Inspired or copied?

(EDIT: From time to time I will re-post some of my favorite posts from the past. Just so you can read up on stuff that is important to me and to raise a discussion among my new readers. This was originally posted in January 2009.)

Things can always be said in two ways, the positive and negative (in my mind truth is relative). If you make a dress similar to your favorite high fashion designer´s is it "inspired" or "copied"? Counterfeit Chic has spent a good time pondering on this issue which lead me to also write about my own feelings and thoghts on this subject. I remember back in fashion college I did do a lot of conscious copying and got loads of shit from the teachers for it (at least I was always honest about it!). At the time I just felt that since this school was about pattern making and sewing and not about design, the source of my design was not important. I once also designed and sewd a B&W little coctail dress that got very good praisals of the teachers. A few months later I saw a very similar design in a magazine by YSL.. It was a total surprise to me. Apparently I do also take in influences subonsciously. I felt so stupid... Thank God nobody noticed!

Today, ten years later I feel that if a professional designer (with proper education in design) working for a fashion label or house does this I don´t think it is exeptable. They should be able to do better with all the tools they have! Like in this Project Runway copy-incident (see links below) It´s just embarrassing because one will always get cought when the judges are fashion professionals. Besides the whole point of Project Runway is to discover new and original talent... DUH!

Apparently copying designs is very common in fashion. When I was doing my college trainee period for a small Finnish fashion label I was very surprised to see how systematic the copying from major labels was. The house designer simply cut up images from collection books, drew the scetch and wrote measurements on a piece of paper, stapple on some color or fabric samples and sent it to the manufacturer for production! And it was considered "business as usual" in 97´. When I asked about this from the designer, she said that she´d love to do her own stuff but the customers/buyers want more designer-copies because it is what the consumers want.. And the customer is always right? At the end this is a matter of personal morals and good taste. It is a very gray area. What to do? Avoid buying factorymade designer copies.

When it comes to crafting and DIY fashions, I´m all for copying designs from major fashion houses! In fact I encurage it! If the item is something you make only for yourself or just a few handmade pieces for sale, I call it being "inspired". A crafter has complitely different techniques and workmethods to the fashion industry and I´m sure the fashion house copied will not mind. When I first saw the zipper neckpieces made by Comme des Garçons in their SS2005 collection, it took me years to figure out how the zipper necklaces are done. And eventually when I was able to establish a technique, I´m sure it is very different from the original because I´ve only had pictures as references. In the name on good mannors I don´t take full credit for the design but as I have made more and more necklaces, I also noticed that I have developed my own designstyle on them. And it will propably still change as I do more. An artists works always evolve as the time goes on. Maybe in a few years they will be so different that you could not see the connection anymore.

But what about copying from other crafters? In general I would not recommed it unless the artist has given you permission to do so or made a tutorial about the project as I have. Artists are usually very protective about their works and copying it just feels sad because the design is something personal to them. If you consider copying from anothers, it might be a good idea to contact the original artist first to ask permission (many are very nice people that just feel flattered about it :D) or at least credit and link the original work. This way others see where you got the idea and the orignal artists work is recognised. My work is meant to inspire, so copy away. I do appreciate the links! :D

More on this subject see these articles on Counterfeit Chic: Project Runway: Copy Cut and Project Runway: Birds of a Feather. And of course I´d love to hear what you think about on this issue!!

Outi Les Pyy

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  1. A good post and a topic worth discussing. However, I would appropriate it if you made another post about the legal standing of the creator of the original design. As a professional, you should know not to leave that aspect out of your post. It isn't a gray area; the copyright laws are strict.

  2. But this is my point exactly! How do you enforce copyright laws in fashion design and crafting? Of course I cannot print a copy of a skirt pattern from Burda and release it somewhere else as my own, but what if CHANGE it a bit? You know, add pockets or change the hemline a bit. How big of a change is needed for the copyright law to apply? Is it concidered a copy under the law if I have used someone elses design as the base and then modified from there?

    Marimekko won recently a huge battle with Dolce&Gabbana about the Unikko fabric design. The prints were not 100% alike but close enough for the fashion consumer to be confused. I understand the outcome because there is big money involved. But do brands really care about me copying/being inspired of their ideas if I use them just for my own handmade crafts?? Does anyone? I personally don´t see no harm in being inspired about an idea or design and then creating/copying it yourself as the best you can trashion style, handmade from recycled materials. I hope none of my readers don´t either because otherwise yu will not enjoy this blog :)

  3. Wow! the Project Runway dresses are uncannily similar to the McQueen / Balenciaga! Worst part is that Kenley did say she hadn't seen them... maybe they slipped in subconsciously? I can certainly see how that can happen, since we so many images every single day.

    Also, have you read Fashion is Spinach by Elizabeth Hawes? It's about how she became a fashion designer, and the copying that goes on in the industry... from 1938, but still eye-opening!

  4. Thanks for the book-tip! I´m going to have to look it up.

  5. "How big of a change is needed for the copyright law to apply? Is it concidered a copy under the law if I have used someone elses design as the base and then modified from there?"

    The law (copyright of design, mallioikeus) doesn't protect the idea; just the model is protected. So, if we take a look at the Marimekko case, you have the right to design a fabric that features poppies. What you, or anyone else, cannot do is to render the idea of poppies in a way that can be confused with the Marimekko design.

    Your design isn't an original design if it's a derivative work. Such work changes the media that carries the model into another. For example, the crocheted bags that you published on an earlier post are derivative works. The original model has been taken as is, and just the material and, accordingly, the production technique have been changed. That is pretty much the same as you saw a blue batiste shirt in Burda and used unbleached calico in your own shirt. You wouldn't call that your own design, would you? (The most common example of derivative works are books that are made into movies.)

    If you want to be sure that your design is an original one, you have to take the idea that is the essence of the work that inspires you and give it a new form. For example, the Marimekko poppies bring to my mind a sunny field of the flowers after a rain. That turns easily into a picture of huge butterflies that are drying their wings after a rain. That image could inspire me to create a print design that, instead of flowers, features butterflies. I wouldn't locate the butterflies like the flowers are in the Marimekko-print. Most likely I would come up with my own color scheme, too. It's not rare that such inspiration leads the designer to something that is quite different from the inspiring model.

    Between the original and derivative works we find the difficult area. If you copy a pocket model from a skirt you see at Stockmann and use it in a coat, is your coat a derivative work or an original creation? There aren't useful guide lines. (The phenomenon of fanfiction in it's entirety belongs in this area of creations.)

    The only principal that I find helpful at all is that I shouldn't try to pass as my original design a model that can be confused with a model that is already out there. In my unofficial opinion the coat with a copied pocket-model cannot be confused with the skirt, and so, I would call the coat an original creation.

    But, of course, nobody knows all the models that are out there. In addition, more than one designer can come up with the same design without any contact to each other. There's always a risk of being accused of unauthorized copying.

    Actually, the question is about minimazing the risks.

    If one is making products just for oneself or to give them away as gifts to one's close family members and friends that is a legal action even without a permission. There isn't a risk of copyright infringement.

    If there is money (or exchange of other valuable items or services, such as raw materials or training) involved the law requires a permission from the right holder, but is it probable that a French right owner finds out that someone is selling copies of her/his design in Tohmajärvi, Finland? It's up to that person to deside whether to take the risk or not. Unfortunately, people aren't too well informed of the law, and so they -- and even little and middle range firms -- make their decisions without all the facts that should be considered.

    Some people don't know what a model is in copyright laws. Model can be i.e. the drawings, patterns and technical guidelines that are intended as a guide for the product making. Model can also be a product that is used as a model for copies. An ornament can be a model, too. Such models must not be copied from books or magazines or from internet pages and posted i.e. on a blogger's page without the permission of the right holder: the original designer or someone that has acquired the rights by inheritance, gift or contract of sale.

    Of the models above, a product that is used as a model is the most triggy. If one posts on one's blog a picture of a pair of jeans, is it a copyright infringement? No, it isn't if one has taken the picture. If one uses a picture taken by someone else one needs to follow the predictions of another law (copyright of art, tekijänoikeus). If a reader uses the picture as a model and sells the jeans she or he needs to get the permission from the right holder.

  6. I forgot to tell you something about design right: design right (oikeus malliin) doesn't come from creating a design; the right that is born in that process is artist's right (tekijänoikeus). That doesn't happen in every design process. The design needs to be new and original.

    Design right is acquired by registering the model, which isn't a cheap deal. That has to be done before the model is published. The right can also be acquired by establishing the model on the market. The person that has the artis't rigth to the design can register the model. The artist's right holder can also sell that right, and if one is an employee of a firm, the employer usually owns the artist's rights instead of the employee.

    Thus, there are a lot of designs that are protected by copyright of art and much fewer of those that are protected by copyright of design. In the case of craft projects, the rights are pretty much the same, though. The main difference is that an artwork (taideteos) is protected for a longer time than a design (malli).

  7. Great article! I totally agree with you. If you are not using the idea to make money, then what's the harm? I'm always getting ideas from well known designers, and I think that all creative people naturally are influenced and inspired by others work.
    I have seen those Comme des Garcons zipper pieces too, and your necklaces, though obviously influenced by these, have their own style. You've been inspired by the idea, and have worked it into your own creative ideas. I don't think there is anything wrong with that.
    Something to think about too: Many designers get ideas from people they see in the street (tokyo street style for example). Many of these unknown people in the street have made/designed their own clothes, so if a well known designer finds inspiration from this source, how original is the well-known designers work anyway?
    There is not much new out there these days, so if something inspires you, and you're not planning to profit from somebody elses idea, then I see nothing wrong with it.
    Great article, great blog!

  8. I'm of the school of thought that there is nothing new under the sun- that said, there can often be an obvious line between 'copied' and 'inspired'.

    I wouldn't consider myself innocent from being inspired by handfuls of people over the past, but I've never been able to copy something outright; something in my mind just will not allow it! It has nothing to do with morals, there's just a compulsion within myself to 'fiddle' with an idea- it's the same part of my brain that won't let me just open a can of beans and eat them- I need to add herbs, garlic etc. I can't leave well enough alone!

    My current housemate has been making wrist cuffs and now brooches that are very similar to mine. At first when she made one for herself I had no problem, but then she made another and another and another in preparation for a market stall. They aren't of the quality of mine (without stretching the ego it's a bit like Gucci versus kMart) but the likeness is to such an extent that visitors can't tell which work table is mine and which is hers. She claims she's made them that way for years, before I did, but I've never seen her make a wrist cuff either before me or ever.

    On the whole it doesn't bother me too much because no one who is independently crafty can copy another person in a 'true' way forever; I know she'll eventually water herself down with her own creativity to a point where they'll be totally different. (especially as I'm moving out (for other reasons) this month!)

    Also there are more fabric collage wrist cuffs on the market than mine and I certainly wasn't the first. (My idea for them came purely by trying to combine my box assemblage techniques with my fashion design.) Another horse won't spoil the race, especially as hers have a different slant of customer.

    Anyway- blah blah blah- copying is a delicate issue with some, whereas others don't care. I don't mind others taking influence from me or others, as long as they only use it as a springboard to their own unique way. Anything else (done for profit in money or fame) is harvesting. I can't see why anyone would want to be the same as someone else, I fight against it constantly.

  9. Hello, I found an interesting inspiration/copy -example last year and posted about it in my blog. Especially the Vibskov - Ctrl example makes me wonder... The colours are exactly the same and the patterns follow each other almost line by line.

  10. The whole industry is based on copying, a garment only has to be changed a little for it to be legal.It is much easier to impose copyright laws on fabrics.
    But even the high end designers are "inspired" by vintage & designers from the past. And it has been that way for a long time. Look at the Chanel jacket.
    I feel tho that it is not ethical to copy from other crafts people in order to make pieces to sell, but still it goes on a lot.

  11. Graphic Designer boyfriend of mine always says, that everything has already been done. I think it's somewhat true. No-one owns the world or possibilities it offers. I guess everyone have seen some creations and shouted "that's exactly what I've been thinking of!"

    Although I think its best you credit the originals you've got the idea from just to show respect, just as Outi suggests.

  12. I know diddly squad about fashion designing, but as I see the world, everything "new" is always somehow based on something that was before. You can't really make up an over-sized t-shirt design without first having a design of a regular t-shirt, and so on. Thus, someone has said, and I believe this applies to everything, that "originality is just keeping your sources secret". And you know what?

    I think it's okay, there's nothing wrong with that. Cars wouldn't be anything without the invention of a wheel, and why should one re-invent the wheel, if it's already invented once. We make more progress by keeping our inventions and discoveries open to everyone to take a look at and perhaps use it when they develop the idea further. It's more for everyone.

  13. amazingn post! I was deeply concerned it that what you just wrote about. I'd worked as a fashion desginer and what I usually have to do is copy others designs that can sell well. This is somewhat difficult to discuss cuz no one takes responsibilites on it unless we feel bit sorry of being a copyist from others.

  14. Great post as usual, Outi. I wrote about a similar topic a while back:

    In my undergrad dissertation on Vionnet back in 1999 I was pretty critical of Galliano ripping off Vionnet, Molyneux, Fath and others. Then I graduated and saw how almost the entire industry in Oz was about copying.

    Outi, re zippers and all. You've made the technique your own and that's the key. Everyone, become obsessed with a technique and you'll never need to worry about copying because nobody will do it like you.

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