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!


  1. Isa Maria Seminega says:

    Well said. It’s clear there is a problem with genuine copying but there also seems to be a lot of calling out when in reality the idea is just similar.

    It’s hard to know what people are inspired by but I know I’ve freaked out on behalf of friends whose work I could’ve sworn I’d just seen only to find out it’s someone else’s.

    On the flipside I’ve also seen people publicly call out others who are using a similar blog name and threaten legal action when in reality the blogger was simply using their birth name! It is arrogant.

    Research is key here and not going blindly into accusation mode. Love your policies. Will remember to refer to them in future!

    • Jessika says:

      Thanks for your comment Isa-I have real concerns with this public calling out! I think it is great that the community is willing to support people being wronged but it is scary to think that witch hunts can start over misunderstandings that could be resolved or worked through. Similar styles is not the same as out and out copying! If it was we would loose many talented creators to the fear of being unoriginal.

  2. Holly Abston says:

    This is a fantastic post! I get a little tired of people stamping their feet and yelling “mine!” at every artist who has a similar design. Every time I turn around there is a post about how someone has been wronged, their style has been copied, etc. I agree that outright copying is wrong, but there are going to be artists with similar styles, influences, etc. Thank you for your rational approach.

    • Jessika says:

      Thanks Holly! I have been seeing a lot of angry posts also which is too bad, they slam the door on solutions instead of opening it! Outright copying is totally wrong & unethical-but I think we do an equally great wrong when we accuse people without trying to find a resolution first.

  3. Mayi Carles says:

    Holy mother of Jesus + Buddah + the Holy Spirit + all the saint + all the cupcake makers in the galaxy… this one deserves a Nobel.

    Jessika I really don’t know how you do it, but you always manage to tackle the most sensitive + taboo subjects that are on all of our minds, but we are so afraid to spill open. And best part is, you do it with so much love + kindness that anyone that comes fired up ready to fight is disarmed by your beauty + ability to bring peace always.

    I truly appreciate you taking the time to cover this one. You more than anyone possibly knows how hard it has been for me to deal with mean people.

    I call it the pharmaceutical complex, or positioning yourself in a pedestal above your community. I’ve even suffered from this complex at times + need to remind myself to get down of my high horses + realize that we’re all in this together.

    I hate spending my days traumatized that people are actively trying to rip me off + instead I find it more productive to spend my focus + energy on creating with love. And vice versa. It drives me insane when someone seriously thinks I’m that stupid to wanna copy them. What part of “I’m here to stay” don’t they see?”

    No one that want to be here when they’re 80 will act to stupidly!

    Seriously. People need to do their research before pointing fingers. Our ego’s are too fragile + too narcisistic to know any better. I have one of those too, so I’m speaking from experience. So I know the drill. I know I always have to rely on my friend Google to help me find the truth before finding conclusions.

    Oh boy… I could keep talking but I’ll leave it at this.

    For now… hehehe!

    • Jessika says:

      To the lovely Mayi I bestow the best comment of the year award for this line: “Holy mother of Jesus + Buddah + the Holy Spirit + all the saint + all the cupcake makers in the galaxy…” Love how the saints & cupcakes go hand in hand; )

      Re: the difficult stuff-I used to work with kids who would tell me stories of horrific things, I would have to make them feel heard and then tell their parents and often child protective services. I have advocated for youth with police, worked with sex trade workers and dealt with some heavy heavy situations. I think once you deal with stuff like that any issue has perspective and can be approached in a rational/kind way! I think everyone should have to do their time in the trenches in order to be able to step back!

      You made a great point that I didn’t get to in my post about how damage to your reputation is so difficult to undo once it is out in the world. Any serious artist would never risk that so it is best to do your research and see if they have a strong brand/style before calling names! Especially when name calling can be so very hurtful to our hearts and to our careers.
      This quote comes to mind:
      “But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet, Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” W.B. Yeats.
      I love you & your brand-you are 100% you and that is the best we can hope for!

  4. Jessika’s 7 Principles are brilliant but her lead illustration tells it all! I love it. I always say we must be Starfish: When someone cuts off a leg[idea] just grow a new one and carry on. Territorial battles do not justify the time money or emotions spent. (Unless you want to be remembered for the battle not the artwork.)

  5. Stacey says:

    I understand people wanting to ensure that their work isn’t copied or duplicated, especially for profit. I also understand that given the number of people in the world, there are bound to be a few folks who have pretty similar ideas. It’s the people who don’t understand that point that are part the problem.

    There is a worry, from time to time, that I’ll be accused by someone of ‘copying’ their work… but it’ll be an argument that won’t hold up unless I’ve copied their design to the very last detail. Sure, I look at what other people are designing and have used in the past (big fan of vintage botanical designs, right here) to be inspired, but I would never think of copying someone’s exact work for my own benefit. I wouldn’t like it if someone else did it to me, why would I do it to them? And I have no problems crediting people if I’ve been inspired by their work… which is something a lot of people just don’t do. Google, people… it can be your friend 🙂

    Great post, Jessika!

    • Jessika says:

      Thanks Stacey-I think it is a fear for all makers, which is why it is such an emotional topic. Good point about google-I like to check out what other products are on the market before I sell work (which is also great when it comes to not underpricing!) and I can then aim to do something that isn’t already being done.

  6. I too have been touched by this situation very recently, and decided to manage it behind the scenes with some detective work, email conversations and soul-searching. All through it I did not want to over-react or be seen to be a ‘drama queen’ – that is not my way. At the end of the day, like you, I saw my part in this stream of connected ideas and let it go.

    • Jessika says:

      Thanks for sharing Beka and good for you: ) It is so hard to set that emotion aside and approach the icky stuff calmly-but in the end I think we feel so much better about the outcome (even if we don’t get what we want!).

  7. Tacy says:

    Great article and I agree with all of your points. Most often, these situations are genuine misunderstandings and can be easily resolved by engaging in a conversation, especially in a group of mom-entrepreneurs, who I would like to believe are supportive, kind and encouraging.

  8. Marie Noelle says:

    Inspiration comes from somewhere (anywhere really… a book, a movie, a poem, your cat, etc) and it may happen that 2 persons get inspiration to create something similar…

    Your policies & procedures for dealing with the icky/sticky situations are really smart and wise!

    I say: Bravo Jessika!

    • Jessika says:

      Oh but don’t let that stop you! In my experience at least for every not great situation there has been a thousand incredible ones to more than balance it all out. It is so very worth putting yourself out there, even if you might have a down moment or two: )

  9. Lakshmi says:

    Well said Jessika ! I don’t know how you do it – but you handle this messy topic with such dignity & poise . I have so much to learn from you on this issue alone. I don’t think i have seen anyone handle this issue so head on yet calmly.
    I rally around artists whose work i think has been stolen- so I get angry about it . While I think it is important to support them , I have never stopped to think if the other person may have had the inspiration from elsewhere .
    I’ve read your comments on other blogs when the issue of copying arose – & those are the times when I realized that there is more than one way to handle this – and bring angry is not the only way .
    Thanks for such an awesome post , jessika !

    • Jessika says:

      Thanks Lakshmi!!!! What a wonderful comment: ) I am actually a deeply emotional/impulsive person who loves to defend the underdog/speak out & have learned after sticking my foot in my mouth too many times to count that I can actually make more of a difference if I let myself be angry for a bit BEFORE I say anything. That one little thing has changed so many things in my life for the better (& it was SOOOO hard to learn). I still speak out-but in a different way: ) That shift has allowed me to make so many friends out of potentially ugly situations which amazes me!

  10. Renee says:

    I think you make a lot of great points. I posted a long-winded essay on my blog to voice my thoughts on the topic, if you’re interested:

    Sometimes the conflict runs deeper than we realize, if there is a history between the artists, though. A deeper question is what to do when the artists have tried to resolve the issue at hand but no common ground can been found?

    • Jessika says:

      Thanks for sharing the link Renee I really enjoyed reading your post & will link to it in the future as you cover a lot of great ideas.
      I was thinking on your question since it is an important one, what if you have done the above and gotten nowhere, what then? Hmmm-I wonder if anyone is offering conflict resolution and mediation for creatives? It could help resolve issues for people before they end up angry or in court. Once upon a time that would have been a dream job for me but a bit too intense for me now! Would be a fascinating service though if people used it!

  11. Jenelle says:

    What a great post and as others mentioned very well positioned. It says a lot about your character to remove your own illustration- I have a lot of respect for you doing so.

    I love this quote: ” True originality is recognizing your inspirations and combining them in new or unexpected ways. “

    • Jessika says:

      Thanks Jenelle but just to clarify I did not remove my own illustration-why would I? It was my design that was created independently, but the artist of the other image did request that I remove their feather so of course I did. Hopefully it doesn’t diminish my character in your eyes: )

  12. I so know how you felt. Last year I posted a craft that I had learned a few years ago from a craft night at my church’s ladies group. I thought it was this sweet little old lady’s own craft, got her permission, and posted complete with pictures. I got a comment on my blog from the person who said she was the originator…a not-so-nice-accusatory-comment I might add. I was all red-faced, heart racing, and embarrased. Sent her an email, explaining everything, apologizing and even took that post down. She did respond back and was much nicer (I’m guessing she felt she had been taken advantage of “for the last time” , I dunno…)
    Long story short, until you have all the facts, just be nice. LOL I was innocent, and totally flabbergasted and quickly tried to make ammends, but all my readers that saw that public comment…what must they have thought about me? her? sigh….

    • Jessika says:

      That must have felt terrible Jeanette! I can just imagine how your heart must have pounded-but it also goes to illustrate how ideas are not only spread and changed online but in other ways too. I am glad that you were able to resolve it with her though-I am sure your readers know you & it didn’t hurt your relationship with them: )

  13. Talk about grace under pressure Jessika! These are the moments in business and in life that no one can really teach you how to deal with, but it sounds like you did a beautiful job! The handmade community has faced its fair share of fighting of copying and maintaining our creative rights, so it is no wonder that there is a quick jump to judgment in some cases. I think your first point is the best – take a step back and breathe (eat a cupcake is always good too). Responding in humility, kindness and love will always get you farther than responding in anger. I hope you feel you are now to the “let it go” part and that bridges have been mended – as far as you have any control. So sorry for your experience, but thank you for taking the time to share with us and for being a lovely example of what it means to be part of community!

    • Jessika says:

      Thank you for your lovely comment Brianne: ) I agree-there have been so many legitimate examples of copying and total lack of respect of copyright in the handmade community making many quick to look for connections between designs. I know I have done so myself many times, I think that is where the research is so important. A lot can be cleared up by taking the time to check in. I was to the let it go part immediately because I am secure in the origin of my designs-it makes it a lot easier: ) I can’t control how others feel but my door is always open to chat!

  14. mel mccarthy says:

    You put this so eloquently. An odd aside, maybe, but I find if I try to hold on to ideas as “mine” even subconsciously that I start to become less creative. Freeing things up seems to open the floodgates. 🙂 Integrity is ever so important, but if we don’t throw a little caution to the wind, then fear can hold us back. Love this Salvador Dali quote: “Those who don’t want to imitate anything produce nothing” Thanks for sharing your feelings & great advice (and I love your journal sketch) I pinned it linked to your article to Pinterest. Hope that’s okay?

  15. Kourtney says:

    This is a really great post, as may other commentators have attested to. I really appreciate your recognition of the fact that inspiration comes from anyway, and it many ways it’s a form of flattery and admiration. I especially like your example about children, because it reminds us to be humble and recognize that we are human beings in this world, and we started dreaming somewhere. If we can’t dream together, we’re alone in the world, so it’s no use duking it out every single time. Cheers!

  16. Erika says:

    Feathers are everywhere right now. I thought they were only on tv and the ‘net until I went out with friends and saw them in hair! The idea that something like that can only be envisioned my one person is erroneous and leads to calling out. When I was making bags I saw so many posts about copying (not about me) and I would just laugh. A tote is a tote.

  17. jane smith says:

    great post!!

    i think part of the issue is the new context in which we are working — the internet

    20 years ago, 4, 5, 6, 100 artisans could have been making similar goods, and none of then known about any of the others work

    20 years ago, hobbyists “inspired” by the work of others (i.e. basically copying) would have sold their work at a table at a small local fair, and had no impact on the finances/livelihood of the artist they were copying — that’s not the case now

    thanks again for a thoughtful, personal and objective post about a challenging topic that is still unfolding


  18. Menucha says:

    I am so pleased to have found this article.

    I am relatively new to selling my jewelry online and recently have been dealing with what has turned to bullying. I mean blog posts written up about me, etc etc etc.

    And all this about 2 pieces that are even less similar to the ones you have posted. Most people would never recognize them as the same technique.

    And one woman who has been in the jewelry market is complaining that I call my pieces “original.”

    since i am new to this, at first I thought she may have a point – to clarify I turned to those who knew better.

    Apparently all those blog posts she wrote about me are totally not true (she writes about copyright laws…. so I let her post, laugh quietly from my computer at her self righteousness and relax with the comfort that I know I’m right…

    Thank you for this article – beautifully written!

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