Duplicate It Yourself: the dark side of DIY

Updated Oct 12 2015
Original photo by Flickr user Christoffer Mørch, used by Creative Commons license

Here's the scenario: you're looking for wedding invitations online. You find some you like, but they costs more than you want to spend. What do you do?

  1. Figure out if it's worth rebudgeting for so you can afford them
  2. Get inspired and try making something similar
  3. Find a photoshop wizard to make the same invitations for less
  4. Make your peace with the fact that it's out of budget for you and let it go

Recently, it seems as though more and more people are opting for option 3: taking high budget inspiration and aiming for low budget reproduction. And it makes sense, right? Love that $10,000 couture dress but can't afford it? Maybe you send a picture of it to a dressmaker in China and get your couture knock-off for $300. No biggie.

But what if it's not a couture dress created by a big name brand? What if you're reproducing something created by an independent designer or artist? Where's the line about what feels ok and what doesn't? And when does Doing It Yourself simply become Duplicate It Yourself? When does inspiration become swiping something?

There are not solid answers on the issue, and maybe that's why this is such a hot topic in the creative world these days. Join me as I try to figure out how I stand on it…

I got an email last week from an artist whose work I've featured on Offbeat Bride, telling me that she's been overwhelmed by the response … Unfortunately, the emails she was receiving weren't from prospective clients. Rather, they were from budget brides informing her that they can't afford her, so they're reproducing her existing artwork. She got one email with the subject line that put it quite literally: "My apologies for swiping your design."

I thought it was an isolated incident until I heard that other Offbeat Brides were posting on Deviant Art, trying to find someone to reproduce illustrations I've featured on Offbeat Bride. We're not talking about a Vera Wang gown here. For me personally, I don't really care about Vera Wang (I totally understand y'all may feel quite differently)… but I care deeply about independent artists who are trying to make ends meet by creating custom work for people … people who are instead taking the ideas and seeing if they can find someone to make it cheaper.

The issue is burning up all over the place. I got an email from Princess Lasertron a couple weeks back, linking to this post: "DIY is not Duplicate It Yourself." You should really go read the post, the general idea is this:

I feel like there exists a disconnect between the artist/blogger/designer's intent (to inspire) and some people's inference that this inspirational content is free to simply be copied.

The blogger goes on to posit that inspiration boards and wedding blogs are a part of the problem. Go read it and then come back.

I've touched on this issue before on Offbeat Bride, when I answered an advice question about when it's worth it to spend money on custom art. The comments on that post spiraled off in some weird directions that made it clear that many folks don't see a difference between custom designed illustrations/art and photoshoppery. Zoinks!

We also touched on the issue when we mentioned the XKCD wedding invitations. Here's an artist who's FINE with you swiping his art, but as this commenter points out — that's rare. Extremely rare.

Part of what I love about Offbeat Bride is that it gives me an opportunity to show off the work of so many amazing independent creative artisans … invitation designers, fashion designers, photographers. SO MANY AWESOME CREATIVE PEOPLE, all working their asses off to share their visions with the world. And I can't deny that it breaks my heart to think that rather than slurp up the opportunity to work with these amazing people, there are some who would rather just try to reproduce the end product.

I need to make a disclaimer here: My wedding planning process and priorities were unusual in that I didn't go looking around for ideas, and then try to find a way to make it happen. My priority wasn't on the end product, but rather on the people I wanted to be involved. I didn't go find inspiration, and then try to enact it. I had people I wanted to work with, and the results were almost incidental. I didn't even know what my reception decorations were going to be — all I knew was that Lower Location Manager Sarah was doing them, and that was all that mattered.

For me personally, that was a big piece of the joy of wedding planning: working with all the amazing creative people whose ideas I loved. I want to recognize that I did things in a different way than many folks, and so my perspectives on this issue might be different.

There's also some confusion, I think, about what constitutes "non-commercial use." I think some folks feel that if they use a design but don't SELL it for their own profit, that it means noncommercial usage. But when you do this, you're taking away business from the artist — which means it's commercial usage.

I want to clarify that this reproduction really isn't DIY. True DIY is DOING it yourself. True DIY is taking inspiration and seeing if you can translate it into your own work. What I'm talking about here is what the Decor8 bloggers refer to as Duplicate It Yourself. There's just a big difference between seeing something you like and trying to recreate it yourself, and seeing something you like and hiring someone to recreate it for less. As one artist told me, "I'm happy to be an inspiration, and not every spin-off is a swipe." But when you're trying to hire a creative to reproduce another creative person's work? It feels icky for everyone.

I recognize the grey area and my own logical and ethical inconsistencies. I don't have a problem with ripping off a $10,000 couture gown … but it strikes me as downright icky to rip off a $500 wedding invitation produced by an artist living in a studio apartment. I fully acknowledge that this opinion is indefensible, but I guess I'm saying I'm all for piracy, as long as you're ripping off The Big Guys. For me personally, it feels fucked up when folks start ripping off The Little Guys. This was the same point I made last year in my post about the ethics of an off-shore wedding gown.

But why should only rich people have the pleasure of working with the awesome artists? For some people piracy is a whole lifestyle philosophy. And how can inspiration ever really be owned? It's clear that this is NOT an issue of cut 'n' dry ethics, and my own thoughts on the subject are self-contracting and weird. I don't have any answers here, only feelings.

So, where do you draw the line?

  1. Ah crap, you wonderful people and your hard truths. My fiance and I would really like his dad to make us some candlabras, but the idea of him making them only came about after we saw some online that I really liked. My fiance was literally going to give his dad a photo of what we've seen online. I'll now be having a rethink. I'd like to apply the 7 differences rule but they are super simple in design (part of why I like them) so that could be tricky. I need to think this over some more before we 'commission' my fiance's dad.

    Here are links to the candle holders I've been admiring, just as a shout out and as penance: http://www.notonthehighstreet.com/littledeer/product/copper-candle-holder-trio


    (these are similar but I'm not getting involved in that!)

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