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What is your magic ingredient?

September 10, 2010

www.gr8findings.wordpress.comWhen it comes to inspiration, how do you know what is your own individual work?

One of my favorite jewelry bloggers was recently expressing her frustration with the number of people on Etsy who seem to think it’s OK to copy her design ideas and try to profit from them. It wasn’t the first time — over the summer she shared some painfully obvious examples of other items she had stumbled across that were remarkably similar to hers. And its a tricky topic because in the Etsy world we’re constantly admonished not to call out another person’s work, so she never mentions the shops in question. However, her insights stirred my pot, if you will, and left me thinking about the creative process and the need for us all to be accountable for representing our own ideas in our work.

One of the things that I think makes this specific situation tricky is that this particular Etsian is also well-published in the popular beading magazines. Her blog, which she diligently maintains with daily posts, is always a breath of fresh air to read. And she is extremely kind in helping to promote her favorite Art Bead shops by writing product descriptions that mention specific artists whose work she includes in her designs. Not surprisingly, her jewelry “flies off the shelves,” at least compared to the majority of jewelry shops on Etsy. So I’m thinking some people might scratch their heads and say to themselves, “Hey, she has it all figured out ~ why should it matter if I make this [insert jewelry item here] just like she did and put it in my store?”

However, before answer that question, let me switch gears and talk  recipes for a minute. “You mean recipes? As in COOKBOOKS?!” Well, yes, though food and jewelry topics don’t usually intersect,  in this case they do. You see, in my other professional life I’ve been working on cookbooks far longer than I’ve been making jewelry, and I find it interesting that the goal there is to always give the reader such explicit and well-crafted recipes that they will be able to replicate your dish perfectly, down to the last bite. As an editor and/or publisher, you want the photography and instructions to be so clear and enticing that magazine and newspaper editors everywhere will want to excerpt the work and help promote the book. And you want the collection to be unique yet familiar, something that will pique the reader’s interest in the bookstore but allow them to step into the recipes and imagine themselves cooking with your work. You want them to taste what you taste and love it and come back for more.

But what if you’re the big-time chef and author? The one who has been working day and night for years to build a popular restaurant and can’t believe they’ve hired a consultant who calls himself a brand manager? Do you want people to cook the same food that’s in your restaurant? What if that other person is another chef? What if they take your signature dish and pass it off as their own? Will their diners know the difference? Should they care?

While it would be positively ridiculous to imply that chefs don’t read cookbooks for inspiration, I do think that in the food realm there is much more awareness of the problems that can result from trying to lift another person’s work and pass it off as your own. First off, there are practical considerations. Cookbook recipes are usually scaled down and simplified versions of what you would create in a professional kitchen, so it’s tough to know exactly how to translate a cookbook recipe into the exact series of steps that the other restaurant uses. Second, assuming you get it right (or at least close), you have to live knowing that most people will eventually realize that what you served them probably still tastes a whole lot better elsewhere.

That’s because good cooking (and beautiful handmade jewelry for that matter), boils down to this: magic ingredients. You know, the secret is in the sauce. If you rely on another person’s recipe (or jewelry design) as your stepping stone to success, it’s clear you haven’t found your own magic. Eventually, it catches up to you and you’ll be left directionless. The well will run dry.

As a creative person, it is critical that you strive to find your own magic ingredients, that special something that makes people sit up and pay attention because it tastes new and different and above all GOOD. Whether you’re talking beads or brisket, it’s what customers will remember best, it’s what fuels the creative process, and it’s what your competition will never be able to take from you.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 10, 2010 9:10 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot, too. For example, when someone has a necklace published in Stringing and it gives me a list of supplies, where to buy them, and step-by-step instructions on how to put it together, is it still wrong to do? Or maybe it’s only okay if you do it but don’t try to sell it? I’ve never copied something like that before, usually substituting whatever works for me into what I see, but I’m wondering about the etiquette there. And good analogy with the recipes. I read a lot of food blogs and there was an incident where someone made a recipe out of a cookbook and posted a picture of it along with the recipe, and raved about how it tasted. The author of the cookbook threatened to sue her for doing that, and there was a lot of backlash from it. I think it definitely starts a good discussion, at the very least.

  2. September 10, 2010 10:07 pm

    Thanks, Tara, for your insights. I personally don’t follow the bead magazine ideas regularly, but they do provide their readers such clear step-by-step instructions that I think there must be some expectation that some people will follow them to the letter. And for personal use, my opinion is that’s fine (though I would never have the patience to assemble jewelry that way).

    The problem as I see it is when readers try to profit from those instructions (or look at another Etsian’s design and reconstruct it bead-by-bead) and then try to pass it off as their own. As for the cookbook author going after a blogger, I suppose there are exceptions to every situation … but as long as the blogger was clearly giving credit I’m surprised it became contentious.

  3. September 12, 2010 2:42 am

    I know that legally (and of course we all know that you can put two lawyers in a room and come to no conclusion ever, sorry lawyers!), at least with knitting patterns, someone can make an object down to the last stitch and sell the item they’ve made, because it’s allowed by US copyright law. But ethically, especially if one’s not crediting the designer, it’s much murkier territory. Even those disclaimers saying “for private use only” aren’t typically enforceable.

    Maybe in the case of the food blog vs. the cookbook author, the photograph/imagery wasn’t original/wasn’t credited?

    And there’s definitely something to be said for being true to one’s own style and vision. Too bad your friend can’t call out the copiers, but I guess in the long run hopefully it won’t matter because she’ll have come up with even newer, cooler designs!

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