oh, I could make that and sell it for less." and then proceed to do exactly that, in the same venue as the originator. The copy cat can show no evolution or development of their own work towards that piece. It will look totally out of place with everything else made by the copier.

    I also don't think that anyone owns an exclusive right to something as common as a butterfly, but there may be ways that Carlson uses it that have become her trademark, I don't really know.

    I used dragonflies for many years before they were as popular as IPods but I can't claim any right to them. It did hack me off though when I had to drop my studio name- Dragonfly Studio- which I had used for 25 years- when new potters in my own locale started using variations like Dancing Dragonfly Studio and Dragon Fly Studio.

    Check out Whitney's blog, too. Again, there are many opinions, and i am just offering my own.