“They stole my idea.”
Oh, honey, sure they did.
Ok, bearing in mind that we all tend to get a little defensive when we think of something brilliant and then aren’t given credit for it, yes, getting your idea stolen sucks. We artists use our art to make a living, and in the world of social media getting your work stolen is a truly dangerous issue.
But there’s a difference between stealing and being unintentionally derivative, and we need to talk about the two.
Your Ideas Are Not As Unique As You Think They Are
I remember the first time I saw an image similar to mine. One of my Facebook followers left this comment on my photo on the left, “American Beauty”, on my Facebook page: “Reminds me a lot of this image” with a link to the image on the right (belonging to Mandy Rosen). As innocent as it seems, I was crushed. I genuinely thought I had created something that hadn’t been done before. I put in so much work, so much blood, sweat and tears, only to find my whole world blown apart.
Now come on, these look pretty damn similar. Granted, her dress is made of butterflies and mine is made of rose petals, but look at the bigger picture. The colors (red standing apart from a muted, brown palate), the horizon line, even the arm positioning. If I were Mandy perusing the internet at 3:14 am, with maybe a small bottle of tequila, I might have a bone to pick.
And here’s the weird thing – even though I hadn’t even slightly copied, I felt like I had. I felt like even though I’d had a brilliant idea and spent countless hours bringing it to fruition, I was too late in executing it. All that work I had put in was wasted because someone else had already posted something similar.
It’s the same feeling I got when I wanted to show one of my friends my “Dreaming in Key” photo – so I Googled the phrase “floating above a piano”, thinking it would come right up. But instead, I found hundreds of other images, like this one by Anka Zhuravleva, and was again, crushed. My image wasn’t even on the first page, that’s how many of these photos already existed. You mean someone else thought of this idea first? I wasn’t as brilliant and creative as I thought I was? I had been so proud of myself…
Here’s another example. My image, “Rough Drafts” is on the left and Von Wong’s is on the right.
The most frustrating thing in this case is this photo wasn’t even the image I wanted to create. I was going to be standing on the beach with the typewriter floating in the air in front of me. I didn’t want to be sitting on the ground typing; I figured it would be too easy. After hauling it down to the beach though, it became very apparent; that typewriter was heavy as fuck, and there was no way I was going to be able to hold it in any kind of realistic position in front of me. The light was disappearing fast, so I said screw it and sat it on the ground in front of me instead. This whole photo was the result of a botched idea. An entirely new idea was concocted in just enough time to get something done as the light was running out.
And whadaya know, it had already been done.
At this point, my ego was taking a hit. I began to doubt everything. How was this happening? How was I coming up with things that had already been done? Was I even an artist at all?
Then, I went to an event called Fotofest.
At Fotofest, you can sign up for sessions where you show your portfolio to gallery curators and publishers. It’s a fantastic event. My portfolio reviews went…okay.
Not that I got negative feedback, everyone just looked…bored. I kept getting the question, “You never attended art school, did you?” When I shook my head no, they’d say, “Yeah, I can tell.”
Finally, I was fed up, and asked one of the judges what the hell she meant by that. So what if I hadn’t gone to art school, what’s so wrong with that? Why is that so bad? And she told me I had fallen into a trap of many new artists. I was “unintentionally derivative.”
What the hell is “unintentionally derivative?”
She explained to me that if you don’t actively study the art that came before you, you’re damned to produce the same thing. You’re not copying, you’re just making the mistake of thinking you’re more brilliant and creative than you actually are. She pointed to one of my images and said she’s seen it before. She wrote down a name of a Czech photographer, and later when I googled him (for the life of me I cannot find the scrap of paper this was written on), I saw he was a photographer in the early 1930’s who had produced an incredibly similar image to mine. On film. And it was a lot better.
I was crushed, and she told me not to worry, to just keep shooting. “Get it out of your system,” she said. “The good stuff comes later.”
She was right. Within a few years the issue had slowly faded away, and I found myself on the opposite end of the spectrum. People reproducing work that looked similar to mine, instead of the other way around.
Just a couple weeks ago I was browsing Instagram when I came across this image, belonging to Brei Olivier. Mine is on the left, hers is on the right.
This is freaky – this could literally be the same model in each photo! And if I had run across this earlier in my career, I would’ve freaked the hell out. I still would’ve been so arrogant in my creativity, so sure of myself, I would’ve declared there was simply no possible way anyone else on the planet could’ve possibly come up with a similar concept all on their own. She absolutely had to have copied.
So I contacted her, and it turns out, this image came about from the exact same thought process I used when putting mine together. She was stuck inside and wanted to practice dropping in a background. In my case, I was locked inside doing literally the exact same thing. Who was I to judge her?
So many artists feel paralyzed because they come up with an idea, see it already done and then scrap their own concept. They’re so afraid of being accused of copying, they stop producing work entirely. Is this what we want? How the hell does that facilitate growth in the art community?
I’m glad there are so many ideas already out there. Not only does it force us to be even more creative, but it forces us to develop our own specific style. Plus, it helps us discover other artists that are similar to ourselves. I have met an amazing community of fine art photographers, and I never would’ve met any of them if we didn’t all start out with somewhat similar images. We actually laugh about the fact that so many of us have similar images in the beginning of our careers:
Yup, two of those are mine (the other two belong to Tara Denny and Two Creative Birds). What’s really funny, is the one on the bottom left is a stock image. That means there are enough images on the internet of people floating through windows that it’s become a stock image. Does that mean people are all copying each other? I highly doubt it. More I think someone somewhere learns they can make themselves float using photoshop, looks over to a window and thinks to themselves, “How cool would it be to make a photo where I’m floating out that window?”
Copying another artist’s work is a douche move. Copying their concept is a douche move. Being so arrogant to think everything you’ve created was the first time it’s ever been done, and then attacking every another artist you see who has reproduced a similar idea? Also a douche move.
Here’s another example: a few years ago, I thought of a book that I wanted to write. I wanted to interview various photographers about the best photo they haven’t taken. What was the photo? Why didn’t they take it? Maybe they didn’t have their camera, or maybe the situation was one that warranted no pictures, but I wanted to write an entire book where photographers had to describe the most amazing photo they missed. I would call it “Photographs Never Taken.” And it would be awesome.
Then, while buying some photo gear on Amazon, the little, “Other people that bought this also bought…” tag came up, and look at what was right there, staring me in the face:
My first thought was that this was my idea. Someone else had “stolen” it. But no, they didn’t. I only told maybe 5 people about this idea before. Surely Will Steacy wasn’t hiding in the bushes the day I decided to tell one of my friends about it. And honestly, I may even still write the book I have in my head, but this book, already being published, doesn’t take away from my own creativity. He had the same idea, with the means and resources to execute it.
And I’m glad he did, because my second thought was, “Damn…I really want that book.”