Before trying to find out where the thin line between inspiration and plagiarism lies, it is important to realize one thing: copying is as old as we (humans) are. This is what we do and this is how we learn: we watch what the others are doing and then we imitate them. We move forward by making improvements and introducing adjustments but, in fact, no creative work would ever be done without copying first. Now, if you think this is an excuse good enough to copy other artists as much as you like, you better know that you are wrong. Because our natural and subconscious tendency to copy is one thing and a conscious creative or artistic process is something completely different.
Inspiration is good. And important.
We all need inspiration, no matter who we are and what we do. But inspiration is something elusive and maybe this is why it’s important role sometimes is being overlooked by people obsessed by uniqueness and originality. Some people believe that in order to create, the inspiration has to come from a totally uncommon idea; something that no one has ever thought of before. Yet, when you look at the creators of the greatest art, inventions and ideas, you will see it is quite the opposite.
You are getting influenced by the surrounding world and there is no way to avoid it. Your creativity is not coming out of the blue, it is being born from all the things you have seen and experienced so far, also from the art you admire and from the people you respect and interact with. As an artist, you can’t help but be inspired by other artists – and there is a big chance that you will inspire others in return.
You might want to check our earlier post 40 WAYS TO BOOST YOUR CREATIVITY.
Plagiarism is bad
Plagiarism has very little to do with inspiration. While inspiration opens new doors to you, shows you new possibilities and gives you motivation to go beyond your everyday routines and limitations, plagiarism only confines you to reproducing the things that have already been done. And you also have to realize that copying other artists’ ideas or designs in order to gain profit or fame is nothing else than theft.
Although sometimes it may look like the easy way out, or a way for you to show off and seem smarter and more talented than your fellow artists, plagiarism is in fact very destructive to your artistic career. It can have consequences you have never thought of and may cost you a lot. First, by simply copying you do not move forward in any way. You miss opportunities to learn and practice new skills, you also miss chances to receive honest feedback on your own work. And if you get caught your integrity and artistic performance will be questioned, and your good name will be lost.
Really, honesty is much better a way for an artist, even though the results sometimes come later and can be less spectacular.
Why do people copy
Plagiarism is hitting the headlines more and more often and possibly everyone has already heard that copying other people’s work is not the right thing to do both from the moral and the legal point of view. And still, plagiarism happens. Without going into the details, these are the most popular reasons for plagiarism:
- People don’t have their own ideas or they think somebody else’s ideas are better
- People are lazy
- They want to get famous the easy way
- They don’t have the skills and/or knowledge (or at least they think they don’t)
- They consider imitation the highest form of flattery
- They believe they will not get caught
- They don’t know that what they do is plagiarism
How can you tell someone is a copycat
Unfortunately, plagiarism is not always a black and white issue and sometimes it can be quite difficult to be correctly recognized. So unless you are 100% sure you better be very careful accusing people of being copycats, as it may happen that you misjudge them terribly. The fact that you have seen something similar before does not necessarily mean you have seen the original work then. The accusation is heavy so before you actually do blame someone for stealing someone else’s work (and lying about it afterward) you better be really, and it means REALLY, sure. You can always start with finding honest answers to these simple questions:
- Is it really someone’s original work or concept they are copying? It might be that what you consider the original idea is not really an original idea after all. This counts especially for very simple designs and techniques that a lot of people are using. Also, don’t forget tutorials. You cannot blame people for following them and coming up with similar results at the end, can you?
- Is the creative idea behind the item that unique that it couldn’t occur to someone else at the same time? Again, this is a good question to ask especially when it comes to rather simple designs and techniques.
- Is the potential copycat’s work really mimicking someone or is the resemblance rather vague and distant? Because if the resemblance is rather vague and distant there is no copying involved. It might be that someone got inspired and influenced by artwork they admired or it might be that both artists have happened to have similar inspirations. It also might be they had the same teacher, or one was teaching the other. Copying means mimicking something closely, it’s good to remember that.
- Who, why and in what way was copied? It really does make a difference if it is a young girl trying to get better at her craft and copying someone she admires (and giving credits doing so) , or a more experienced artist copying to make a profit on selling the work (without even mentioning the actual author).
You should answer the above questions also in case you think someone is copying you – and be very honest with yourself. As much as plagiarism is bad, accusing people of stealing something that is not really yours is also really bad. And ridiculous.
When copying is not a bad thing
Yes, there are situations when copying is not considered such a bad thing, but still, you have to be very careful not to cross the line.
- You can use techniques and designs that you have learned at workshops, as long as you follow the terms set by your teacher (in case there are any).
- You can copy other artists’ techniques or some elements of their style if you are transforming them and using them in your own way. Just make sure you are not mimicking anybody’s works.
- You can try to copy any artwork you like as long as it is a part of your learning process and you will enjoy your work for yourself. Such work should never be presented to the public as your own nor sold.
And then there is one special case which you have to figure out for yourself: copying for your own use instead of buying. Some people consider this acceptable (as long as the credits are given and the copy is not being sold nor given away), while many others don’t. In case you don’t know what to think, try asking yourself if YOU would be happy with people copying YOU like that.
How to use inspiration without becoming a copycat
It is a well known fact that artists rely on inspiration for their artwork. Inspiration can come from just about anywhere, but for many artists and craftsmen who are really passionate about their field of art it frequently comes from other artists’ blogs, gallery sites, art discussion groups or just Pinterest. On one hand the amount of inspiration that is coming that way might be a great help when you are struggling with a project of your own, but on the other hand it may lead you towards copying, even if that’s not exactly your intention. The challenge you face is how to process inspiration coming from your fellow artists to create something that can be called yours.
Fortunately, there are many ways to take benefit from the inspirational work that has been done by others and use it to create something unique and of your own:
GET YOUR INSPIRATION FROM MANY DIFFERENT SOURCES
You are not limited to getting your inspiration from other artists representing your own discipline. In fact, you are not limited to getting your inspiration from any artists at all. Sources of inspiration are unlimited and really and easy to find, as long as you are open to seeing them. Be inspired by nature, people, photographs, magazines, books, industry, fashion and a thousand other things.
GET YOUR INSPIRATION FROM MANY DIFFERENT ARTISTS
If it is easiest for you to be inspired by other artists’ work, go ahead. Just make sure that you look at a ton of things from many artists so that you have enough influences to play with. Getting inspiration from one artist only (or from a group of artists representing a similar style) is dangerous and it may put you on the copying side.
BE CRITICAL AND TAKE ONLY WHAT YOU REALLY LIKE
Whenever you come across something that you especially like try to find out what aspects of the artwork are appealing to you the most. It could be the form, the color palette, the texture, or an uncommon way of using materials. Whatever it is that makes that work exceptional, you want to know it because then you can take it as your inspiration and leave the rest of the design behind. Without understanding what makes the artwork special you will very much likely end up copying, as you won’t be able to decide which aspects you can discard.
PAY ATTENTION TO THE DETAILS
In many cases it is the tiny details which sometimes you don’t even notice right away that create the great overall look of an artwork. So every time you look at an inspirational artwork examine its details carefully because in many cases you will be able to use those or similar details in work that is very different from the source of the inspiration.
FIND THE CONTEXT
Just because you think something is extremely interesting or beautiful does not mean it will work for you. You have to keep in mind that being pretty in most cases is not enough for an artwork to be successful. Every design functions within some context, like the purpose of the artwork, the target audience expectations, or even the characteristics of the materials used. Looking at sources of inspiration always think of what could fit your context and work for you. Focus on those elements and try to adjust them as much as you can to make them integral parts of your design.
MAKE THE ORIGINAL BETTER
No matter how much you like the inspirational artwork you can always take some elements from the design and try to find some ways to improve them. This way you will end up with a bunch of creative ideas instead of just one that has already been used by someone else.
When you see an element that you particularly like but it does not really fit your concept, try to reinvent it to your own need. In other words, make it fit your design rather than adjust your concept to correspond with the element that is not really yours.
When you are about finished with your work take a good look at all the artwork that inspired you and your own piece, and be really honest here. It is ok when your work can be connected to the original inspiration but you definitely don’t want anybody to even think the word copy when they look at your artwork. If the original and your piece do seem to be too much alike try to make some changes in your work. If for some reason you can’t change anything, the changes don’t help, or you ruin the piece… well, consider this a part of your learning process. Lock the piece in your drawer and start on a new one. It is much better than risking to be called a copycat.
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better or at least something different.” T.S. Eliot