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Where’s the line for copy and inspiration?

July 6, 2011

For the past 12 hours or so, while many have been raging about all this Casey Anthony business, my corner of the Internet has been all a-Twitter (literally) about the recent discovery that Forever 21, without purrmission (sorry!), has put a slightly-altered piece of art by Atlanta’s R. Land on a t-shirt.

It immediately reminded me of when Urban Outfitters allegedly copied an independent jewelry-maker‘s necklace design. Both large retailers undercut the independent artists in price and, I’m sure, in quality, while at the same time probably staying within legal bounds of not using the artists’ exact work.

I understand the frustrations of these artists and their fans when creative property is taken, slightly altered and mass-produced without permission, but I also harken back to my childhood when my mother would tell me that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” This didn’t serve as much consolation when one of my friends suddenly got bangs the week after I got bangs, but it still rings true, and I’m sure I’ve since imitated others in similar ways.

Slate recently reported that selling fake designer bags actually increases sales of the real thing; consumers either elevate to purchasing the designer version, with the knockoff merely serving as a gateway product, or the interest and awareness of the product is raised and increases demand of the real thing. In the same vein, independent coffee shops report increases in sales when a Starbucks moves into the neighborhood because it heightens the awareness of their product among consumers in the area.

I’m not defending the actions of F21 or Urban, but I do see a place for certain knockoffs. There are times when I want to spend more, purchase something quality and beautiful and keep it forever; at those times, I’d go to Etsy or a real jewelry store. Then, there are times when I kind of like something and am willing to spend less on it, knowing it will wear out or break; that’s when I go to places like F21 or Urban. Actually, I never go to F21, but I do buy a lot of junk jewelry at places such as Urban — and that’s the thing: it’s junk jewelry. I know it’s junk. I know I could get something better and more original and longer-lasting elsewhere. (But I also have an original R. Land work hanging in my home, bought from the wall of a coffee shop in East Atlanta.)

All that said, where is the line drawn when it comes to “copying” something or “drawing inspiration” from it? A follow-up on the Urban jewelry fiasco said that other Etsy stores were selling similar pieces prior to the particular aforementioned designer saying Urban had stolen her idea. In that case, Urban was picking up on a trend; in the R. Land case, F21 more blatantly took a unique piece of art without authorization. When is it worth paying more to support an independent artist, and how do we decide what’s a ripoff and what’s just a trend?

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