Sunday, April 12, 2009

look familiar?

I was in San Luis Obispo this weekend with my sister, Brena. We were wandering around a gift store when she sucked in her breath. She had spotted this:

No, it's not mine. It's some cheap crap from China created by the Grasslands Divison of Amscan, a company I could only find after doing an image search of the item I found in this gift store. I like mine much better:

Of course, their version was $7.95, while mine is $140. And theirs is a miniature version, about 4" and 5" high. Check out the similarity in photography. This is theirs:
and mine:

Or maybe I'm just totally paranoid.


The first time I made this piece was about 5 years ago. I threw this vase shape: bulbous on the bottom, with a flared, tall opening. And then the piece sat around. I didn't really know what to do with it and I wasn't coming up with a good design for this shape. I had an idea that the flared part should represent a flower opening, but my initial designs were not working for me. This was when I was developing the whole seed and pod line, and I was having a lot of fun playing around with my razor blade and re-shaping the openings of pots. Rather than trash this piece, I decided to do a version of the pomegranate with it, and 20 minutes later I had my first Sprout, as I like to call this vase. And I loved it. I think it is sophisticated, sculptural piece, that functions beautifully as both a vase and a work of art. That's the history of the piece, because like with almost all of my pieces, there is a story behind the design.

The incident this weekend led me back to a note I received about a week ago from another Etsy seller (edited for clarity, and to protect the possibly innocent):

Whoa, I thought your work was on the front page of Etsy, but I guess it was someone else. It seems this potter has been adapting a few styles from you, and possibly me. What do you think, as an artist and a potter? Does this ruffle your feathers at all? I really don't know what to think.

This note has nothing to do with the sprout piece, but another piece of mine that is extremely popular, and is such a classic design that I do not feel I have any copyright protection over it, I just have my own take on it. So I shrugged off the alert. But let me say this in bold type: I do not feel that way about most of my work. This is where the rubber really meets the road: getting ripped off sucks. My feathers get ruffled, and yeah, I get pissed. This is not the first time I've seen a cheap replica of my work coming out of China, and I always get this sick feeling in my stomach. It's a combination of anger, helplessness, and the creepy feeling of being stalked by people who specialize in ripping off intellectual property.

But I've learned to be realistic-- people who don't trust their own design instincts or are too lazy to develop them are out there, they work for big companies that are easy to name, and they are trolling my work and the work of others for "inspiration" as I write this right now. They are copycats, and copycats are just as disdained in the grown-up world as they are in first grade. I will continue to make great work, and copycats will continue to rip me off, and others. Rae Dunn, to name one person who is so relentlessly ripped off she started manufacturing a line in China so she could rip herself off before the copycats could. And people still copy her.

There is emulation, and learning from the work of others. That's one thing. Students may be forgiven for their trespasses on the road to developing their own style. I may see echoes of my work in the work of others, but my work contains echoes too. That is the nature of art-- there is hardly anything that has not been done before. But the line is there. Just like Justice Stewart said in a Supreme Court ruling about obscenity in 1964, pornography may be hard to define, but he knows it when he sees it. And while some may try to blur that line as they "subconsciously" appropriate your work, as an artist you know when the line has been crossed. We all know when we've been totally ripped off. And right now, I feel a little bit shredded.

For another discussion about ceramic artists getting the shaft in the world of design, read this old post.


  1. Anonymous5:31 AM

    this is disheartening to say the least and i can see how it must infuriate you. the only consolation i can think of (and i'm sure it's not enough) is that the customer who purchases the 7.95 object is probably not a connoisseur of fine ceramic objects and would likely not be a potential customer

  2. That is a pretty raw deal! It is pretty obvious that it is a cheap knock off of your vase. Where would you even begin to go with something like that, though? And the Orphan Works bill would make situations like this much more difficult. The bill basically makes it easier for companies to infringe on intellectual property rights. It passed the Senate in October last year, but I haven't heard much about it since then. (I would put a link to it on here, but I have no idea how to do that.) Why must people be so damn greedy and corrupt?!

  3. First, let me say I'm sorry for your Loss... because that's what it is - a loss of revenue and a loss of faith. "Imitation" (theft) is NOT the best form of flattery. I too, have been "flattered" many times and each time my stomach hurts, especially when a customer says "oh, she's making things just like you do..." e-gads.

    My little mantra has been "there's a lot of ideas I need to explore and I will move on because at least I have the creative ability to do so" then I have some mint tea for my stomach :o(

    PS- I picked your Blog to receive the Kreativ Blogger Award :o)

  4. UUGGHH. i know that horrible nauseating feeling well. there was one HUGE company knocking me off for years. they send their people to gift shows to snoop around for "ideas." luckily, one of the times they were in my booth, my rep realized who they were and scolded them and told them that i was ON to them. they put their tails between their legs and ended up having me design a line for their company. a very small consolation for the millions they had already made off of me.

    the more popular you work becomes, the more it is out there and up for grabs. the sad thing is that etsy is becoming a showcase for the copycats. i know so many talented artists who refuse to get an etsy site because of that. it is just SO easy for the artist-wanna-be's to find a style they want to copy and then run with it. they have an entire catalogue of your work at their fingertips.

    the only difference is that they are NOT artists, they are CON artists.

  5. Liz Paley9:12 AM

    Hi Whitney,

    I discovered your blog via etsy when I was trying to see how other potters design cake stands (mine look totally different from yours, I promise!) and have since become an avid pottery blog reader.

    My sister, a professional artist, has become an activist in the anti-copyright realm, and thinks current copyright laws hurt more artists than they help. See and for some interesting takes on this.

    I'm not sure where I stand on the issue, but surely there's a big difference in the audience for cheap copies and the audience for the Real Thing.

  6. *gasp* Oh my goodness, that is so awful! I feel sick to my stomach too. I'm so sorry this has happened to you.

    I'm glad you mention students because as a student I greatly admire your work, and I confess, I tried to make a plate with flowers on, inspired by your own work but a different shape and different flowers, but it came out hideously bad anyway! (it warped in the kiln and the glaze went a funny colour)

    I suppose that's a little different to having your work mass produced by a company though. Good for you to name and shame.

  7. This sucks big-time. I have a few potter friends that have dealt with the obvious rip-off issue. It is really difficult and expensive to get a design patent for hand-made ceramics partly because of the subtleties/varieties of design/glaze combos. I think it would also be a really difficult patent to enforce globally. The one thing they were successful at was being able to educate shop owners about the rip-off. In most cases the shop-owners recognized how wrong it was and pulled these items off their shelves. Word got back to the manufacturer and the message was sent that this was not cool.

  8. Great post! Thanks for having the courage to speak out!

  9. Oh my goodness, how blatant and depressing. I'll bet lots of mass produced items in stores have been stolen from the original artist. I think we need a duty placed on foreign made products before they can be imported. I'm making a concerted effort to purchase only handmade and American made and manufactured products. Hopefully that'll help improve our economy in some small way. At school one of my classmates asked another classmate, "do you think Linda would mind if I copied her idea?" I was slightly flattered, but also irritated, since it came from someone like me who has been potting for years and knew better. I think schools should have a discussion about making the work your own right at the beginning of each semester, talking about the satisfaction which comes from developing an idea and then creating it. I've taken several workshops where this has been discussed by the artists and I have appreciated it each time. After reading your post, I now see documentation, dates in my journal, and on my work may be important.

  10. Thanks for all of you comments.

    I agree that a person who is buying that cheap item may not be my customer. But part of my mission in life is to educate people about the big difference between the beauty of handmade and the worthlessness of cheap, manufactured, pottery. As a culture we are all to ready to drop money on cheap crap, stuff that we ultimately don't value very much. What's the point of that? I think many people don't consider this as they spend their droplets of money on these things, and it is part of my job to get the word out, because really, these people ARE my customer. I think there are very few people who derive happiness from being surrounded by items that have no intrinsic value.

    And I agree that these shop owners also need to be educated. I will be sending a letter to the Apple Farm gift store in San Luis Obispo, as well as the stores I found online carrying my work.

  11. Well I would be so p*ssed if this happened to me, some people have no shame!!! or moral integrity.

    Sorry that it happened, I am sure it will happen again and it totally sucks... your quality work stands out and is far superior x

  12. For Rob, Simple Circle Studios and any other artist worried about the orphan works bill- The Orphan works bill is intended to help people access and utilize intellectual property that cannot be traced to copyright owner. The bill makes it neither easier nor more difficult to rip off artists. A thief only needs to change a small part of the design to get away with it - i.e. clay body, glaze etc (as Rae Dunn has surely discovered). The issues that Whitney discusses and you all are rightly concerned with, have been going on for years and not at issue for the orphan works bill.

    What is at issue are works whose creator has died and has not left any heirs. This impacts educational use of materials, archives ability to restore and display works (especially with film), and libraries ability to digitize materials.

    A "reasonably diligent search" must be conducted when tracking a copyright owner. You all are alive and well - and many of you are very visible on the web, in galleries, etc. Ya'll aren't hard to find. Make sure you're signing your work.

    I've read some panicked responses from art associations about orphan works - and they get it wrong for the most part. The issue you all have is not whether or not you can be found - it's how little of your design can be changed so someone else can make money off of it.

  13. Thank you Miss Sexy Librarian!

  14. Bunny Safari8:04 PM

    What a blow to your creativity! At least you have the artistic know-how to keep creating unique items that will keep your loyal clients coming back for more of YOUR original art. The only consolation I can offer is that as the global economy slows down, the general public will demand beautiful hand crafted items from artists and reject factory reproductions.

    Chin up!

  15. I've seen an imitator of your work on Etsy, and wondered how you felt about it.

    Potters ripping off other potters always bothers me more than industry, because industry can't really ever get that sense of aliveness. There are invariably too many subtle compromises made, and it eventually resembles a real piece of pottery as much as a mannequin looks like a person. But a potter, even a copycat potter, can produce something much more like the real deal.

  16. I just have to say how angry I am about you getting ripped off! I've been stewing about it since I first read your blog and posted before.

    But I wanted to say I just read an interesting article on the Orphan Works Act in Art Calendar, April 2009, page 8. "Public Policy:
    What’s in the Works for Orphan Works?
    By Ligaya Figueras" On line the link is Another link is, Orphan Works Opposition Headquarters. For more details about the legislation, visit the Americans for the Arts at wow. It's interesting who is supporting the OWA, it sure doesn't seem to be artists!

  17. I feel ill seeing that too. Can we take heart that the web might get Apple Farm to change their tune? Who is having this work produced in China? do they live in cali? I've heard about artists going to big shows and having people order one of everything they make, and sending directly to china....That's why I dont' want to do those shows. I don't know where it stats being worth it if your just being ripped off. It's so tough. I'm calling apple farm maybe they can lance this boil of malcontent bubbling up from my gut...

  18. Thanks Whitney for the great post.Sorry you were so blatantly ripped off.

    Maddening though this is this is exactly the way big manufacturing works. They hire "designers" who are responsible for creating hundreds of products a year. These "designers" shop the market and get "inspired". The good ones will use this inspiration to create a new product that reflects their company's look but many will just buy a "SAMPLE" and send it off and get thousands of cheap copies back. I know this because "shopping" was a big part of my previous job in the garment industry.

    I am not in any way saying that this is OK.
    What these companies don't care to realize, in their profit making quest, is that the ideas for these pieces come from the original artists creative soul.

    I LOVE that rae took the situation head on and at least gets something back from people ripping her off. Also her comment about "con artist" is priceless.

  19. I know what you speak of when you mention the other potter on etsy. I myself have considered e-mailing you regarding this. Granted it may not be your signature design, but I feel it's in bad taste anyway.
    My personal take is this. I can go to china town and buy a gucci purse for $15.00, but I will always know its a fake. Yes they make a fortune, but I rather save up my money, and buy an original. So I know that I have a "Whitney Smith"... and if I can't afford it, I rather have a piece with a little pin-hole that you put on sale, than a faux-sprout for $7.95.

  20. Brena is so right...what needs to be addressed is how little has to be altered for a copy to be 'legal"!....many, many years ago I worked for a company that ripped off plush toy designs ( did not realize it at the time I was hired...was interviewed to be a 'designer'....when I showed up for work, my first assignment was to copy and create a pattern for a "Rainbow Brite" stuffed doll. The original was plopped on my worktable, and the head 'designer' gave me a lesson on how little I had to change to make a 'legal' copycat version...I remember quite clearly...the eye lights had to be moved from the right to the left, and one color stripe of the rainbows on her legs and arms had to be taken out!. That was IT!...the owner of this company, it turns out was a master at knowing exactly what needed to be done to sneak under the law. Needless to say, I quit after 6 days, but that experience shook me...( was never paid for the 6 days either..big surprise!)
    This is a much bigger issue than Orphan works...the fact that a slight change in SIZE or a little notch in a leaf is a LEGALLY valid difference in design!..
    And I agree with Rae that etsy is sort of like a big open catalogue for copy cats, but I think part of the reason is that full time professionals are not the majority on the site...those of us who struggle to truly earn a living by virtue of our art and craft, also seem to understand there is an unspoken 'code of ethics' with each other...I have been very much on the fence about staying for this reason...90% of my 'hearts' are from other jewellers or peepers as my firends and I call them! The web in general makes it easier for anyone to find you, but I am beginning to feel that etsy is sort of like offering a big old catalog to the world .There is a huge lack of professionalism, and ethics that seems to float along with it...
    So sorry this has happened Whitney...send those letters out...and if some galleries continue to carry the rip offs, it is indeed THEIR karma...

  21. it is very disturbing when someone with no apparent history or background in, say clay or jewelry, just suddenly appears on the scene with a finished product to sell that looks uncannily like someone else's work. i mean, how did that person get there? it is so obvious.

    and i agree with kerin that etsy is probably not the place for full time professionals. it is sad that etsy has come to this, but it HAS.

    you want to think that we coud just put our blinders on and not see what is out there to avoid being angered, but it is like a car just CAN'T NOT LOOK !!!!

  22. I think that sick feeling in your stomach comes whether the knock off is intended for your target audience or not.

    And as for your lovely work, that quite frankly I have seen others imitate on the front page, your craft is not alone.

    I have a folder full of convos from kind souls who have seen my level designs on etsy copied and sold.

  23. That makes me ill. A lot of times, there will be manufacturers walking through craft shows and taking photos of people's work, or buying it to send off to be copied. It's horrible.

  24. "But I've learned to be realistic-- people who don't trust their own design instincts or are too lazy to develop them are out there, they work for big companies that are easy to name, and they are trolling my work and the work of others for "inspiration" as I write this right now. They are copycats, and copycats are just as disdained in the grown-up world as they are in first grade. I will continue to make great work, and copycats will continue to rip me off, and others."

    I certainly do feel your pain and echo the sentiment in this paragraph. I've come to a place where I no longer feel angry when I see my design concepts popping up all over Etsy, now I just feel pity for lazy metalsmiths who are making and selling lies to their buyers. It's sad.

    But my stuff continues to be awesome and fresh so I say to the copycats:

    SUCK IT.

  25. you should post things like this on

  26. It's sickening isn't it? In my line of work, one of the ugliest things we encounter is people who just outright steal the photos of other artists and pass them off as their own. Unbelievable. I wrote my own rant about it recently after discovering the situation was hitting very close to home. Too close to home to ignore it.