Let’s Talk about the Good Copying

Copying is not always bad. We all start by copying. It’s how we learn. It’s how we learned language and how to speak, it’s how we learned to draw, and it’s how we learn to make letters. There’s nothing wrong with copying to learn.

Did you notice the important part though? Copying to learn. The example I like to use is the Mona Lisa. If you want to work on your painting skills, sure, try painting the Mona Lisa as an exercise—but do not publish this work. I repeat, this does not belong in a gallery or showcase. This is not your own work. It is a derivative, it is a copy, and it is made without permission, therefore it is not permissible for this work to be displayed.

How to be Inspired without Copying

You need to have developed your own voice and style before you start putting your work online (Yes, this includes Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Not everything you make should be published). What you do privately for developing your skills is one thing, but what you publicly publish should always have your own spin on a style.

I like how Erik Spiekermann approaches it. If he wants to make a typeface of a certain style, he immerses himself in many examples of that style, and then draws something out from his own mind the next day without reference material. This way, by doing it from memory after exposing himself to many sources, it is similar but not a copy or a theft (see video).

Erik Spiekermann on avoiding imitation:

Examples of Bad Copying

It’s important to have many, various sources of inspiration to avoid stealing someone’s work (even if unintentionally). If all you do is view one artist’s work, it will be extremely difficult to refrain from creating derivative works. By keeping your sources varied and fresh, you will be able to create unique works that are your own.

The following pieces are copies. These are not merely works inspired by mine, but direct copies down to the smallest details (at least as best as the imitators could produce). These are just a few examples—I see more and more like these daily, which led to the writing of this post. I don’t own the word ‘fresh’, I don’t own the quote ‘Life is like photography,’ I don’t own the ‘sh’ ligature, but I do own the combination of all the above in the form of the executions shown below.

Can Derivate Works Be Published as Long as They’re Attributed?

No. Simply attributing who you copied does not give you permission to their work. It is still theft. The only instance where it is acceptable to copy someone’s work or make a derivate and display it publicly is if you have written permission from the original author.

Feel Free to Copy My Work — For Practice

I don’t mind at all if you recreate my work to help develop your skills. As long as you keep it personal and unpublished, I’m honored that you like my work enough to use it for practice. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery—as long as it’s not to the detriment of other creators.

Never publish copied works.

When in doubt, get permission. More importantly, focus on diversifying your inspiration. There’s nothing new under the sun, but that has more to do with general categorization. Scripts aren’t new, serifs aren’t new, hand lettering isn’t new. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a unique style within those categories. Stay creative.