Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Or is it? When is imitation an innocent form of tribute and when is it copyright infringement and plagiarism? To some this should be a pretty obvious answer and there shouldn’t be a need to really explain it. Don’t take what’s not yours and try and to say it’s yours. Pretty simple right? Unfortunately, when it comes to the art world, especially online, these lines seem to get blurred constantly. Many artists will watermark images of their artwork to deter others from stealing it and reposting it as their own, but that doesn’t solve the problem of people who want to recreate an artwork that isn’t theirs with their own hand.
Some will argue there are no original ideas and everything has been done. That may be true, but it’s not necessarily ideas that are the issue, it’s when someone is making a copy of someone else’s idea in the same form. Let’s look at an example of a contemporary artwork by one of my personal favourites, James Jean. In his 2019 piece “Forager,” the floral elements, greyhound dog and presence of a human figure in the painting and colours in and of themselves as singular ideas are not copyrighted.
You could yourself create a painting with a person sitting amongst flowers with their greyhound dog. What is copyrighted is the exact way he has represented all of those elements. The layout and style in this exact orientation and colours is copyrighted. You could not then recreate this work with your own hand and call it yours. You could also not change it 20-30% or whatever arbitrary false and misleading number is floating out there and call it yours.
What you could do for example, is take inspiration from the colour palette and use it in your own work in a completely different way and with completely different subject matter. That is taking inspiration. You could also decide to create art with floral elements, which is also a popular theme in Jean’s work. That is also a form of inspiration because flowers by themselves are not a copyrighted element. However if you were to start to copy his line work style and layouts that’s where things start to get messy. We’ve all seen artists on Instagram where it is VERY apparent who they are influenced by. This is commonly seen with bands and their music as well.
Using Someone Else’s Art as a Learning Tool
Many young or beginner artists will make copies of their favourite artist’s work because they are trying to learn and want to be as good as the person they admire. This is all well and good if you are using it as a tool to learn, but it starts to become a problem when you are doing this exclusively or trying pass off their art as your own. Some people get so good at copying the style of their idols, their works get mistaken for that of the original artist. This is a problem. As a best practice and courtesy, you should never copy another artist and post it online without their permission. Some artists will welcome the flattery but others do not and it’s within their rights to do so. Just because someone chooses to share their work publicly it DOES NOT give you permission to copy it or steal it. If you still want to recreate the art and the artist has explicitly not given you permission to re-post it on your own social site even with credit back to them, you should respect that. If you still choose to do studies from the work. DO NOT share it online anyway and definitely do not ever try to claim it as yours or sell it.
Copying an old master’s artwork has long been a practice for artists to improve their skills but there is a requirement that that copy be of different dimensions to prevent that work from being sold as the original. This practice is legal on works where the copyright has expired and the work is in public domain such as with many older paintings in museums. Works where the copyright has not expired such as those by contemporary artists on Instagram, are still protected and any unauthorized copies or recreations are subject to infringement and legal action.
The world of fan art is where a lot of these blurred lines come up. Generally speaking, fan art is usually tolerated by the companies who’s characters are being recreated. Some even encourage it. If you’ve been to a Comic Book Convention you will have likely seen a whole section devoted to artists selling their rendition of popular comic or fantasy characters that they themselves did not originally create the idea for. Many artists on instagram have become hugely popular creating art from photos of characters created by someone else.
Admittedly, I used to create a lot of fan art pieces when I first started with coloured pencil. I even entered them in fan competitions for certain TV shows and was featured on their official social media accounts a few times. I wasn’t selling the pieces or prints, so I figured what could the harm be. What it came down to for me, was that I didn’t want to be known for creating artwork based on photographs and characters I didn’t have permission to use. No one was threatening to sue me but, I also didn’t want to wait for that to happen. Honestly, even if it took a lot longer to build a following I wanted to get attention for MY OWN work and ideas, not my recreation of someone else’s.
Art of famous works that are recreated as a comedy, satire or with contemporary elements to fall into the grey area of copyright law. Because these works are very clear not trying to BE the original work and are instead making a commentary with the changes applied to it. Take for example these Quarantine Inspired Parodies of famous artworks. Would Frida Kahlo appreciate this parody of her artwork? Maybe… but also maybe not. Legally she couldn’t contest it, but no one is mistaking it for her original piece either.
“Parody refers to a new creative work which uses an existing work for humour or mockery. Some parodies take aim at well-known artists or their work in order to make a critique. Another kind of parody uses existing work to draw attention to or comment upon a particular social phenomenon or issue.” – from coprightuser.org
The world of copyright is a complicated one and I would highly encourage anyone who is seeking more understanding and information about this to do as much reading as you can on the subject from reputable sources. Copyright law is not joke. Those who have been on the receiving end of a Disney lawsuit will tell you. They are perhaps an extreme example of aggressive and firm copyright enforcement but the fact of the matter is, if you are blatantly copying someone else’s work especially to profit it from it, that’s illegal, so don’t do it.
Often the people doing the infringing are not the ones being copied themselves so they have no idea how it feels to work for years honing your skills, developing your signature style, or creating a world of unique characters, to then have someone come a long and try to claim it as their own or just outright copy it. Being creative AND original is difficult. Many artists are already struggling to be seen in the over-saturation of the internet. The last thing anyone wants to deal with is now trying to track down people stealing their work.
Does that mean you can’t pay tribute to your favourite artist? To some extent, no, it doesn’t. But it’s a slippery slope to go down. If the majority of work you are creating is recreations of someone else’s work this is a bad habit to form. Why not instead study what it is that you like about that person’s artwork. Is it their use of colour? Is it their representation of a certain subject matter? Study it, but don’t copy it. Find a way to make art with that inspiration that is your own.
FURTHER READING and RESOURCES To Get You Started: