Last March, a sweet friend alerted me to the fact that a blogger from Canada had taken the picture I had just created for my own blog to welcome the Spring (from vintage ephemera I had in my collection), and used it on her own blog. There was no mention of where it came from, and she had not asked my permission. I wrote her and asked her kindly to take it down and explained that what is created on websites and blogs is automatically copyrighted and cannot simply be taken and used. I received no response, but my image was removed and I thought that was that.

In September of 2007, another friend emailed me to let me know that she had been browsing the Etsy shop of this same blogger and noticed that the wording for the garlands on this Etsy site was exactly the same as the wording for the garlands that had been on my website since 2004. While I was perusing this Etsy shop, I, indeed, found my words and then something more. For in this shop was a cropped image of the Decorated Composition Book I used to sell, being sold as a print. It was even described as a print of her own “pen and ink drawing”.

Now, I am very attached to this drawing of a swallow, that I found many years ago in an old school primer by an author I especially admire. Apart from the images I have used in my two logos, it is the image I use most often. I love the freedom, beauty and buoyancy it expresses to me. I am attached to it, but the image of the swallow is there for anyone to use-who has the same old book (long out of copyright). But once I had taken that image in my possession and layered it upon an image of an interesting page of text from an old Ladies Home Journal (also out of copyright and in my possession and also quite visible in the so-called print being sold), I had created something new and the photograph of it on my website was copyrighted and only mine to use. Does that make sense?

So I contacted Etsy and wrote to this person again, kindly and firmly explaining what was wrong with taking words and images from others and then passing them off as your own. Etsy eventually had the words and image removed, and again, I received no response to my emails.

I felt badly about the people who paid good money for that “print” and saw in Etsy feedback that one of these customers complained about the pixelation….but what could I do? It bothered me that there were no real consequences, and that the person in question continued to use the swallow image, but in silhouette, so the low-quality of the image that you get when you grab a picture online did not matter. It made me sad that someone could so intentionally do the wrong thing, more than once, in this usually light and lovely world of art and craft online. But I put it behind me and moved on, even linking her blog to mine when I made a list of those I was grateful to for mentioning my blog or website on their own. Done.

Until a few weeks ago, when a dear, creative online friend emailed to ask my advice about handling a situation where a woman had taken her wonderfully original and distinctive work and copied it, detail for detail. It was the same woman who had taken things from both my website and blog, I am sorry to say.

I felt compelled to write her once again, and this time received a response. But I cannot say it was a response that would help to raise the level of understanding about all the issues involved with copyright infringement, support and sisterhood amongst the artists on the Internet or actually anything to do with thoughtfulness and awareness. It was an attack against me instead of a discusssion about the concerns I had brought up.

My friend’s experience with Etsy and this person was the same as my own….the copies were removed- sort-of-and it is considered to be over. But the problem actually goes on and on. Short of litigation, there is little to do about these dishonesties, with the systems now in place. And this experience has taught me-yet again-that even when approached with hope and reason, one person can’t make another person behave with honor. So….

I know this is a long post (even for me!), but I really wanted to give some specifics before I move on to my core reason for sharing this. I realize that many of you might not really relate to copyright issues specifically, but if you are not making things and offering them to the world, you are probably purchasing from people who are. And I believe you must want to know if those offerings are, indeed, creations from the hands and heart and mind of the person who is presenting them to you on this world-wide-web. The sunny-side of the Internet is how easy it is to establish an online presence and reach out to your kindred spirits around the world and be inspired in return. The shadow-side is how easy it is for unscrupulous people to create personas and gather other people’s ideas and keep what they want hidden in the dark.

And here is the crux of the matter….in this often gorgeous, congenial and bounteous online world, can one also find transparency, accountability…trust? I have been pondering this for the past few weeks and can find no easy answer. Anyone who knows my friend’s work would instantly recognize that it had been copied in that Etsy shop. But someone coming upon this Etsy shop, who didn’t know my friend’s work, would believe that it was original. Online, you you have only what is carefully presented to you to judge by. It would be helpful if Etsy had more rigorous standards. But what about websites beyond Etsy? It would be lovely to have a sort of “Better Business Bureau” online, but with the “bureau” comes “bureaucracy” and most of the good and busy people who might need such a place, might not have the energy and time it would take to make such a place work. It is such a frustrating puzzle!I could go on, as I have done in my mind for days, but I have no answers.

What I do have, are conversations and websites and people that do give me hope and more to think about. Vicki at Turkey Feathers touched a wee bit upon it the other day and I found the comments helpful to understand how many people don’t know what is going on, how sympathetic they are when they find out, how many are struggling with knowing how to respond. Amy’s open and generous post illustrates the attitude towards all this that is the ideal, and if it were more prevalent, would make all these difficulties disappear as if a fairy wand had been waved over them. *Sigh* Back to reality….I really liked this place and this place for clarifying copyright issues, for those who need clarification….also here.

To finish…there are many sayings that I have heard and read in response to this issue. How about “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”? I, for one, don’t value “flattery” and can’t agree with imitation being sincere in this sort of situation. Then there is the karma argument….I might agree with that one, but can’t help longing for some fairness in the here and now. My hope with this post is to continue the conversation that has sprouted up here and there as other artisans have experienced the frustration of people taking their ideas for profit. Perhaps some answers, or atleast some goodness will come of us being brave enough to discuss this respectfully. Some feathers may get ruffled in the process, but it is for the good of the flock. Then we may get back to the satisfaction of creating in our own remarkable ways.

“The merit of originality is not novelty; it is sincerity. ”
-Thomas Carlyle

“… not picked from the leaves of any author, but bred amongst the weeds and tares of mine own brain. “

-Thomas Browne

Oh, you wise Thomases! Please chime in here with your thoughts. If this has happened to you, be brave enough to talk about it in public as far as is safe for you. Let us throw some light upon one of the shadowy corners of Internet.