February 7th, 2005

default, pepper

Art thief! Or not.

I’ve read Kyoht’s OMG ART THEFT post with a certain combination of ambivalence and amusement. I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who are artists and writers and some of them are very protective of their creations to a point where they go after anyone who’s appropriating what computer nerds would call a distinctive look and feel. In the software world, this is saying that you’re not just making something similar to an existing product in terms of intended market and feature set, but that you’re intentionally aping that product’s distinguishing usability and interface characteristics to capitalize on the existing brand.

And in the art world—particularly at the amateur and “quasi-pro” level of fandom—similar aping is pretty easy to spot. I first encountered Terrie Smith’s artwork not in furrydom but in ElfQuest fandom, and I had to look twice at some of her pictures to confirm they weren’t Wendy Pini sketches. (Terrie’s art style has changed since then and not for the best, but as Alton Brown would say: that’s another show.) In the late ’80s and early ’90s the number of furry fans who were in turn influenced by Terrie was uncountable. And today, primitive “therianthropic” art following the style of Dark Natasha and Goldenwolf is growing faster than kudzu.

I’ve seen this same thing in writing—to some degree, I’ve been a victim of it, as there’s been more than one Derysi clone in both fannish writing and MUCK characters out there, sometimes ones I wasn’t very happy about. (The ones I know of on FurryMUCK that actually are Derysi have my permission.) I’ve seen people get upset about characters who are too close in physical concept to their characters. I’ve even seen people put dire copyright warnings in their character description, apparently because somebody else came up with a character who was too close to their baby.

These people—and I mean this in the nicest possible way—are being stupid. Any computer nerd who’s been around a while can tell you that companies lose “look and feel” lawsuits. Every time.

See, “copyright” is only what the word implies: the right to make reproductions. You don’t get to photocopy Michael Whelan’s artwork, trace it, or duplicate it exactly freehand. But you do get to make your own original artwork that makes everyone think it was done by Michael Whelan (assuming you’re that good). You shouldn’t lift poses, but unless the original artist is suffering material (i.e., financial) harm from that lifting and is willing to go to court to recover damages, her practical recourse is to ask you to acknowledge the influence and stop being a mook.

Concepts and styles are not legally protected. You can trademark character names and likenesses, and even if you don’t put the little ™ symbol after their names, legally it’s a unregistered trademark. But unless the appearance of a “copy” of your specific, well-known character was so close that a layperson could confuse the two, proving plagiarism would be like trying to hammer in railroad spikes with your nose.

Kyoht’s art style and arylkia’s aren’t similar, except on a couple pictures (and even then, not much). What you have are rabid fanboys defending against the perception of plagiarism. We know this story: one fan saw this, told other fans to look at the similarities, and a lynch mob formed in internet time.

The punchline for this particular story is that Kyoht didn’t respond the way some other artists I’ve seen in similar situations have—essentially, to spontaneously combust. From “never posting on the internet again!” to “leaving the fandom forever!” we’re talking high-drama meltdowns whose end result is a pile-on of righteous anger directed at the perceived offender. And on an emotional level, I really understand this. I’ve experienced it a few times.

Kyoht didn’t get upset at Arylkia, though. Whether it’s because they already knew one another or because she understands that people can be influenced by the same things, be influenced by another, and sometimes even come up with nearly-identical ideas independently—and both of those are true—she got upset at the lynch mob.

As much as I like some of the artists who’ve done the combustion thing, as much as it has to be acknowledged that sometimes the “copying” artist has seriously breeched all standards of courtesy, etiquette and respect and deserves a swift kick in the ass, melodramatic, over-the-top responses don’t do anything other than make the responder look—well, melodramatic.

And as much as the fandom may not need other artists copying existing art styles, it needs drama explosions even less.

Watching the comments on Kyoht’s piece has been interesting—the general feeling seems to be: thank you for saying this.

You know what? Kyoht, thank you for saying that.

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