Recently a California-based organization called Zócalo Public Square invited on me to bring a fashion illustrator/blogger’s perspective to a conversation on intellectual property theft. The discussion included a mixologist, a photographer, a dance director and a web developer also sharing their own fascinating and diverse philosophies on copy culture. Here is my extended contribution in response to the prompt, “When is it OK to take an idea?”
I work as a professional fashion illustrator. I am also an enthusiastic, non-professional fashion blogger. Of these occupations, illustration is more clearly governed by law when it comes to intellectual property. Although I’ve discovered that explaining the nuances of copyright to clients unfamiliar with the concept is so confusing in the digital age, the conversation can be counterproductive to developing relationships and doing business. Once the illustration is released into the online realm, its value becomes impossible to quantify – there is no way to control how many times it is used or copied. The tangible value of my work to my clients seems to be my ability to visualize their ideas. This means that my business is often run more on intuition and good faith than on copyright and contract. As an illustrator who works in the fashion industry for a wide variety of clients, my laissez-faire approach to enforcing the usage of my work would horrify illustrators who work in traditional publishing. But, with my limited time on Earth, I’d rather draw than practice the law.
Fashion blogging is a virtual Canal Street of grey-market intellectual property violation. A lot of this is lazy blogging—just appropriating other people’s creations. Then there are a few clever bloggers who are combining existing images and ideas in startling new ways, creating a fascinating and viral universal cultural pulse. Regardless of the quality of the appropriation, however, watching concepts spread with incredibly liquidity is invaluable to understanding and predicting trends, which is an occupational obsession of mine. Controlling copying inhibits culture.
When is it not OK to take an idea? That may be the more cogent question. I believe the answer relates to power dynamics. When a wealthy corporation profits off copying an idea from an independent creative, something feels unjust about that. But if a teenager somewhere throws an appropriated image up on their Tumblr, logging it into the stream of consciousness of modern youth, throwing the book at them just seems petty… and old-fashioned.