Sunday, May 21, 2017

Creative Business & Infringement // About design ethics and copy cats // How to protect your designs

Something needs to get off my chest, that is why I decided to write this piece. As an artist I have been working in the creative industry for over 12 years now and I have seen things change and shift over time. I love using social media such as Instagram to show what I am creating, new designs I launched and to give my followers a little insight about what I am doing. Get feedback and discuss work. A lot of it is very helpful to running a creative business. But the downside is that my business is a very visual one. I need to show my designs in order to sell them and over the years it has gotten more and more common to see ‘Little Smilemakers Inspired’ designs pop up. So with it is not about creating only, it's about being clever and work smarter. I have grown to tackle quite some problems over the years, maybe this could also help you a little.

Your designs are my inspiration
“Who inspires you” is a question that is often asked to artists during interviews. And to me too. Inspiration to me is something that itches. Something that triggers an emotion, something that creates a response. Shows things in a different light. Confronts, stirs up. It can be a walk on the beach. The perspective of a child. Joy, grief, pain, it is all converted into creation. And therefore very personal. But the interviewee usually refers to another artist, style or brand. And this is why they are so wrong. Inspiration is not something you can copy, it is a trigger, a mood, an energy that gives you power and drive to create. If you are an artist and have your own handwriting you are not highly influenced by other styles. Somehow being inspired has turned into copying that style and handwriting. And it is not ok.

The people I approach that copy my designs usually think it is okay to copy that handwriting instead of contributing to the world, finding their own ‘voice’ in their own unique way. They forget all about staying close to their own strength and choose to disrespect the artist by making a rip off version of a product or in my case a print. I find copied work almost every day. And it saddens me. Today I run across another ‘interpretation of a little Smilemakers concept’ and usually I just feel bad for a second, eat chocolate and get on with it. But some days it is just too much and I reach a point of thinking “shall i just stop doing this” a couple of times. I make things but what people don’t seem to realize is that it is my livelihood. My bread. I spend over 60 hours a week working my ass off. Things don’t just happen. Most importantly I create from the heart, designing is a very personal process and I can see the difference between ‘inspired by’ and copied, I know why I make a certain shape, toss elements a certain way, because the design is me. I am the designer, I know.

Everyone’s a designer
When I started working as a graphic designer 12 years ago, creating things on a computer was done by a selected, talented, few. But more and more software was made, printed media was turned into mostly digital pieces and more recently it became a lot easier to get your hands on cheap software and apps to create your own ‘whatever’. So I changed my graphic ways and started to create illustrations and patterns. Serving another niche of clients. But the past year this business has gotten more and more saturated. Not because of an increase awesome new artists that entered the business. Unfortunately it is the copy cats that seem to thrive nowadays.

My work has been copied by Etsy selling housewives and big multinational businesses. When I confront people that copy my work that are individuals, mostly housewives with Etsy stores claiming to be artists, it is a different story than approaching businesses. They have no idea how copyright works, since they usually never attended any creative business classes, they don’t have any legal insight. Neither do they have any ethical thoughts about copying creations. I started to realize these woman really have no idea how disrespectful it is and how wrong they are. Today I confronted someone I noticed putting up a new design via Spoonflower, the same person already added another design similar to mine a few months earlier. I was stunned. If you have several designs similar to another artist up for sale on the same website it is not dumb luck they seem similar. It is not ‘inspired by’. It is called fraud. Design infringement. When you pick the same shapes, same composition, same theme in the same colors it is not an ‘interpretation of a concept’. Unfortunately somehow I can not get my point across to these people. There is not an easy way to prevent this. Trust me I have tried. We all have to think global and the problem is every country has it's own regulations about copyright. And I am curious how other designers deal with this.

If you are a true artist no one can take away your own uniqueness.

Everyone’s a designer so it seems. But there is a difference to a skilled professional and a copy cat. A professional approach will lead and not follow. If you are also dealing with this kind of nonsense know that a true creative heart always ticks, always creates. Rely on your own creativity, find your own voice, your own style, your own handwriting and don’t focus on others. Do not focus on the negativity and try to let go of the heaviness in your heart when you bump into copy cats and copied work. If you are a true artist no one can take away your own uniqueness. Trust yourself.

Business to business
With all visual exposure from social media it is getting harder and harder to earn a living with my designs. And every few months I work on exclusive designs behind the scenes. Within a few days copies pop up when I put something on Instagram I am working on, or add new designs to my Spoonflower shop, so I choose to keep these exclusive prints private until they are send out to a selected few. When I present my exclusive designs business to business, it’s a given one of them will add the same themes and colors to their collection next season while turning my originals down. This is of course a problem. With my thorough market research, experience and skills it is not only the design I send out. It is weeks of researching the market and target group, scaping upcoming themes, color schemes and trends into new designs. It is not just the print but a whole lot of other information too they are handed before pay out. It took me a long time to resolve this matter but when last year’s batch of spring designs became worthless I knew I had to do things differently.

Last year I made a presentation that was send out to a select few customers. One of them, I had worked for before, shared my work to a company that has stolen my designs before. The customer I send the designs to asked me to prepare a license for three designs that were part of a collection containing 10 other designs with the same theme, concept, colors and elements. However, that same customer did not get back to me to confirm these licenses. After turning down several other companies interested in the prints, I finally got in contact with them and they told me they did not want to buy the designs any more. A few weeks later, the same theme, same colors, same elements…. copies of my designs popped up in their shop. I was curious where they came from: Nooteboom, they said. Which had copied my work before. My entire collection became worthless and I could not sell any of the designs I put weeks of work in. I knew, this was the last time this was ever going to happen.

Working in the fabric industry is shady business. When I visit fabric fairs it only takes me a few seconds to find copied work. It is crazy. So yeah, I learned a lot from my 6 years of making designs for the fabric industry but it still surprises me, the lengths people will go to not pay the artist. To resolve the business to business exclusive design issue I now make customers sign a binding agreement of not adding same themes and elements to their new collection for at least a year after receiving my collection of new designs to choose from. Invest in some legal assistance every now and then. This way your ideas and heard work are at least a little more protected.

It is not much and I am sure there will be another person or company trying out something new here. But do protect your work, add a little business mindset to running a creative business and I hope this piece can prevent you from making the same mistakes I have made so far. I haven't by far figured everything out yet, being an entrepreneur means setting new goals, make mistakes and learn from them. I am working on a top 10 of mistakes, things to think about as an artist while doing business. Things to consider to protect your artwork. So stay tuned!