artists

Can We All Just Stop Complaining About “Stolen Work” Already?

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“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. But here’s another little tidbit to keep in mind:

Get over yourself.

Side note: I understand this can be counterintuitive in the world where our art is our living. A person going around and stealing our work could be a very dangerous thing. But I’m not talking about straight up stealing our work. I’m talking about someone that creates something, all on their own, that ends up looking remarkably similar to something you have already created. 

Your Ideas Are Not As Unique As You Think They Are

Yeah, this might sting a little, but we’ve got to address it. Thinking you were the first one to ever think of a concept is just plain egotistical. Just because you’ve never heard of a concept doesn’t mean the thought hasn’t already existed – all it means is that you don’t know anyone in your immediate circle with the same idea. In fact, it really only means that you haven’t casually come across anyone else, online or in person, that has actively expressed the same idea. And when it comes to having the “original” – all that means is that of all the people in the world with the same exact thought, you were the first one with the resources to execute it.

That’s it.

Having the “original”  doesn’t make anyone any better or worse than any other artist out there. It doesn’t give anyone the right to shame all those that come after them for being “unoriginal” or “uninventive”. Contrary to popular opinion, the timestamp is not more important than the art itself. Who executed it first, who marketed it first, who put it out into the world in a widely receivable form before someone else could claim its “genius” – that’s not what makes a true artist.

A true artist creates. A true artist is inspired by something, then puts the effort into creating the concept they have in their mind. They don’t do it so they can stalk the web and condemn anything similar that comes their way. Having the “original” doesn’t devalue any work following it. They came up with an idea, all by themselves. They babied it, they took care of it, they molded it into perfect piece of art they had dreamt up in their head. Why wouldn’t they deserve to have just as much credit as anyone else with the same idea that just happened to post their finished artwork first?

I remember the first time I saw an image similar to mine. One of my fans 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. .

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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’d never seen the image before, nor had I ever heard of Mandy Rosen, who does awesome work, btw), 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 it, thinking it would come right up. But instead, I found many others, like this one by Anka Zhuravleva, and was again, crushed. You mean someone else thought of this photo idea? I wasn’t as brilliant and creative as I thought I was? I had been so proud of myself…

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It took awhile to get over that shot to the gut, but soon I realized that just because someone else had the same idea with a timestamp earlier than my own, it doesn’t mean that my image is any less significant. Plus, I made leaps and bounds in editing skills putting this thing together. If I had seen her photo before mine, I probably would’ve scrapped my idea and done something different. And I’m glad that didn’t happen. I love the image I created.

Here’s another example. My image, “Rough Drafts” is on the left and Von Wong’s is on the right.

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I actually did get called out on this one, with a random message in my inbox reading, “Hey, you didn’t happen to see our image, did you?” Which, honestly, was pretty annoying. Not because of the message itself (which I still haven’t been able to figure out the tone…), but because the photo I ended up with wasn’t even my original idea. In 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. So I said screw it and sat it on the ground in front of me instead. This wasn’t a copy – it was the result of a botched idea to begin with. An entirely new idea was concocted in just enough time to get something done as the light was running out.

And this is one of my favorite photos I’ve ever made, regardless of how similar it accidentally looks like someone else’s. Which brings me to my next point…

An Idea Is Not A Physical Object

If you stole my camera I’d have a real problem. I wouldn’t be able to take pictures, and I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills. I’d also have to buy a new camera, and in the meantime I would spend a large portion of my day figuring out what the hell I could steal of yours that would ruin your life. Not to be vindictive or anything, just because…well, I’m a little crazy.

Also I like to steal shit.

But ideas are different. Ideas aren’t all-inclusive objects that come in a nice, neat little package. If you steal my idea it’s still just a concept – it’s up to you to nurture it, mold it and bring it to realization. And if you do have the dedication and drive to bring it to fruition, good for you! That kind of work ethic should be respected, not condemned.

Just a couple weeks ago I was browsing Instagram when I came across this image, belonging to Brei Olivier (once again, fantastic work). Mine is on the left, hers is on the right.

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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 was still so arrogant, so full of myself, that I probably would’ve thought she had copied. That there was no way anyone else on the planet could’ve possibly come up with a similar concept all on their own.

But I didn’t freak out, because of the examples above. The fact is, this kind of shit happens, and it’s no one’s fault. After I contacted her I learned that even as similar as these two images are, the thought process was even more similar. She said she was inside and wanted to practice dropping an image in the background. In my case, I was locked inside doing literally the exact same thing. So how the hell does that make mine “better”? Just because mine was “technically” posted first on some social media site doesn’t take a single thing away from her photo. In fact, if anything, it shows how similar we both are. If we ever get to meet in person, I’d have to have a pic of both of us holding up our own version of this photo – proof that we were meant to be friends from the beginning.

What’s more, are so many artists are feeling paralyzed, because they come up with an idea, see it already done and then scrap their own concept even though they thought of it with no influence from anyone else. They were just so afraid of being accused of copying, that they stop producing work. How the hell does that facilitate growth in the art community?

To be honest, 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:

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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? No, it probably means they are creating the same idea. And good for them! It’s how you learn! Is each image copyright? Of course! Is the concept of levitating through a window copyright? Of course not.

Now I’m not saying copying in general is a good thing – yes, be original, and push yourself to come up with new ideas, but don’t be so arrogant as to think that every idea you have ever had is original – it isn’t. Sometimes, believe it or not, someone else has already had the same idea and brought it to life. And in that case it’s not copying; it’s two people executing the same concept – a concept they each dreamt up without any help from each other.

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, in words, the most amazing photo they missed. I would call it “The Photograph 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:

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A book, with almost the identical title, full of photographers talking about the photo they missed. 

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…”

So if you see one of those articles where one artist is bashing another for “copying” their idea, tell them to shove it. We don’t have copyright on our ideas, we have copyright on the result of the execution of that idea, and no one has any right to destroy another artist for having a similar artistic thought process.

How about you guys – have you ever run into this before? Have you ever seen another image that looked uncannily similar to yours? How did you feel? What did you do? I want to know!

And if you ever need someone to talk to, feel free to talk to me – I answer best through email or on my Facebook page, Jenna Martin Photography :).

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