7/23/08 | Mailbag: Ethics of Jewelry Design
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:
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.