I apologize for the absence of a photo to go along with this post. Somehow, nothing seemed quite right. If you're reading this blog right now, I'll going to assume that you spend some amount of your leisure time online. It follows then, that at some point, you've probably become aware of a subject that, to some extent, affects all art-related groups and every medium, polymer clay included. Okay, I can sense the rise in blood pressure already. Just bear with me, please. I've spent days on this post and I'd prefer that it be read without any type of emotional investment. At the risk of sounding extremely pompous, I feel that as a student, an instructor, an author, and someone who simply enjoys using polymer clay as a means of personal expression, I have a somewhat unique perspective to offer. We are all a product of our individual experiences and those experiences are what has led me to write what follows.
This subject has been rehashed so many times and terms such as ownership, stealing, infringement, copying, borrowing, derivative, originator, originality, etc., have been tossed around to the point that many of us are just tired of hearing about it.
How do we, as a community, put this to rest once and for all? As much as some of us would like to turn this into a battle over some specific incident that affects you, your best friend or your favorite pal on a message group, that needs to stop. It's about so much more than any one person or incident and it affects each and every one of us in some way.
The Internet is an amazing thing - efficient, timely, influential, and so very powerful. I'm so glad Al Gore thought of it! There's no doubt that it's had a huge impact on the development and growth of polymer clay. So many of the issues at hand have understandably intensified as our usage of and our comfort level with computers have risen. The relative anonymity of the Internet, the instant gratification it provides, and the lack of accountability that's often present, have all contributed to this progression. How best to balance the positive and negative aspects of a sharing community? To me, the answer is both simple and obvious: RESPECT.
When we, as students, take a class or workshop, what should we expect? We should leave with new knowledge, we should leave inspired, we should be brimming with creative energy, we should have increased confidence in our abilities, and a feeling of having experienced something wonderful. That's what I try to provide when a teach a class and that's what I expect when I take a class. When we spend our hard-earned dollars on an art-related workshop, a book, or a magazine, do we have the right to use the techniques or projects that are presented and incorporate them into our own work? Of course we do. It would be insane to pay for something and not be expected to use it. Can we make something that looks like the instructor's work? Of course we can. Can we sell these pieces? Of course we can. When we paid for the information, we gained the right to do that. I'm not encouraging you to imitate someone else's work. However, I believe that, for some people, this is an important part of the creative process and I have no doubt that as we incorporate what we learn into our own artistic point of view, our work eventually evolves and changes and will become something that is uniquely ours. If an instructor or author feels uncomfortable with having students or readers imitate their work, they're probably in the wrong business. If you plan to sell work that came about from a workshop or a book, it's nice to give the instructor or author a mention. This enables them to continue to sell books and teach workshops to all those people who are now admiring and buying what you've made. In addition, give some consideration to the fact that you're not the only one who's taken the class or bought the book. You may not want to present work to sell that looks so similar to what lots of other people are making.
For an instructor, there's no better advertising than to have a student return to their guild and share their enthusiasm and excitement for what they learned during class or for that student to post on an online forum pictures of the things they made. You should feel perfectly comfortable sharing these things. Is it okay for you to return home and give a step- by -step demonstration of what you learned in class to your guild members who weren't able to attend? It's nice of you to share but think about it from an instructor's point of view. If you do that and 10 other people do the same thing, there are now 11 guilds with hundreds of potential students who have just been taught, for free, the process that instructor is depending on to earn a living. How many of those guilds will want to bring the instructor in to teach that workshop now? Maybe some of them will. But, there will be lots of others who feel that they've learned that process and would rather move on to something else.
The process of developing a workshop is a long one. It takes weeks, months, or even years to refine and develop this process into a format that's teachable in a classroom setting and results in a successful outcome for many different skill levels. In a one-day workshop, especially, the instructor's entire process may be able to be demonstrated in just a few steps. If you take photos of the process during class, keep in mind that the information that's presented in the classroom, including handouts, is only meant for those who have paid for the class. The process that you learned is yours to use but it is NOT yours to share. There's no doubt that most workshops are far more than just a handful of pictures but, posting step-by-step photos on the Internet in the spirit of sharing is not fair to students who have previously paid for the information and it's not fair to the instructor who is currently teaching that workshop. This type of sharing, which is usually done with the best of intentions, can lead to problems you may never have even considered. The dozen friends who reply to your post and thank you for "sharing" are not the only ones who see these photos. Thousands and thousands of people now have access to something they can make use of in whatever way they'd like. Here's just one scenario. If someone decides they want to try the process, take their own photos, rename the process "Kathy's Krazy Kane", and post a free tutorial on their website, what type of effect will this have on the person who worked so hard to develop and teach this process? Their name has been totally removed from the equation, they receive no benefit for their hard work, their future earnings can be adversely affected, and, if they cry foul, they're often chastised for it. So, in our excitement and eagerness to share, we should always be mindful of sharing more than we have a right to and what the consequences may be.
Our community consists of many talented artists but not all of them have a desire to teach. Some people are producing work to sell, while others create only for themselves and the personal satisfaction they receive from the creative process. If you admire someones artwork and are not able to take a class from them or purchase work from them, for whatever reason, is it acceptable to try and duplicate their work for yourself? No one can stop you from doing that and this type of "reverse engineering" can be a wonderful learning experience. If you decide to share this piece with others, give credit for your inspiration to that artist. Don't "forget" where it came from or try to convince yourself or others that you magically came up with this on your own if that's not the case. It's really not painful to acknowledge that you were inspired by someone else's work. We're all inspired by other artists and it's nothing to be ashamed of. Don't think it's acceptable to write a tutorial to share with all your friends online if this was not your original idea. Just because you were able to figure out another artist's process doesn't give you the right to share it. Let the originator decide how and when to share this information as they see fit. Use good judgment. If you know this artist is selling their work through an online store, for instance, do you really feel it's right to make pieces that look just like theirs and compete with them? Of course it's not and one day, you could find yourself in a similar situation where those roles are reversed. Anyone who has had this experience can tell you it's not a pleasant one.
I believe that any medium requires a sharing and an open environment to grow but, it also requires artists who are willing to invest time and effort into developing techniques and work that will move the medium forward. I don’t think there are many people out there who can afford to or are willing to do that for nothing. We need to balance respect and courtesy with our eagerness to share what we've learned. Even if you disagree with me, I hope that everyone who's taken the time to read these words can understand and appreciate my dream for the polymer clay community: Respect for students who have taken classes or bought books and have a right to use what they have learned in their own work. Respect for instructors who have worked hard to develop workshops that enable them to earn a living and have a right to expect that details of their process will not be shared outside of the classroom. Respect for our fellow artists whose work inspires us to create new work of our own and who have a right to sell their designs and share their process as they see fit.
This hasn't been an easy post to write and it's been even harder to make the decision to put it up here for everyone to read. I feel as if I have much invested in the polymer clay community. I've spent more than 10 years concentrating my energies on this medium and teaching, writing, and selling my work is now my "job". I am not the "polymer police" and I have no right to tell you how to live your life, creatively or otherwise. If these words have changed your opinion of me, then that's something I will have to live with. Ultimately, we are all responsible for the personal choices we make and this was mine.
Comments, as always, are welcome. But, please stick to the topic at hand. I don't want this to turn into something it was never meant to be.