The Illusion of Originality: Plagiarism vs. Synchronicity & How to Cope with Both

{little sketch from a 2001 journal reflecting on the ups and downs of living-notice the quote!}

One day, out of the blue, you have an idea. A brilliant, ohmyhandmadegoodnessiamsosmart sort of an idea.
So you start making the dream real-maybe you are writing, designing, sewing, sketching, painting, felting, dancing, composing music-whatever it is…you stay up way too late, pouring your heart and soul and creativity into your work. Everything about it feels amazing.

Finally when it is all done, you sit back and think: “I have created something new”

Putting it out into the world you wait to see what people think-some people love it (YAY!), some people hate it (BOO!), both cause equal parts ouch and awesome.

But what happens when that piece of your heart gets called out publicly as a fake? Worse yet-an intentional copy? Or what if you see that someone else has duplicated it stitch for stitch or word for word? It is a horrible feeling.

I’ve been there and seen many others struggle with the same feelings. Two recent situations (one of them involving my work!) made me realize its time to talk about them here. This is what I think:

There are very few new ideas.

But old ideas can be made new again.

I talked about this a bit before when I quoted Picasso in my copying post: good artists copy, great artists steal.

Ideas are recycled across time, we create from our experience, even children (who I think are a well of creativity), draw from what they have seen/heard/tasted/smelled/touched, mixing bits and pieces into something new. Our dreams are even a combination of everything we see with our waking eyes-the lines blurred with sleep. Saying that we own an idea or a technique is actually pretty arrogant if you think about it. Where is the acknowledgement of everyone else who has influenced us on our journey to create that one design? The recognition of our handmade heritage?

What makes us unique is not a singular item, not ONE piece, but the whole. How we write about our work, how we present it & ourselves, our style, our brand, our history-this is what sets us apart. The culmination of all our creativity and the people/artists we are and are becoming.

True originality is recognizing your inspirations and combining them in new or unexpected ways. Let’s take art class as a perfect example-I have taken a number of life drawing classes, we all draw the same model but the outcome is slightly different for each person. Are we copying each other? Or interpreting the same subject in multiple ways?

This is not the same as a direct copy where the copy was obviously not only based or inspired by the original but is a replica. We talked about that here.

As creatives these are issues that will come up from time to time. So how do we deal with the ugly emotions that rear their heads when we are accused or confronted with what we feel is a direct copy of our babies or an unfair accusation?

I love policies and procedure, I used to write them for a living! Sure they were for non-profits dealing with sensitive issues and vulnerable people but artists/creatives need policies too. These are based on my 7 life principles but please add your suggestions in the comments!

My policies & procedures for dealing with the icky/sticky situations:

1. Take a step back and breathe, or cry, yell, eat a cupcake-whatever helps you get grounded and focused.

2. Get a second, third, fourth (or more) opinion on the situation. Talk to friends, vent your frustrations-hear their perspectives. Don’t try to understand the mess all on your own.

3. Do your research and gather your facts. Do you have images & sketches or a timeline, can you prove that you created your idea independently? Also be humble- ask yourself is the idea generic enough that it is easily going to have been also created by others? A flower is a flower-there isn’t too much room for newness there!

4. Approach the other person, with kindness, respect and integrity, whether they are the accuser or the alleged copier. Share your concerns and open the door for the other person to reply. Be thoughtful, rational and open to their side of the story.

5. Don’t get angry. What really defines you in these moments is your dignity-anyone can be decent in a good situation, but when we are tested by difficulty our true ethics have a chance to shine. Welcome the opportunity even though it isn’t a happy one. An angry person/response is a defensive one, you can condemn yourself-even if you have done nothing wrong with your reaction.

6. Find solutions. Always offer a solution to a problem-is there an outcome you would like to see? A post removed, wording changed, credit given? What would resolve the situation for you?

7.  Protect your rights and community but not at the expense of attacking another artist-remember we are all in this together and what you put out can come back to haunt you in the future. Even if you are being attacked don’t respond in kind-sometimes if you just speak from the heart you can reach others despite their anger.

8. Step carefully-don’t write an angry reactionary post/tweets, you will only create conflict. Share the facts and let people draw their own conclusions. Be very careful about spreading stories that can be considered slander or libel unless you have the finances to deal with a potential lawsuit.

9. Let it go. While I am all for accountability, holding onto negative situations will only hurt your creativity. You have a million ideas just waiting to happen, sure they might not all be “original” but they are YOURS, that is enough.

Case Study in Originality:

Yesterday I received an email & my first ever negative comment from two readers (to be clear-not the artist themselves!) suggesting my feather illustration was too close to this design to possibly be mine.

The thing is, I have been drawing these geometric style feathers since the late 90’s in the margins of books and in many old journals. I have a wee obsession with feathers and flight so they are recurring themes. It is 100% MY illustration and I had never seen the above picture, but they are quite close so I can see how the conclusion may have been drawn (i heart puns).

So I put on my detective hat and set the timer for ½ an hour. Here is what I found in under half an hour of searching Etsy and Pinterest looking only for prints/illustrations: this, this, and this. All of these illustrations are original in their own way and no one copied the designs. There are other examples, especially once you expand the search to include other art forms. Like I said-there are few NEW ideas, but what I created is mine and that is enough for me.

Of course I still had a little panic attack when I saw the message, was sad the idea wasn’t wholly mine, and of course replied to the comments/emails and wrote to the designer of the other image with the hopes of clearing the air and letting them know my story.  But then I let it go, because if we waited to create until we have an idea we can prove is “original” we’ll be waiting until the end of time.

Here is where we open the door to finding more solutions-share your experiences dealing with accusations/originality/plagiarism and how you dealt (or didn’t deal!) with them in the comments. What worked/didn’t work, what would have worked better? Together we are a creative think tank, if we pool our resources and knowledge I know we can find ways to better deal with these sticky situations in the future!