Cheat! Biter! Asshole!

There’s something wrong with copyright. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know that this statement feels true. In the world of art especially, copyright is a massive grey area. But everyone, from massive corporations to starving artists, likes to believe that it’s totally black and white. This fight club drawing is one of the most copied pieces I’ve done. It’s been directly copied and sold probably a hundred times, and the idea has been tweaked and rehashed so many times that I’ve lost count.

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For a long time I thought that was the black and white rule; you can remix an idea, but you can’t directly lift someone’s work and sell it. I still feel like that’s a good place to start. But I also get more annoyed when I see badly rehashed versions of my ideas, rather than direct rip-offs. I know that “Everything Is A Remix”, but nobody likes a bad remix.

Also, this drawing was based on a photo, because I can’t draw Brad Pitt and Ed Norton from memory or imagination. So I technically have breached copyright too, I think. But it could be totally fine and fall under fair use, maybe. No one really knows. I had so many DMCA takedown notices issued against me while I was making pop-culture art that I’ve stopped shitting myself if one lands in my inbox. The golden rule seems to be: if they’re bigger than you, they’re right.

There was that Shepard Fairey case a while ago that was meant to sort this out once and for all, but nothing actually seemed to change — apart from more people coming forward to claim that Fairey had ripped them off too.

That’s another problem with this whole issue, being copied has become a kind of badge of honour for some artists. In fact, the first time I actually felt like I’d “made it” in some way was when someone sent me the picture below. It’s a t-shirt featuring one of my drawings that was bought at a store in the Philippines. It was my first 100% official bootleg, and it felt awesome (I based this drawing on a photo too, tsk tsk).

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There are websites set up now so we can shout “Cheat! Biter! Asshole!” at big brands who “steal” our ideas, which seems like an amazing idea — but what we define as copying is becoming increasingly tenuous. And if anyone shouts “Cheat! Biter! Asshole!” at us, we pretend we didn’t hear it, or we get defensive and prepare to make our case. It happened to a well known artist recently. She made very public posts about a store kind-of-definitely copying her work. Within days there were counter posts exposing the fact that she kind-of-definitely copied a bunch of photographs in her work. I never saw the end of either side and I’m still not sure who was in the right, or even if there was a right. But it doesn’t feel like fighting and sniping about things like this is the best way forward.

The weirdest part of the whole copying thing for me is that two people having almost exactly the same idea at the same time is genuinely not that bizarre. It really isn’t. It’s happened to me a whole bunch of times. Sometimes they posted their idea first, sometimes I did. But every time it happened my instinct was to wince, and be quiet, and hope no-one shouted “BITER-ASSHOLE-FUCK!” at me. We have literally thousands of images blasted into our brains every single day. The odds that some of those will influence our artwork, maybe even noticeably, are pretty high.

And that brings us full circle, to remixing being OK and copying being wrong. But something about that still feels off, and I'm still not sure why. I have no ideas to fix it either, I’m just trying to start with how I approach things. I'm much more careful about making art which could be considered “copying” these days, and if someone “steals” one of my ideas I tend not to think it’s the end of the world — because it hasn’t been so far. I also feel like I should have so many more ideas in me that one single idea doesn’t matter anyway. I remember someone — I don’t remember who — saying, “the best copyright protection I have is that the next idea exists only in my head.” Ever since I heard that I’ve tried to embrace that way of thinking.

The intro in Rob Delaney’s book explains that his views on this are similar to that person whose name I can't remember...

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That’s exactly how I feel these days. If you want to steal my ideas “Go ahead and take ‘em, motherfucker. Here come five more.” Unless you’re Urban Outfitters, then I’d probably be shouting “Cheat! Biter! Asshole!” too.