Copycats & lessons we can learn

I’d like to take a moment to talk about something that I’m really passionate about. Remember the presentation I gave in Etsy’s Virtual Labs about creativity, competition and copycats? Well, the video above featuring Johanna Blakely giving a TED speech shares the same ideas, and it was an eye-opener to hear that in the fashion industry, everyone is running against each other and that competition is considered fair play. Before you clear your desk and throw your arms up in the air in exasperation, I’d like you to hear Johanna out and read what I have to say — I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic after.

We now live in a world that is different from what it was 5 years ago. With the age of the internet, everything is done twice, if not triple times as fast as before. What was previously unheard of before can now spread like wildfire, and with it came a wonderful surprise. No longer does anyone have to fit into one giant group. We now have niches and segmented group of people who are interested in vastly different things. Best of all, we have the ability to search and gather exactly what we want, whenever we want it.

What does this mean to you? Artists, illustrators, and designers can now freely do what they please and practice what they do best. They can now search and target their specific audience instead of trying hard to fit into a particular mold. And with it comes the work: your ability to challenge, innovate and make new things. And if you have your own business, you have to keep things fresh for your audience.

This isn’t limited to only artists — writers, bloggers, publishers; most industries should keep this in mind when they compete heavily among themselves. I’ll put it this way: everyone wants the bigger piece of the same pie – but for those who are looking and thinking ahead; they don’t want to be one of the maddening crowd. They’ll bake their own special pies, thankyouverymuch. Also, a lot of pressure is eliminated when you are focusing on building your own thing, rather than waste your energy to preserve your status quo against a slew of newcomers who can do it better, faster, cheaper for a general audience.

I once read that creativity is defined as the ability to channel various existing ideas and make them into something new and better. It isn’t something magical or limited to only a select few. Everyone can be creative — copycats are merely serving a need within a market (cheaper knock-offs, etc) that has nothing to do with YOUR market. Copycats are here to make money, designers and artists are here to make a difference. Which side are you on?

30 Replies to “Copycats & lessons we can learn”

  1. jen says:

    very well said 🙂 i agree, wholeheartedly.

  2. aaron says:

    But yet, in this age when young aspiring artists/designers/illustrators are presented with the problem of how to survive independently – their goal is to make money, no? You stated that Copycats are here to make money, so what differs them to the above?

    I understand your points, this is simply the argument that springs to mind and your response interests me.

  3. Amy says:

    Aaron, great point to note.

    There’s a difference between how copycats make their money, and how designers make theirs. It’s an interesting thing that both are fulfilling a niche in the market. Designers satisfy a consumer’s need for something different, while copycats satisfy markets who could never have been able to pay a premium for a designer’s idea when it first comes out.

    In mass markets, designers/artists are innovators, and their creativity and idea is what makes them valuable. Great designs, painstaking details and handmade items that are sought out by people who appreciate them. Copycats, on the other hand (we’re talking about big chain retailers) are conservators whose task is to produce quantity over quality, and by sheer economics of scale — because they see a demand and a willingness by parties who wouldn’t mind sacrificing quality over price.

    Both of them earn their profits differently — but in the end both of them do make their money.

  4. linda says:

    Wow, great video. I love the idea and it will be exciting to see how the creative industries change and evolve through time with the new emerging and ever changing technologies. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Anita Z says:

    very, VERY interesting video. i am perplexed that the fashion industry actually embraces people copying their designs and says that that is innovation? i also found the chart showing the profits of the copyrighted vs. non copyrighted industries fascinating. i feel a little bit confused about the whole thing.

  6. donna says:

    the first thing my first advertising teacher (former madison avenue creative director) said was, “THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN ORIGINAL IDEA.” i’ve thought about this for 30 years, now. so true. all we can do is to try and serve it up in some new, fresh way. i’m still trying….

  7. tiel says:

    it certainly is an interesting discussion and I really think timely. Aggghhhh…the internet..can’t be uniquely independent with it and can’t be uniquely independent without it!

  8. Lida says:

    “Copycats are here to make money, designers and artists are here to make a difference. Which side are you on?”

    Very well said. Sometimes I also get frustrated with the copycats, especially where we live, in a very small town, everybody knows each other- artists, designers and the copycats. I am happy to be on the side of the original thinkers and keep pushing the pixels in my own unique direction.

  9. jim says:

    i think much of the problem as it pertains to etsy is the economic gap between one market and another isn’t as dramatic as the example that was used in the video

    when a artist/designer is selling an item for $50(for example) and someone copies that item and sells it for $30-35 they aren’t really targeting a different customer base and in that sense, this doesn’t necessarily apply “Both of them earn their profits differently — but in the end both of them do make their money”

    the larger the gap in cost and quality the less impact a knockoff will have on a designers bottom line

  10. Piper says:

    This is such a great post and I agree with Donna – I remember hearing “there is no such thing as an original idea”. Which in some ways seems so true. All you can do is be yourself and right there gives you your unique take on something. It’s interesting though this discussion especially when it does come down to artistis/designers that sell to the same market for example. Very interesting and thought provoking!

  11. Salvador says:

    Such a convincing presentation!! Blakeley makes a great case for her point, namely that the less time you spend in litigation the more time you spend on innovation, trying to stay ahead of the curve. How will all this global digital sharing we’re partaking in affect our creative industries? My friend is a fashion designer & she regularly has firm chats with others in the community who are copying her ideas. It usually works. But what is the nature of inspiration, anyway? A painter I know thinks that if someone copies you, save your time trying to protect your intellectual property & create something new! (ie courthouse vs. studio time)
    I think for myself, I’m partially hiding behind the premise that visitors to my blog might steal the ideas/images, and therefore I should hold off on posting them until… something…. not quite sure…. Ding! The bell goes off, someone’s making excuses, really I’m being shy about showing my work. Fear has a funny way of disguising itself as a copyright protection plan.

  12. This is a great article Amy, thanks for sharing the video too.
    I’m sharing it on the IB twitter and facebook page.

    ‘To make the difference’ is the most important thing and I strongly think that one way to do this is for example using materials and techniques that are hard to replicate or that presuppose an high knowledge and lots of studies behind.

    This gives rise to products that,, if replicated, would probably have substantial differences, losing in that way their own peculiarity who can bring them to success.

  13. thea says:

    fantastic post. thank you for sharing this video. it was very interesting and insightful.
    i have to agree with donna & piper. in the craft revolution so many of us are doing very similar things and all we can do is represent what we do the best way that we can.
    i am definitely going to share this post. thank you!

  14. Need to return to watch the video later but your closing statement really resonated with me:

    “Copycats are here to make money, designers and artists are here to make a difference.”

    I see designers jumping on fads/bandwagons all the time in order to make a quick buck. Let them fizzle out with the fad I say because eventually they will.

  15. erica says:

    Love the Charlie Parker Be Bop statement.

    In some ways this is a query about whether or not you enjoy the constant ‘innovation’ and TRUST the generosity of the muse. All the energy spent trying to ‘keep’ creations to myself – attempting to claim them and financially benefit only serves to feed the ‘hungry ghost’ of the ego. The tighter I get – the less creative I am.

    Such an interesting dance – thanks for the query.

    1. i love how you put this to words! that darn ego…

    2. this is a complex topic! and one that plagues me ….as an artist, i feel it is morally wrong to copy another’s work . work is a personal journey, time spent channeling the muse should be respected and honored.
      for someone to just start copying your unique expression is cheating in my opinion.
      but i like the idea of trusting the innovation and just keep moving ahead, there will always be artists and then wannabes. Trust in knowing real work possesses soul which cannot be copied. 😉
      create not emulate!

  16. Sherry says:

    I came here with a set of expectations after finding out that one of my desgins ( a spirit level necklace) will be copied by a manufacturer. After listening to the TED talk, I am really thinking in a whole new direction and feel insipired.

    While clearly ethics are in question, I neither have the time nor inclination to fight it. That part is not productive. I never use copying as inspiration, but it is always helpful to think it through.

    so, thanks.

  17. Kella says:

    Very interesting and informative, thanks for sharing this video.

  18. Maimy says:

    I think Jim (comment #9) really captured my feelings on the matter…

    Having said that, a few months ago, I came across an Etsy seller who had listed a couple of bags which were blatant copies of a well-known UK designer’s. Even with a similar, though cheaper, price point (the seller in question was USA based, I guess she figured no-one would notice).

    It made me angry at first, all I could do was send the info to the UK designer in question even though I knew there would be little she could do. So this seller is still there, and I question weather any of her designs are her own. But I don’t feel so angry because when I look at her work I think, it’s not that great, and it has been badly priced, this person is probably just clueless about how to run a business.

    And I think this is true of many copycats within the handmade industry – they just don’t know what they’re doing, so it’s not worth stressing about them. The chances of them making any real impact in the handmade world are slim to none.

    Also we have to look at the success of “open source” companies like Alabama Chanin. Natalie Chanin doesn’t keep her designs and processes under lock and key … and is all the more successful for it.

    Great post, very thought provoking!

  19. jen says:

    Fascinating stuff! I think about copyright issues in the design industry a bit as I was a lawyer before becoming a graphic designer. This has given me a lot of food for thought…thanks for sharing it.

  20. Maya says:

    I am on the side of freedom of expression. ideas just float in the air or as my friend said ideas travel and take on a life of their own. read meme definition on wikipedia. I paint childrens shirts on Etsy (GeorgiaBlueBoutique). You probably won’t see my designs anywhere else, but on the other hand, I do live in a vacuum. we all inspire and influence each other. thanks for the link this this speech. it inspired me to do a post on this subject on my style blog…

  21. Maya says:

    sorry, i meant to say “ I do NOT live in a vacuum”

  22. Candycassions says:

    What timing for such a great article! I have had a couple of etsy customers email me saying they have found my items and pictures on others’ websites. ( Recently someone on Facebook).

    Its flattering to know that people love your creative ideas, but bottom line: it says alot to me when I see any copycat stuff from a company. It tells me 1)They are VERY limited to what they can do for their customers ( cause they rely on someone elses ideas) and 2) it tells me even more about how they chose to do their business.

    Sure, we look to see what others sell so we can assess the competition, and for many of us creative people, we will create beyond what someone else has and create “ outside the box” to raise the bar for our business.

    Sad to say its a catch 22 in creativity. We want to share our talents with the world, but theres alot that want to run with our talents!

    I believe you can have the same kinds of things in sorts, ( such as us with molded chocolates) many of us have the same molds, but we can do something more creative with that molded shape for it to be something different.

  23. I understand viewing another artists work for inspiration… but to intentionally copy it is wrong…Either you’re an artist or you’re a wanna be.

  24. D2E Jewelry says:

    I think you are crossing a moral line when copying another artists designs. When I came up with an original idea, I searched it to be sure it was not mainstreamed in the Etsy market before creating and posting it in my shop. Since I’ve started my shop, I have a few copycat shops that have taken my ideas for their own. Yes, it makes me mad but there is really nothing I can do about it. I don’t consider it a compliment that they liked my idea enough to consider it copy worthy, I wish they would get their own ideas. Am I wrong to feel this way?

  25. DeAnna says:

    In the video, Johanna shows the graph of the non-copyrighted industries versus the copyrighted ones and their difference in gross sales. The discrepancy between the two most likely has nothing to do with copyrights, but everything to do with what they are selling.

    Note the highest grossing sales were in food, something we ALL need and can’t live without. Movies, for example, are a luxury item, it’s entertainment and is not a necessity for survival. She is comparing apple to oranges. Everyone will spend money on food, not everyone will spend money on a movie.

    Overall, I found the video to be insightful with the exception of the graph comparison, it’s a weak argument in my opinion.

  26. Alessandra says:

    Hi Amy, I’ve been facing a new dilemma after problems with copycats pushed me to delete most of the images of my work and to put my IG on private mode. I totally get what you says, But the point is how artsits and designer can actually make money out of their work if copycats catch up with them so quickly and make a) their work obsolete b) they offer cheaper prices c) they steal costumers who generally wants to spend less on stuff? I would be curious to know what you think six years later this post

  27. Alessandra says:

    also 6 years later after this post, I’ve seen so many creative being put off by internet and its woes that basically have disappeared from it, pursuing other ways to show their work.

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