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.