Blog / 2019 / Why Artists Rip Each Other Off (And How We Can Stop Them)

June 26, 2019

Starting at around 5 years old, we know it’s unethical to copy another artist’s work. The proof comes from University of Washington psychologist Kristina Olson and her colleagues from Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. A few years ago, they tested kids between the ages of 3 and 6 in the US, Mexico, and China by showing them videos of puppets making drawings.

In each video, one puppet looked at the other’s before starting work on their own image. Sometimes the one puppet reproduced the other’s drawing exactly; sometimes they created a similar composition but with different colors and shapes; and sometimes they drew something unrelated to the other’s image.

The older kids in all three cultures did not approve of the puppet who copied exactly, but the 3 and 4 years olds were less certain. Mexican preschoolers still saw the copycat puppet as generally not cool, but American and Chinese children didn’t. Chinese preschoolers even rated the exact copier more positively than the puppet that only drew something similar.

The study indicates that we start to distinguish between “good” and “bad” copying by the age of 5. This is true regardless of if we’re raised in a country with a strong history of copyright protection like the US, one with more recent and more relaxed laws like China, or one that’s in between like Mexico.

And I’m specifying “good” and “bad” copying because humans do lot of imitating of each other. As kids, copying is intrinsic to our learning, like when we’re asked to reproduce letters precisely so that we can begin to understand written language. As adults, we imitate others a lot—through fashion, slang, and even recipes—and we do it in order to fit in on some level. Copying can be good and it’s often necessary.

But it can also be wrong, like every 5 year old knows. So why do some artists stay in the mindset of a 3 or 4 year old?

  • Because copycats believe theirs is a “good” kind of copying.
  • Because copycats hope no one will figure out that they are copying.
  • Because copycats don’t think they are really hurting anyone else.
  • Because, when a copycat has more power than the artist they are copying, they believe they are impervious to consequences.
  • Because copycats are mean.

These all seem like plausible explanations, but, in most cases, I think this is the true reason:

Because citing sources is stigmatized and can potentially open you up to a lawsuit.

Often artists avoid even thinking about the artists who inspire them, afraid that if they let someone’s oeuvre consciously into their minds they’ll be pegged as unoriginal or they’ll be sued. But the fact is that you’re in more danger of being called out socially or legally if you’re not aware of what you’re doing creatively-speaking.

Personally, I like to imagine a society in which there are no repercussions for finding inspiration in another artist’s work. In this world, we were never taught that there are bad kinds of copying, so imitation flows naturally. We probably wouldn’t credit the people who inspire us, because we wouldn’t see a need to. We’d also probably feel a lot more connected to one another.

This version of the world might seem outrageous or even wrong, like a nightmare of anti-individualism. And it very well might be a terrible place to live, but, then again, our world isn’t perfect either. Artists harm other artists all the time with “bad” copying.

In fact, the only thing I can think of to start to shift things immediately is for artists to cite their sources whenever possible. The more we do it, the more it becomes a norm, causing those who refuse to give credit to make a shift in how they create.

Chris Devins mural art
screenshot of Chris Devins’ GoFundMe

Like in this case, where Chris Devins proposed a mural of Michelle Obama on GoFundMe and raised a bunch of money. As you can see from this screenshot, the mural design is the straightforward reproduction of a regular photo of Obama. It’s in keeping with Devins’ usual work and, for someone like me who isn’t particularly interested in realism, it’s boring.

Chris Devins mural reproduction of Gelila Lila Mesfin’s art
photo by @prisonculture

But this is the fantastic mural he actually installed, reproducing a piece of digital art by Gelila Lila Mesfin without crediting her, claiming he “didn’t know who the original artist was.” You can see a video of Mesfin making her piece here.

If Devins were living a world where citing your sources were the norm, he probably would have searched a little harder for the maker of the image he wanted to use. More importantly, he almost certainly wouldn’t have ripped Mesfin off like this.

PLEASE NOTE

I do a lot of thinking about how to fix our messed up approach to creativity and copyright. If you want to learn more, start with this 30-minute video or my book You Share Good.

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