Written by Kiwi Schloffel
The internet is both the best- and worst-case scenario for artists today. On the one hand, it’s so easy to share your work, grow your following, get new eyes on your creations, and connect with other people. It’s also easy for others to berate you for your mistakes and for your work to get ripped off in huge arenas and small ones. Artists have to keep their eyes open for copycats—from fellow artists and small businesses to huge corporate behemoths. And, when the need arises, artists may grapple with how to deal with a copycat.
For Artists, Copycats Abound
Most artists have cultivated loyal and supportive communities on Instagram and other social media platforms. So, they often have help in keeping watch for copies of their work. But, usually, when an artist realizes that the Targets or Anthropologies of the world have ripped off one of their creations in an obvious and blatant way, there isn’t much they can do about it. Most artists call out the copycat on Instagram and get their followers riled up on their behalf. A few artists have taken on the burden of fighting copyright infringement via legal avenues but have made it known that it’s an extremely lengthy and costly process.
When an artist is faced with a copycat they usually have to accept that it’s nearly impossible to fight and move on making new work.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but for an artist, it’s pretty devastating. I know this because I’m an artist. I primarily write and design my own greeting cards. Not only do I spend hours drawing each one, but I also spend equal time coming up with the copy for the phrases on the greeting cards. I’ve had plenty of instances where my copy has been taken nearly word-for-word and used by other companies.
Up until 2018 I never had to deal with an actual copycat. Here’s what happened when I did.
Here’s How to Deal with a Copycat
On that fateful day in 2018, I was running my business as normal—responding to emails, packing up orders and brainstorming new products. Then I heard the ping of an Instagram message. I haven’t ever mastered tempering my curiosity when I get new messages, so I checked it immediately. I’m pretty sure my heart fell into my spleen.
One of my customers sent me a screenshot of an Instagram account that had posted a tracing of my “you made a tiny human” card and was pawning it off as their own. The business owner was even encouraging people to go buy the card on her Etsy shop.
In the greeting card world, I’m known for using expletives on a regular basis on my cards. So, you can bet that I spewed more than a couple of curse words as I held back tears and clicked on the link to her Etsy shop. I can honestly say that I was astonished when I realized that she had directly copied four other designs of mine and was putting them out in the world as her own. Along with that, I saw dozens of other designs directly ripped off from other small and independent greeting card designers.
I Called Out My Copycat
So, I did what any artist in this day and age would—I called her out as a copycat on my Instagram stories. Immediately my fans attacked her page, giving her grief and encouraging her to delete any and all the posts that were copies of other people’s work. She responded by promptly blocking me on Instagram.
Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I went ahead and looked at her Instagram from my personal account and saw that she had taken down the posts of cards that had been direct copies of my work. When I checked her Etsy shop I realized that she was still selling the direct copies of my work along with the dozens of other designers she had ripped off.
In a rage, I posted in the Stationery Business Owners Facebook group (because, yes, that is an actual thing) that other people should be aware of this copycat and should send her cease and desist letters via Etsy as I had just done.
Hell hath no fury like an indie designer scorned.
I hadn’t heard back from the offending shop owner so my second course of action was to demand that the listings that were copycats of my work were taken down within 72 hours, even though I know that I would be full of rage and sadness for those 72 hours.
I Sought Retribution (and Internet Stalked)
Then, she finally responded, without apologizing and said that she had taken down the listings of products that I’d demanded be deleted. Even though the situation was technically resolved on my end, I was so furious I barely slept. I felt like I deserved an apology and I needed her to grovel for stealing something that I had worked so hard on, that was so close to my heart. Instead of shoveling all of my emotions of hatred into an Etsy message I did what any decent person has done at least once in their life: I stalked the hell out of her Internet presence.
Not even joking, I found her LinkedIn, her Facebook, her personal Instagram—everything. If you’re judging me right now, you’re either a much better person than me or you’re trying to forget that you did the same thing to all of your exes. I’m not proud of it but I was on a mission to find out everything I could about this person and how she had the gall to outright steal from other artists.
And that’s when I stumbled across the watercolor maps of cities and places that she painted.
They were intricate, detailed, and gorgeous—and shoved all the way to the bottom of her Etsy shop. They were below all of the copycat cards she was selling. Each one was original and she was charging $45, a price that was far too low for any kind of original with so much detail.
Then, I Saw My Copycat’s Original Work
Seeing those maps shattered my anger. It reminded me that there was once a time when I had sold one-of-a-kind cards for entirely too cheap. That there was a time when I felt completely overwhelmed and out of my element. It reminded me that the only way my business had grown to be my full-time job was because I sought out the advice of others to help guide me.
So, instead of crafting an Etsy message written out of the ashes of my anger and sadness, I wrote one that focused on kindness instead. I told her that her blatant copying of my work was devastating and felt personal.
I told her that her watercolor maps shone brighter than anything else in her Etsy shop because they were something that showed off her artistry and personality.
I told her that she should be selling the originals for at least three times the current price. That in order to boost her revenue and offset the cost of the hours each original probably took her that she should scan each and make prints to sell for a more affordable option for buyers. I even told her what printer I used to make my own art prints.
I shared everything I would have wanted to know if I’d been starting out again. Was I too generous? Maybe. Was that a naive move? Perhaps. Do I regret it? Not even a little bit.
What I Learned From Calling Out My Copycat
I know that sometimes people’s motivations for their actions are based on fear or insecurity and I know that I’d always rather lift someone up rather than tear them down, even if they don’t necessarily deserve it. After that message, we responded back and forth casually and she removed all of the copied greeting cards from her Etsy account to focus on her maps and other watercolors. Of course, this is all easier said than done.
While kindness was the right course of action for me in this scenario it would have been a hell of a lot different if a huge behemoth had been the one ripping me off.
Still, I think of that artist often when my initial reaction to something is anger because I know that if I look hard enough I can usually find a way to replace my anger with kindness whether it’s kindness toward myself or someone else.
About the Author
Kiwi Schloffel is the brains & brawn behind Craft Boner, a stationery company with the singular goal of making people laugh big ‘ol belly laughs. She draws and letters every card by hand and when she’s not doodling you can find her watching true crime, browsing thrift stores, or ranking various establishments by the quality of their nacho cheese.