A topic that comes up for beginning artists putting their art out into the world is often whether or not they should be concerned about copyrighting. If you ask a highly-paid professional artist or designer, it would make sense if they told you that their creative work has to be registered; but what about those of us who create very abstract, or frankly, less marketable art, just for the fun of it?

The purpose of this article is not to discuss the importance of copyright protection. If that is what you’re looking for, however, I can point you in that direction: ArtBusiness.com has an informative article in which you can find out about the benefits of registering your art through the copyright office. If you have the time to read through it, you can at least find out what your recourse is if there’s a scene in some blockbuster movie you’re watching where a print of your art is hanging on the wall (“What the…!”).

For those of us who are a little more open minded about the whole private intellectual property thing, I have come across some interesting ideas over the years.

They’ll Get What They Deserve
Creative people like us–we’re in it for the love of creating things; our audience and clients know us and know what we do. They know we’re not fakers. If some joker steals other people’s art to put on a T-shirt to sell at the flea market, they aren’t experiencing the joy of creation–and that’s just one aspect of their karma. Selling generic art on a generic platform isn’t our thing, though, so we usually don’t worry about that sort of theft.

Outright Theft vs. Recombinant Conceptualization
Taking someone else’s work, doing nothing to it, and putting your name on it is not cool. That’s stealing, and if you care about what your peers and clients think (I know you do), you’re not going to do it.  However, very few of us can say that when we first began learning our craft, we were truly original. We all began by copying someone else’s style. Gradually, we experimented with other styles until we finally developed a product that was unique in some way. Later, we become inspired by other people’s work.
I like Justin Kleon’s attitude about this topic: there are okay ways and bad ways to use other people’s ideas/work. If you take some ideas from someone else’s work, take it farther, turn it into something else, and do all the work yourself, then the product is completely new and original. It must be unique, because it manifested through your own unique perception, experience, and skill.

Nothing New Under the Sun
We think we’re so clever: “Wow! This great idea came to me! I’m a creative genius!” Nope. Someone else already thought of it. But no one can articulate it in the same way that you can, so get off your butt and do it. When it’s done, though, don’t be mad when someone else also did the same thing, just in their unique way. They simply got a visit from the same muse at the same time as you (muses are promiscuous that way).

Multiple Discovery
Here’s a fascinating example:
We all know about the genius that thought up the Theory of Evolution. That Darwin guy. It turns out he wasn’t the only genius thinking about Natural Selection. Another guy named Alfred Russell Wallace came to the same conclusions completely independently at the same time. When this happens–it happens so often that it ties up Nobel Prizes–social scientists call it Multiple Discovery. The concept of Multiple Discovery goes like this: all thought is built upon previous thought, mixed up and then articulated over again. They call that Recombinant Conceptualization. Sometimes, being inspired by close to the same previous work by someone else, two minds will come up with the same idea at the same time. That’s why some people argue that no one should own one piece of intellectual property, since ideas are always hitting multiple people at the same time. That’s also why other people try to copyright their stuff as soon as possible–they know someone else is already thinking the same thing, and it’s a race to the Journal or copyright office (Darwin was faster).
Does this mean you shouldn’t go ahead and act on that great project? No! Get to work! Just know that creation is going to hedge its bets and find someone else to work through as well, just in case things don’t work out with you.

Era of Free Information
The children of the Information Age have gotten pretty savvy about how things go now regarding putting their ideas out into the world. They know that if they want to get their work beyond their small circle of acquaintances, they’re going to have to put it on the Internet. They also know that it probably won’t pay much when they do, so they keep their day job. It sucks in a way, because we work hard at our creations, but it’s also beautiful in that geography and the opinions of publishers can no longer hold us back from our ideal audience. The free exchange of ideas fostered by the affordability and ease of using the Internet has churned creative production to ever greater heights. Art is now being democratized in that anyone with the desire can do it. We still have another income, so we don’t have to worry about catering to the whims of the market. We are truly free artists; free to create and free to share.

Creative Commons and the Sharing Revolution
So far I have presented two options: register your intellectual property out of fear that great ideas are so scarce in you and the rest of the world that someone might steal them and leave you broke, or do nothing because you love to make stuff and don’t care. There is a middle-ground option in the Creative Commons. It’s a free online platform to get your stuff into the world while letting people know how you would prefer that it be used by others. You can choose to just get credit when someone re-uses your stuff, or even choose to get ask for royalties if someone profits from your work.  It’s up to you.  Registering through the Creative Commons gives you some reassurance of legal protection, while gifting the world with your ideas to build upon.

As I have illustrated, humans have been taking each other’s ideas and building on them for millennia. From humanity’s beginnings, we have been building upon one thought after another, slowly at first through verbalization, then writing, and then the printing press. Sometimes humans got the same ideas at the same time in process. When the only way to spread ideas was through hard copy, it was much easier to regulate ownership of those ideas and creations. Recent technological revolutions have made the process of creating and disseminating ideas easier and faster than ever, frustrating efforts to keep other people from doing the same thing at the same time.

I know I can’t speak for everyone, but this is what I’ve noticed: creatives have become accustomed to the idea that we do what we do out of love of creating and sharing our craft, rather than the love of owning it. The world can only be better off for it. Fortunately, we do have a few options just in case of outright theft of our work.

Have some thoughts to share about this topic? Comments are welcome!