Had a rough day today, contemplating an unsavory situation. As luck would have it, I came across these words that I wrote last year. It was a timely reminder of where to focus my energy. While the lame situation still needs resolution, I’d like to pause from my pissed-offedness for just a moment, to acknowledge the good:
I’ve spent a lot of time and energy griping about those unethical competitors who copy, undercut, and just generally slither around the internet. It’s true – they are many. But perhaps I haven’t spent enough time acknowledging the friendly and ethical competitors who have treated me kindly. There are many of you as well. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to know countless artists who’ve helped me to hone my craft and to learn the ropes as a vendor.
Despite the fact that we’re “competing” in a similar market, you’ve treated me with integrity and respect, helping me to learn and encouraging me to grow. We’ve empathized with each others’ struggles, and celebrated successes.
These positive professional relationships have endured time and trends, and many have grown into genuine friendships that enrich my life. Thank you for this! It proves that “competitor” doesn’t have to be a dirty word. We all choose how we conduct our businesses (and ourselves) and we CAN lift each other up without detracting from our own goals. In this way, we all thrive.
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ So yeah, the jackasses are out there – but so are the good ones!
I’m grateful for those of you who choose to take the high road (even when it’s not the easy road) and I promise to treat you – and your work – with the same integrity and courtesy that you’ve shown me.
This is one of my most often copied designs. Like most original works, the design process took considerable time and effort, evolving over the course of many experiments and iterations.
The concept began in 2009, as a mistake that I liked and decided to explore further. Over the next year, I created several variations before settling on this version. Since then I’ve created various renditions with different color schemes and embellishments – but they’re all based on this one. These masks are attractive and affordable, and they’ve been good sellers for me. I’m certainly not getting rich off them, but over the years those sales have added up to pay my mortgage and they’ve fed my family many times. Please don’t mistake this as “money for nothing” – it’s the fruit of hard labor. I’ve been a working artist for nearly 30 years, so I’ve invested quite a bit of time and energy into honing my skills and developing my own style. Even after all these years, it still thrills me that the work of my heart and hands can not only feed my soul, but feed my family as well.
Sadly, this mask has been copied more times than I can count. Some do it for personal use – and while I certainly dislike that (if you enjoy my work, please respect, support and credit me) what really irks me are the copycat vendors! Over the last many years of selling this design, I’ve seen it copied by at least 8 other “artists”. These people misrepresent their crappy knockoffs as original work and then sell them alongside mine – often at wholesale or less. Between the cheap pricing and the fact that the design no longer seems original, it becomes harder and harder for me to sell it anymore.
I’ve also found people teaching this design. One class was offered at a popular leather store just a couple of hours away from me. It’s not clear whether the teacher offered the design, or whether a student asked them to help reverse engineer it – but that detail is irrelevant. An honorable teacher won’t show you how to copy off the internet, because to do so is counter to the spirit of good craftsmanship. If your instructor can’t offer original designs, find a new teacher – not only for the ethical reasons I’ve already described, but because it demonstrates a lack of knowledge and experience.
After that fiasco, I considered discontinuing the design and offering the pattern free for personal use only. I imagined this as a sort of ceremonial letting go; not only letting go of the design, but of all the drama and trauma surrounding it. Then my husband pointed out that with so many unethical creeps out there, offering the design for free might be seen as an invitation to copy all my work. Perhaps humanity is better than that, but based on these experiences, I’m not sure I’m willing to chance it.
Unfortunately, the saga of the stag mask doesn’t end there. Last fall, I was studying SEO and checking my keywords when I noticed an Etsy listing that looked oddly familiar. Upon further inspection, it was yet another copy of my design, and this time the copycat was from China. These guys were offering it for $19.99, which was a new low. In addition to stealing the design, they were using my photos to sell their counterfeit works. These photos came from a photo shoot that my daughter modeled for. So just to drive that point home: they were using photos of my child to sell bad copies of my work, for less than 20% of my price. “Pissed off” doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of my feelings about that!
I filed a complaint, and Etsy quickly removed the counterfeit listing. A month later I found the same design – once again with photos of my daughter – listed by a Chinese seller on eBay. Additional photos shown in that listing lead me to believe that they purchased one of my masks and flattened it out in order to reverse engineer the pattern. Once again, I was able to get the listing removed … but not before finding two more. These other sellers offered my stag mask along with several more of my designs – also using my photos. These last several months have been a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. I get one listing removed, and another crops up. It’s frustrating, time consuming, and costly… because all the time and energy that I’m spending to get these listings removed is time taken away from creating and selling my work. While this is definitely a business, it’s hard for me to detach emotionally from my creations (and my kid!) so this has really slowed down my creativity as well. That’s especially sucky, since this is my actual livelihood and not just a side hobby.
By early 2017, I thought it was over. Then friends began discussing the pros and cons of a well known overseas wholesale site, and I foolishly looked. Damn it, why did I look?! The mask is there, now offered in a variety of colors of laser cut felt. It looks terrible, and just when I thought it couldn’t be cheapened any worse, they’re wholesaling knockoffs of my mask for 79¢ each. Sadly, I’ve seen this happen to other artisans too – these knockoffs end up in cheesy party shops and dollar stores. So much for selling my masks as handcrafted art.
So, I’ll renew the battle and pray that I don’t find my design at Value Village come Halloween. In truth, it’s probably a lost cause at this point – between wanna-be artists, bad teachers and now Chinese knockoffs, I’ve lost my heart (and any future profit) for this design. But it’s the principle of the thing – I’ve been a working artist for more than half my life. In that time, I’ve aspired and succeeded at creating original, high quality work that feeds my spirit and pays my bills. I just can’t let these lowlifes exploit that effort without putting up a fight.
I designed this original leather mask in 2013. It’s part of an ongoing series that began in 2001 – each one is unique, but shares similar lines and details. It would seem that the design has recently been copied by another artist, who is marketing it as his own.
Sadly, this stuff happens daily. If it was an isolated incident, I might be more able to let it roll off my back – but it’s not. It’s extremely frustrating, but I try to keep my mouth shut, because everyone tells me to take the high road. To “be better, not bitter” – and honestly, I want that too. Unfortunately, there are so many of these copycats these days that the “high road” is starting to feel like a lonely ledge… and it gets harder and harder to make a living doing what I love (or to love what I do for a living) from that place.
This really hits me where I live, and I don’t know how to put a “positive” or “professional” spin on it. To my fellow aspiring artists, I cannot encourage you enough to be respectful of your peers (and yourself). Be honorable, be original, and don’t steal.
This gallery showcases many (but certainly not all!) of the designs that I’ve done in this series. I hope it offers a sense of the time that spent honing and evolving these signature pieces. Many of these designs were commissioned to incorporate symbols or ideas that were personal and significant to them. Please be honorable, and respect my craftsmanship, my livelihood, and the wonderful people who’ve helped to support that process.
As an independent artist, here are a few things that I really appreciate. While some points are admittedly ranty (my apologies, it needs to be said) this is a sincere attempt to educate. Much of it is basic netiquette, but the last one is an extra bit of kindness that just rocks my world:
1) If you share my work on pinterest, facebook, online forums, etc, please retain my links. To do so, simply share the link rather than downloading the image from my site and uploading it elsewhere. This way, when people discover my work through your posting, it leads them back to my site. I can’t tell you how many customers have found me via social media. Those links really help IF they retain the artist credit and contact info!
2) If you do share my work, please don’t alter my images or remove my watermark, logo or copyright information.
3) If you’d like to use images of my work in your workshop, tutorial, flyer, character description, or anything else … please ask first. And again with the credit. Really, it matters.
4) At this time, I don’t sell kits, patterns, tutorials or DIY components. If I change that practice, I’ll be sure to let everyone know. Until then, please do not disassemble, alter, reverse engineer, spin, fold or mutilate my work.
5) Please don’t reproduce my stuff. If you insist on doing so, please contact me to discuss a design fee. If you’re unwilling to compensate me for creative design or writing services, I suggest that time spent studying or duplicating my efforts would be better spent at your own workbench, developing your own style.
6) If you enjoy my work, please SHARE it and tell them where you found it! This helps to make my work visible to a wider audience, which is a HUGE help. Even if you can’t afford to buy anything, respectful sharing is an awesome way to support artists that you like!
A recent bout with copycats made me realize how many other artisans struggle with this issue. While it may seem like a personal problem, I think the long term effects are problematic for the whole community. Hopefully, prompting a discussion can also prompt solutions …
In the last few years, leather mask making has become wildly popular. What was once a fairly obscure craft is now a rapidly growing niche, with an abundance of newcomers. It’s great for the art form – new blood brings fresh ideas and energy, and established artists can pass along their techniques, ensuring that they won’t be lost over time. What’s not so great is that many hobbyists aren’t taking time to develop their own style before they start selling. Instead, they replicate established artisans’ work and sell the copies at discount rates alongside the originals. This practice is counter to the spirit of good craftsmanship, and it’s damaging to everyone involved: A flooded market decreases uniqueness, quality and value, and it confuses customers. Experienced artists are forced to compete with low quality copies of their own work (often priced at or below wholesale) and the copycats barely get paid for their materials, let alone their time.
I’m really feeling the impact of this and sadly, I’m not alone. Some mask artisans no longer show their work online, while others have simply given up the craft in frustration. It’s hard to feel excited or inspired when your ideas and livelihood are copied before you’re finished exploring them. That may sound like a whole lot of whining, but really does go deeper than that. When talented artists stop showing their work or leave the field completely, it’s a loss for the whole community. While experienced artists are giving up, there’s an incoming crop of artisans that aren’t actually learning to create. They’re hungry for (and sometimes demanding) free tutorials and patterns, yet they seem afraid to experiment on their own. A critical facet of creativity is being willing to take risks and make mistakes. How will the art form grow if everyone just plays it safe and regurgitates what’s already been done?
Let me clarify that I’m not hating on beginners. We all start somewhere. Some of the newer mask makers are creating outstanding work. They’ve used tutorials as a springboard for their own ideas, with innovative, high quality results. What’s more, they acknowledge their teachers, graciously showing appreciation and building community. With this mutually supportive approach, artisans of varying experience can build each other up and expand the art form. And why not? There’s enough room at the table for everyone, as long as we’re all being authentic and respectful. If you’re a mask maker, you’ve probably made (or will make) a dragon, skull, fairy, cat, owl, wolf or Anubis mask at some point in your career. This overlap is inevitable, but it shouldn’t be a problem if each artist is exploring these themes using their own vision and style.
So if you’re still with me, here are my questions:
How do we foster a healthier community?
Is it possible to share while still maintaining good boundaries?
Is there a way to teach skills and techniques, while also teaching ethics and craftsmanship?
How can we encourage people to refine their skills and personal style before jumping into the market? Likewise, can we encourage respectful competition?
Please forgive the length, and know that I’m not out to preach or put anyone down. I’m sticking my neck out here in an attempt to spark discussion and positive change.
Copycats have become increasingly problematic for me in recent years. I try to ignore it and stay focused on my own thing, but the problem is getting really out of hand. Last night, I encountered two more of them in a span of 30 minutes (one small biz, one large scale manufacturer). I’m still furious, so I’ll hold off on saying much more until I’m capable of being civil. In the meantime, I’d like to offer this food for thought:
2) If you’re selling copies and/or derivatives of my work, please stop. It’s not my job to design your products, or to write your product descriptions or policies. I have my own family to take care of, and I never signed on to do free product development (or marketing copy, SEO, or branding) for your new business. If you want to be an independent artist on any level – hobbyist, pro, or something in between – you’ll need to spend the time, take the risks, and do your own work.
This little gem has been floating around Facebook recently. I shared it on my fan page, but I’d like to elaborate on the concept a bit…
Sometimes I’m surprised by the random people that write asking for (deep!) discounts on my creations, even though we’ve never met.
I’m tempted to reply sarcastically, and ask them to give me the equivalent of half a day’s work too – you know, just because.
Similarly, I’m puzzled when folks ask for – or even demand – patterns and detailed construction information. While I don’t mind sharing certain tips with friends or peers, I’m not in the habit of giving my business away to strangers.
Worse yet are the ones who just take without asking –
This year alone, I’ve caught three different “artists” selling direct (and bad!) knockoffs of my original designs. Not only did these people duplicate my original works, but they opted to sell in the same venues that I do and undercut me! This is a mark of the copycat – they almost always sell their reproductions for less than the original. I suspect it’s because they know what they’ve done, and feel ashamed … but that’s an entirely different rant, so I’ll save it for another post. Bottom line: when you take something off of a store shelf without paying, it’s called stealing; please don’t kid yourself – helping yourself to my hard work is no different.
My point is that many people do not seem to value creative work.
There’s an expectation that it’s easy or effortless, or that it’s some sort of cute little hobby and not a real job. If you believe that crap, please allow me to disabuse you of your misconceptions – I work my ass off! For reals. I have invested decades into learning my craft, honing my skills, and developing original products. I’ve also poured an amazing amount of money into tools and supplies. In addition, I devote countless hours to “invisible” tasks such as SEO, photography, writing copy and so forth. This is my livelihood — what I do to pay my bills.
via the talented Valorie Wilson of http://www.valoriewilson.com/
As this sketch illustrates, professional artists generate a host of business expenses in the course of creating and selling their work.
My pricing is structured to cover such expenses and provide a livable wage. So when you ask me for discounts, tips and freebies, you aren’t asking for an intangible bit off fluff that I dreamed up in my “spare time”; you are asking me to work for free. I might like you better if you at least offered me a trade – how about a free meal at your restaurant, a one hour massage, free teeth cleaning, or whatever it is that you do to support yourself?
I do try to be generous with my work by offering sales throughout the year. Likewise, I donate a lot of my creations to charity, trade with other artisans, give to friends and family (and even the occasional stranger); but I don’t simply give my work away to everyone off the street. Can you think of any sustainable business that does?
My apologies if this post sounds ranty or bitter – but I see so many of these rude “requests” and outright thefts that it’s hard not to get that way. I’ll back away from the soapbox and leave you with this request:
Please treat me (and my work) with the same basic courtesy that you would show any other professional.