Is creative theft or “inspiration” just an inevitable part of being a creative?

Illustration by Poppy Bignell

As a creative there are a number of things that you worry about during the creation process; the response to your work, whether the pricing choices are right, the stylistic decisions, whether it’s living up to your expectations - the list is endless. However there’s the additional fear of creative theft that is becoming a growing concern for those in the creative industry.

The line between creative theft and creative inspiration is becoming increasingly blurred within the creative world as artists use social media to display their work and inadvertently draw the attention of larger brands and artists who trawl social media to gain an “inspiration” that looks a lot like imitation.

A key distinction has to be initially made between creative inspiration and creative theft. Creative inspiration is a practice that all creatives consciously and subconsciously engage with in their practice when they read books or visit galleries or browse social media and allow all of this to influence their art style. Creative theft is when a creative imitates a piece of work, maybe adding a few tweaks so the work is not an exact carbon copy. Although two different terms, the line between the two is a line that is consistently blurred within the creative industry.

So where can you draw a distinction between taking inspiration from an artist and stealing from an artist?

A common argument used within creative disputes over similarities in work is that every piece of art is a compilation of inspiration and other pieces of work. Can you ever really be original within the creative world? It’s hard to make the claim that your work is completely original as it is natural to take inspiration from other works that you’ve read or viewed, and these influences may subconsciously filter into your work without you even realising it. All work and ideas are born from research and consumption of artwork or written works or even social media discussions. Ultimately no work can ever really be original of course, but it can be borne out of your own imagination and your own style and your own intent which is what makes it inspiration rather than theft. Many creatives tap into their own personal experiences and feelings which is where the newfound originality comes from, what makes it original is that it’s you creating it and it’s your voice. Creative theft means your ideas have come from selecting the work of others and reshaping it as your own creation, there is no process of you creating these ideas and tapping into yourself to build a new piece.

It is becoming an increasing occurrence for smaller businesses to have their work copied by larger brands, with social media accounts such as Diet Prada shining a light on these events when they happen. With very little practice in place to tackle this especially within the fashion world - often due to the large financial fees taking it to court could bring - it is an issue that is very often left unsolved, with a number of smaller businesses failing to ever receive adequate compensation for the large profits that their designs bring to these larger brands.

Brands such as Dollskill, Pretty Little Thing and Asos have been at the centre of many issues regarding imitating designs from smaller artists, often selling them for a lower price due to their ability to mass produce them through cheap labour. Many consumers may not understand the level of work put in by smaller businesses that may only be one person, and so steer away from more expensive original designs to the cheaper and more accessible copies.

Legally within the fashion world in particular, design stealing is an issue that is difficult to solve as creatives often don’t have trademarked fonts, phrases or legal teams, so larger brands are able to get away with mimicking their creations. The difference in financial capacity between smaller brands and larger brands means that larger ones often know small artists will choose to remain quiet due to the inability to pursue a case against them.

Within this issue of creative theft there is also the very commonplace failure for platforms to give credit to smaller artists when reposting their work online. This is something that is made worse by apps like Pinterest where circulation of artists' work forms the basis of the website. Essentially, many come to see pinterest as a stock for resources and repost images found from here to their platforms simply crediting Pinterest rather than the artist. Effectively, Pinterest are presenting works as their own to the audience. This is even common with celebrities and influencers sharing images of poetry or art to their accounts for that coveted aesthetic touch, without any credit or mention of where it’s been taken from, denying the artist the credit they deserve. Failure to acknowledge the artist and the work they put into the piece automatically shifts your intent into creative theft regardless of whether this was an accident or well intentioned.

The digital world is a key element of young creatives' work, with the ability to have your work displayed and shared, driving sales and attention. However, the reliance on digital also creates a disconnect between artist and the artwork as work gets circulated on multiple sites with no credit or link to the original artists.

When the fine line between theft and inspiration is so easy to hide behind, the creative industry is unfortunately likely to continue to see pieces produced that are similar to others. Imitation is often seen as the highest form of flattery, yet it is an insidious element of the creative world that shows very little sign of slowing down. However, by speaking out and drawing attention to instances of creative theft, creatives can reclaim a voice that is being stolen and profited from.

As consumers, we can be more conscious about what we are purchasing, and seek to put a face to the labour that goes on behind some of the larger businesses that we may choose to shop at. Of course, choosing to stop shopping at some of these names may not be an option for everyone, as the cheaper prices some of these brands offer can act as a lifeline to those who are struggling financially. However, in these instances, following and sharing the work of smaller artists who have had their designs copied can be a great way to support them in an affordable way. Behind the art lies a vast amount of time, effort and money that goes into producing it for us to view and enjoy, so we should seek to give back in any ways we can whether that be through a follow or a purchase. After all, to be able to view and consume these pieces of work is a beautiful thing.

Written by Rachella Lartey