Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Stealing your idea

Much talk on the Quiltart list this week about people who visit a vendor's booth and announce cheerfully, "I'm going to steal your idea!"  Everybody responded predictably, how awful.  But one person wrote something that bothered me:

When you do shows and gallery walks there is always the group of people who are there only to steal ideas. My DH was great at spotting those....the ones who stood outside the booth with a paper and pencil sketching off ideas since they knew cameras were not allowed. He would casually walk up to them and stand right in front of them, saying nothing. If they tried to move around him, he would casually move back in front of them. I don't remember that he ever said a word but they got the message.

I was bothered because I have been the person sketching something from somebody's booth, and I wasn't doing it to steal her idea.  I was doing it because something about the design or the pattern intrigued me, and sketching it was a good way to figure out just what was intriguing.  I do the same thing in museums, if I can't take a picture or buy a postcard of the picture I like, and indeed sketching is a time-honored method of appreciating the art on view in such venues.  In fact it would be a pretty pathetic museum or gallery walk or art show if no ideas ever made their way into viewers' heads, even without money changing hands.  And art history would be a lot shorter course if artists had never allowed other people's ideas to infiltrate their own sensibility and influence their work.

When I was the person making a sketch at this art show, I never sold a replica of her stuff, or made a replica of her stuff, or published my sketch of her stuff, or often even looked at the sketch after I came home from the show.  The sketch was an activity of the moment, meant to crystallize some concept that struck my fancy.  I suppose I could have just stood there in her booth staring for five minutes, but her husband probably would have come over and intimidated me in some other manner.

Let's agree to begin with that stealing designs is bad, and that when an artist realizes that has happened on a commercial scale, it's probably worth it to seek redress.  But is it worth it to assume preemptively that everybody looking at your stuff closely is doing it with the intent of ripping you off?  If so, then don't display your work in public.

I wonder whether the people who work so hard to jealously guard their ideas are doing it to good effect.  Are their products so unique, so special, so fabulously lucrative that industrial espionage is their greatest business challenge?  And couldn't any industrial spy worth her salt get an image of anything she wanted without lurking out in the aisle at the show?  Go to the vendor's website or etsy store and grab a screen shot; at the worst case, buy one and take a picture of it. 

Even people who sketch designs with the intent of making one themselves usually don't or can't follow through.  And if they did, so what?  People with the skill to actually copy your work can probably do so without a sketch, just by looking.  Would it be a better business strategy to approach the sketcher and say "I'm so glad you like this stuff!  If you decide you want to buy some, here's my business card!  Thanks for stopping by!"

No, send your husband out to give people the hairy eyeball. Even if you have totally misjudged the person with the pencil -- like maybe it was me having a private art moment -- act in a hostile manner on general principles.  That's a good use of his time and a good business strategy.


  1. I was once chastised in Liberty's in London for making a very rough drawing in my sketchbook of a scarf, working out how it was constructed. It was purely for my own use but as there was lots of 'designer' stuff around I could see their point. I've noted increasing sneaky use of mobile phones for taking pictures -there's no flash and can pretend texting or making a call

  2. Kathy, I have another view of the situation you present today.

    Years ago I sold christmas ornaments at craft fairs as a way to pay my way through graduate school. It never failed that at each fair I would have more than one person stand in front of my booth and actually announce that they were going to go home and "make some of these cute ornaments". They would then draw a little sketch and go on their way. These items only costs a few dollars so we're not talking a big expenditure here but they had so little respect for what I was doing that they didn't even bother to purchase one little thing. Fast forward until just recently when I had a show of my work in a commercial gallery and one of the first people I met as I came in the door announced to me that she was there "to get ideas". Well poop on her! I don't think she was kidding.

    It's a tricky thing. I too love to look and absorb and think and enjoy work other people have produced. However, when you have put the work and money and emotion - yourself - into work which you offer for sale or for view, I believe you deserve some respect. While our intentions may not be to replicate another artist's work, it is very hard to stand by and watch as someone sketches or photographs what we have made.

  3. Information flows--there's nothing we can do about it. And why would we want to stop the flow? I get ideas from everywhere, and so do the people who complain about others "copying."
    If you're concerned about selling your work, and making lots of money, then you should put your efforts into marketing. Look around you--best sellers are not the best quality items, they're the ones with the best promotion.
    Through my years in retail, I learned one thing for sure: being pleasant to customers (or potential customers) always pays off. Acting suspicious and proprietary just sends people out the door.

  4. Terry, I understand your point. And it's really rude to make comments like "I'm going to make that myself" or "my children could make that" or "I'm going to steal your idea." I also realize that when the artist is standing right there, otherwise innocuous comments or gestures can come across as confrontational or rude.

    My quibble is with people who assume the worst, that your intentions are evil. I don't think everybody who sketches or photographs your work is showing disrespect -- if so, then I have actively disrespected Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, El Anatsui and hundreds of my favorite other artists recently. Heck, I thought I was showing admiration!

  5. I don't know how many times I've looked at something and thought, "I could go home and do that"... and then never did.

    Skill and originality are important, but effort is essential.

    Reminds me of this wonderful piece: