In the corporate world, it’s called, “best practices;”the world of group dance, it’s, “precision.” In the life of a cell, and the world of science, “mitosis.” All positive terminology and variations of taking an original and copying it either identically or just shy of it. None of them have any negative implications right? Having spent 16 years in the corporate world, I know, first hand, that copying the success of others to produce the same, positive effect is celebrated, and many times required. (I won’t speak to the worlds of dance or science. While I took ballet for a number of years as a child, let’s say “precision” wasn’t my strong suit and most of what I recall about science has come from watching, “The Big Bang Theory.”)
What about when it comes to the arts? In comic illustration, the term, “swipe” means intentionally copying an earlier comic book cover without crediting the original artist. Plagiarism is the act of copying the thoughts, expressions and ideas of a another writer without permission or credit to them. Copyright infringement, piracy, theft; all terms thrown around in the art world, many of which have spurned laws that are not easily enforceable, or for that matter easily defined. The bottom line is, despite the very nebulous definitions of the terms, and the difficulties enforcing the laws surrounding them, you rarely hear a positive term for copying when it pertains to the art world. Just about the only time, that I can think of, when copying someone else is acceptable is a student/teacher relationship where technique is being taught. Beyond that though, once out in the world on their own, a student copying the works of their teacher is considered immoral and unacceptable, no?
Having been one of many artists who recently had work stolen by a woman who then attempted to sell it on her Facebook page as her own, I can say that it is a feeling of violation not easily described. She took something that I worked very hard, and in many cases spent a great deal of money, to create and with a “right click save” of the mouse claimed it as her own and attempted to profit from it. (beyond that, she had the unmitigated gaul to attempt to sell low resolution work that still had watermarks) It was a long fought battle with her and with Facebook but I believe, at least for now, she has been stopped.
Copyright infringement aside, as that is more extreme than what I wanted to discuss in this post, what about artists who watch other more successful artists and attempt to copy their business model as a way of finding success? We live in a world where, thanks to the Internet, and venues such as Etsy, artists can more easily take their work to corners of the world they once may not have been able to. I don’t simply have to rely on local venues to sell my work; I have sold work to people in countries I have only dreamed of visiting myself. On the flip side, the same Internet that makes it far easier to sell to a broader audience, also opens an artist up to “stalking.”
I don’t mean stalking in the traditional sense, of course. I am referring to artists watching those who have proven track records and copying their actions in an attempt to glean greater success for themselves. How is this any more acceptable than if someone stood in the same exact spot I did, took the same exact picture and later, in post, created the same exact end result? The only difference is, they aren’t copying my work, they’re copying my actions and business practices.
Having survived a cut throat, corporate environment for as many years as I did, I am the first person to sit down with someone who is struggling to sell their work if they ask for my help. I want to see people succeed and I am happy to try to help them find their own success as, while it took a number of calculated business decisions and talent to get here, I consider myself very lucky. While there are still many who are more successful than I, as I still have a long way to go, what has happened to me in the three short years since I started my photography business has given me the opportunity to live a much happier life. To that end, I want to see others succeed and be able to experience the joy of creating something that others covet. However,there is no cookie cutter way of finding success in the art world. While I am happy to share tips, there are so many elements that come in to play, including the quality of the work one is putting out there; simply copying someone’s business model isn’t a guarantee of success. In the end, those benefitting from my knowledge are not only doing so with my blessing, they are taking my guidance and making it work for them, not flat out copying what I have done step by step.
Unfortunately, there are always a few (and it is most definitely a very small minority) who, whether it be out of jealousy, insecurity or, I believe, in most cases, the almighty dollar, feel that their best next step is to copy others whether exactly or so similarly that the differences are almost imperceptable. It is said that, “imitation is the highest form of flattery” but to me, in these cases, it’s not intended as a compliment to the artist but simply a means to the end for the one doing the copying.
I am of the mindset that, in order to be truly successful, every artist should find their own niche. My success came when I moved back up to Chicago and started photographing the city I have loved for many, many years. When I started to tweak my business and add new ways to present my work, such as my wood photo blocks, I found even greater success. When I took it a step further and spent hours tweaking my online shop, and opening up a local retail space, I found I had a faithful following who spread the word. The point is, the decisions I made along the way were mine.
Look, I am not the first person to mount my work on a wood photo block, I wasn’t the first person to ever use metallic paper and I am certainly not the first person to photograph Chicago, but I didn’t start adding those elements in to my business because I saw that they worked for someone more successful than I was. I did so because I truly felt they would fit well with the type of work I like to do. Inevitably, people are going to offer similar items (the latest iPhone 5 case craze is a good example) but, and I can only speak for myself, if something isn’t right for my business, I don’t add it for the sole purpose of making more money. If I don’t feel it will represent my work well, won’t project the image I wish to, or I don’t have the ability or means to successfully offer a high quality item, I don’t add it at all.
A few weeks ago, by dumb luck, I noticed that a known “stalker” (someone who, quite oddly, and unabashedly, informed me she stalks my Etsy shop to see what I’m up to) was, yet again, adding successful elements of my business in to her own. I vented to another photographer whose original work I truly respect. She reminded me that someone may copy me, for any number of reasons, but it doesn’t mean they will do it well, or be successful at it, and it certainly doesn’t mean their work will be of the same quality. Such wise advice, which I have been reminding myself many times over the last few weeks. To me, spending inordinate amounts of time watching what other people are doing and trying to emulate it is an exercise in futility. I would rather spend the time getting out with the camera or focusing on adding new processes that I know would not only work for my business but that I would enjoy doing.
In the end, it’s not all about the almighty dollar. If that was the case, I never would have walked away from the paycheck. We, as artists, should be supporting one another, not trying to climb over one another’s backs in an attempt to reach the top first. Yes, I want to pay my rent, and have food in my refrigerator, and I want to continue to be successful at what I do, but not at the expense of others; not by taking others hard work and ideas and working them in to my business. In the end, it’s about creating a business that I can be proud of, one that I worked hard to create on my own, with my own two hands and my own mind. It’s about a business that I can say wasn’t a carbon copy of another more successful one but, rather, an original Tracey Capone Photography design.