I recently received a question in the mail from a reader concerning ethics in DIY jewelry design. Since we’ve gotten this type of question before, and often thought about it ourselves, I decided to try and answer it here. Keep in mind that this is only an opinion, and I’m not a copyright lawyer:

twofords asks:

What are the “rules” when it comes to copying someone else’s work? Whether there are legal rules around doing so, but even more importantly (or just importantly) the ethical and moral rules around doing it? … Is it unethical to “steal” someone’s idea and
make it yourself?

First off, I want to say that this problem is of course not only limited to jewelry making. If you walk into any supermarket, you’ll see tons of “copycat” products on the shelves just hanging out. Many are such blatant copies that the colors, font and pictures on the packaging are meant to mimic the real item. And those original items are supposedly copyrighted and trademarked.

The same thing exists when you go to the store or online to buy electronics, baby products, furniture. In some cases the product is almost an exact copy, and the degree to how well it is copied varies. Others will only take a general idea or design scheme and try and make something original, or at least improve on it.

I believe there ARE legal rules surrounding this type of infringement, but I’m not sure to what degree they are enforced or whether that is even possible in the global (and especially online) economy. Because I don’t know what those rules are exactly and how they apply to jewelry, I’m going to assume that it is VERY difficult (or impossible) for a DIY or home jewelry maker to enforce design copyright in that manner. (Can you imagine trying to copyright or patent all your designs?) So, we’ll talk about ethics only.

When you’re first starting out making jewelry, the only thing you really CAN do is copy. That’s because you don’t have basic technique down. I don’t think most jewerly designers are going to get mad if you try to make something they’ve made in order to try learn a technique. Most people learn by imitating. There are many instruction books that tell you exactly how to make a “unique-looking” piece of jewelry. It’s only when you get good enough that you can start to sell items that things start to get a little gray. And it is a VERY gray area.

I personally think that a lot of jewelry design done by small-time entrepreneurs is probably inspired in some way by a necklace, pair of earrings or other item that they’ve seen. I think that in general this is OK, but what matters is how you use that inspiration. Do you use that to spark some original ideas and designs of your own? Or do you attempt to copy bead for bead and gem for gem?

When it comes down to it, jewelry makers want to sell their products. And if they know that a particular style or look is selling well, they’ll often move in that direction, in the hope that it will sell better. Follow the money, right? This goes for professional and DIY at-home designers. If their current products aren’t selling well, they’ll take a look at some of the more popular folks and maybe try and snag a look or too.

My opinion is that the degree to which you “copy” other people’s work is a personal thing. There are a billion copies of “unique” craft ideas out there. Before it was a lot of work to try and sell items and the world wasn’t as connected. So even if someone was coyping your work, you might not even know or care because you wouldn’t be affected. But now with easy online and community based shops like Etsy, it’s actually possible you’ll meet the person who “bit” your design online! On the flip side, if you blatantly copy someone’s design, don’t be surprised if the person calls you out in the community.

So, I think that a moderate usage of “design inspiration” can be a good thing. It can jumpstart you a bit and get you thinking in different directions. But frequent and outright copying anything for a quick buck will probably come back to bite you in some way or another in the end.

8 Responses to “Mailbag: Ethics of Jewelry Design”

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  1. Debra Says:

    This is a FANTASTIC article! The only thing it didn’t answer for me is what factors determine that a design is original if someone else’s design has been used for inspiration? Thanks!

  2. pearl jewelry Says:

    In the field of hand crafter jewelry it does not seem possible to enforce copyright rules. Where would one draw the line? If I mix pearls and swarovski crystals am I in copyright infringement of all other pieces that do this? I get inspired by artists I see on this site and others and honestly incorporate pieces of what they do. I do not replicate though. I suppose this is where you would draw the line is when it is an obvious replica. I hope someday that I am good enough to have others imitating my styles.

  3. gypsywitchdesigns Says:

    I have read on several websites and I understand what the rules are. I was in print advertising design. Basically this is what it breaks down to, and I did get this from my attorney; you can put a copyright overlay that make the pic of the item or items cannot be used for any ‘print’ advertisement by anyone; that’s the safest way to copyright your design.
    owever, people can ‘copy’ your initial design but NOT use the same color, type, or metal as your design and it is no longer yours. There are hundreds of DIYers out there, myself included, that will copy a certain style, color play, components, etc., and it becomes ‘theirs’ and not ‘yours’.
    I hope that this helps.

  4. tracey Says:

    During my undergrad, before I became a jeweler, I studied Industrial Design. I took one piece of advice away with me, ‘Everything has been done. If you are going to steal an idea, take a good one and make it better.’

    Now, I do not copy designs and tell my clients that if they really want something that badly to buy it from the original manufacturer, I did learn a good amount about the ‘rules’ of dealing with copyrighted designs. I recently trademarked my company name and asked my lawyer a great deal of questions. The basic answer is the following, if you copyright a design the copyright is only as good as the money you have to back it up with. If somebody copies your design, you need money to sue them. And it works the same in reverse, if you steal a design from Tiffany’s, they have the money to sue you. If you steal a design from another jeweler on Etsy, most likely they do not have the money to sue.

    But really, it all comes down to karma.

  5. Loopy Says:

    Here’s another way of looking at this. Nothing to do with legal protection & suing, or how much money you’re going to make out ot it, but try it for size.

    If an inspiration strikes and somehow… I make something really great and original, then there’s 2 ways it can go: I try to hold on to the design, own it, protect it away as “mine”. Or, I can just put it out there and let it go.

    My belief says that if I let it go - hey, next thing another inspiration strikes.

    If, on the other hand, I try to hold on to it, it causes a kind of “constipation”, and what? why have I no new inspiriations?

    Great riches lies not in owning a design, but nurturing the flow of inspiration.

  6. Jewellery Making Kits Says:

    When we started, we were copying things, but just as the article says, its really to get the technique. My wife would be the first to say that once you have the technique, you find yourself wanting to create your own designs, and in fact, thats what your clients want as well, something that unique. I think that there’s so much creativity in each of us that we’ll soon not bother with copying. But to get to that point you do need to master the techniques

  7. Gary Helwig Says:

    At WigJig we recognize this issue and have copyrighted all of our designs, text and pictures. We also say that individuals can make and sell any of our copyrighted designs with our permission.

    It is particularly important for a company to copyright designs, text and photographs so that another company can not legally use the content developed by your company. It is also reasonable and realistic that a company like ours can not and should not try to enforce the copyright against individuals making jewelry.

    We want jewelry crafters to use our designs. We just don’t want our designs used to sell to Wal-Mart without our permission.

  8. Chelsea Says:

    In the art world, last I checked in the Artists’ and Graphic Designer’s Handbook, in order not infringe upon copyright laws one must change the design by at least 30%. That’s not a significant amount which explains why in the grocery store you can see products which almost exactly copy their brand-name counterparts. Seems like a good rule of thumb when considering copying a design. Personally, though I may often be inspired by someone else’s design and apply it to my own works, it is the idea that I borrow and not the exact design. Mostly a matter of pride. In fact I will often try to improve or out-do the previous idea….that’s what artist’s and creative people do and have done since the dawn of time. Let another’s creativity inspire you but don’t be a skeevy copycat.