It’s been a while since my last wordy post. I have to feel quite fired up about a topic to be able to justify the time it takes to properly express my opinions on these things. Lately though I’ve begun to feel a little frustrated, maybe even disappointed, at the blatant copyright infringements from some indie brands. I wanted to take some time out to explain why this is so disappointing to me, and why I think a change in attitude, and a better understanding of originality in ideas, is not only a legal requirement for successful business, but also a positive development for the indie niche and the nail polish community in general.
Why is copyright a big deal?
There are people who’ve studied for a long time to know a lot more about copyright infringement than I will ever know, and lawyers who get paid an awful lot to possess that knowledge, but I know a little bit about how it can damage business, reputations and souls. When I’m not painting my nails I work as a designer and developer of websites and mobile apps. We have our own company and we work hard with long hours, so when we discover that someone is openly advertising for a developer to build an exact copy of a product we built with one of our clients we’re understandably more than a little annoyed. This is happening to us right now, with a product that we’re particularly proud of and it’s insulting, frustrating and upsetting.
Copyright/Intellectual Property/Creative Commons or whatever you want to call it is a complicated business, but it’s there to protect ideas as well as the creative result of an idea. It ideally prevents others from unfairly profiting from your work – note the word ‘unfairly’ because, as I said it’s complicated. Granted, without some appropriation, inspiration and the sharing of ideas we wouldn’t have progressed as a species, but it should be about having a healthy respect for the metephorical line, and knowing when you’re in danger of crossing over from simply being inspired, to ripping someone off.
So that’s a brief mention of copyright in general and how damaging it can be to businesses, but why does this topic concern me in respect to indie polish makers?
Putting my finger on the problem
There have been a couple of indie polish makers lately who have genuinely taken my breath away with the originality of their creations, but more often that not I find myself passing on indie offerings and it took a while to work out why I was falling out of love. Gradually a feeling of repetitiveness crept over me. I don’t blame indies and big brands alike for catching on to popular trends – it’s good business sense to cash in on “what’s in”. However, what I’m getting sick of seeing is myriad releases from indies in which the whole collection is based entirely on one chosen TV show, book or movie. I personally find it lazy and entirely uninspired when a collection consists of derivative polishes named after the six lead characters of a vampire show. When I realised why I was shying away from some indie brands my annoyance grew. As a designer I’m familiar with the need not only to protect my own work, but also the importance of never knowingly encroaching on someone else’s deserved copyright. The blatant and direct profiting from others’ ideas is beginning to make me rather disappointed in many (not all) indie brands.
I don’t care how ‘small’ your business is
More often than not the first defence by small businesses profiting from the creations of big companies is that they’re only small, and they don’t matter enough for the big brands to care. They may not care, but it doesn’t make it right. The creators of successful TV shows, books and the behemoths of popular media with wide-reaching franchises and merchandise may well have so much money that an indie polish brand’s profits are not worth the trouble of putting a stop to. BUT someone, somewhere, once upon a time probably worked their arses off to get their idea off the ground, struggling and fighting to make it big. By using the “we’re too small to matter” excuse what you’re actually saying is “their hard work doesn’t matter anymore”, and that “a fellow creative soul doesn’t deserve the same respect that I’d give a poor local artist because they have too much money”. My personal argument isn’t really about the money, it’s about respecting someone else’s ideas and acknowledging that their success isn’t there for you to flippantly pluck ‘inspiration’ from.
Inspiration vs Imitation
I put inverted commas around ‘inspiration’ because the word seems to be thrown around with reckless abandon. The point at which inspiration and imitation cross over can be difficult to define, but the polar ends of the spectrum at the very least should be easier to recognise. Inspiration is about being mentally stimulated to create something, where perhaps the source of inspiration is evident in the work but it should not overshadow the individuality of the new creation. If a polish collection is named ’50 Shades of Grey’, chances are the amount of creativity that went into the release (despite how pretty the resulting polishes may be) was limited. Conversely a collection titled ‘The Marquis de Sade Collection’ is likely to come from a wider body of research and in the right hands could result in a glorious collection. Granted, this all depends on a talented maker being behind either example.
But how can you show your own creativity when your attachment to a tv show/movie/book is so strong? I’d like to encourage makers to be wary of their own fandom taking hold of their natural creativity and beating it into submission. Have some faith in your own ideas and don’t rely on being a part of the peripheral success of a TV show.
We want to know what drives you, not what you watch on TV
Nine times out of ten, my best design work is the result of finding inspiration from various sources, not just from fellow web designers. I look at packaging design, furniture, old posters and more. I fail to see why more indie polish brands don’t search beyond their favourite TV show to find inspiration for a nail polish. So you love True Blood? Try doing some research into the historic folklore surrounding vampires, find out that the name Lillith (a character in True Blood for those of you capable of avoiding the vampire hysteria) stems from ancient Babylonian myths of a demon that survived on the blood of babies. Then there’s Jure Grando, a 17th century Croatian man believed to be the first real person described as a vampire. Watch the Hammer House Horror ‘Dracula’ or read some Bram Stoker. And that’s just from two minutes Googling, imagine how wild your imagination could run with a bit more research and investigation! It could even be limited to vampire portrayals in Hollywood and still draw on a wider variety of sources than getting hung up on one TV show.
One of the significant benefits that indie brands have over big brands is that they are not faceless. They have a creator, someone with whom customers can identify with and enjoy sharing common interests and we want to get to know the makers. Not your personal habits or whether you fold or scrunch, but just an insight into what drives you, what you love and what inspires you.
Challenge your creativity
I genuinely believe, despite what my significant other might say, that many of my polishes are truly unique. I also know that there are many polishes out there that are unlike anything I already own, so surely there must be endless combinations of bases, shimmers and glitters yet to be created. I feel honoured to own some of my indie polishes and I can say hand on heart that I believe that genuine creativity and self-expression went into making them. And none of them are named after a lead character in a current TV show.
If you’d rather create a collection based on a single source of inspiration try looking further into the past. Oftentimes you’ll find that media created more than 70 years ago (dependant on the country and the type of work) may well be out of copyright. This is because it’s widely acknowledged that eventually creative works will become part of the cultural norm and thus are in the public domain. In these cases the creators have had a significant period of time under the protection of copyright laws.
However you go about it though, please, go beyond this years most popular entertainment releases and start showing us that your brand is not a fad, that it doesn’t need to constantly (and oh so obviously) reference fictional characters that we let into our living rooms of an evening. Show that televisions and movie theatres could magically evaporate tomorrow and your brand would still be going strong and not flailing around, hopelessly crying out for imagination to smack you in the face.
Licensing can be expensive – for a reason
Sometimes a movie franchise (or whatever other example appropriate to this discussion) may approach a polish maker with the desire to create a range. This may be a mutually beneficial agreement whereby the polish maker doesn’t have to be a giant of the industry to be able to afford to collaborate. Oftentimes though, it is an expensive ordeal. Brands can pay through the nose because what they are usually getting are the exclusive distribution rights, the right to say ‘we can legally sell our product with this other companies name attached’ and the profits from such exposure too of course.
Yes it can be unfair, but there are opportunities out there and I’ve seen them happen for companies that are a far cry from the OPI’s and China Glazes of the industry. I also don’t think that the excuse of saying that even the big brands rip off other peoples’ work is justification for an indie brand to do the same. Big brands have made mistakes and they’ve paid – and look how strongly the nail blogging community gets behind the victim! Do you want to end up on the wrong side of that level of ferocious support?
The legal and moral issues
So if the desire to push your creativity doesn’t tempt you to shy away from blatant copyright infringements then I urge indie brands to at least consider that copyright is a real legal term. In most countries it doesn’t need to be applied for, it is a right given to any person who creates something and it doesn’t always have to have been ‘published’. Most of the infringements by indie brands though are on big names, TV shows and movies with worldwide audiences where the names and affiliated wording are actually trademarked and copyrighted, and if you don’t have permission to use these words you’re breaking the law. And don’t think you’re too small to be noticed. It has happened and you could have serious ramifications to deal with. Saying your product is ‘in no way affiliated with [insert TV/book/movie title]‘ doesn’t really cut it. Legalities aside though, do you really feel comfortable cashing in on something that is so obviously taking core ideas from someone else’s work? I know I wouldn’t.
No, I don’t hate indies
You may have noticed that I haven’t given any specific examples of brands that I think are guilty of confusing inspiration with imitation, and likewise of brands I admire, and that was a conscious decision. I appreciate that some people might not like what I’ve said, but I hope that most of you can understand that it’s really all about seeking the betterment of this niche industry that I do still have a lot of love for. There are many brands that I think do a great job of responding to current trends without making gross copyright infringements, there are some who tread a fine line, and there are those who do not. The purpose of writing this post was never to point fingers, to praise others or to make comparisons between brands. Indie brands aren’t faceless, and I respect that even if a maker is crossing into imitation territory they have [hopefully] done so with the best of intentions, in which case it would be unfair to name names.2
I love indie brands in fact. I think their very existence has contributed to the incredible camaraderie in the nail community. In all fairness I do appreciate that it’s hard to look beyond the current trends. To be a nail blogger, or even just a nail polish aficionado, it takes a fairly obsessive personality because a more rational person would probably not ‘need’ a special piece of furniture in which to store nail polish. It makes sense then that obsessive personalities are also probably going to be fangirls (for want of a better term) of cult and/or popular entertainment. An indie brand has a go-to customer base that may well be the perfect audience for the sort of collection that I’ve criticised here. That said, I’d much rather see indie brands credit their customers with a bit more brain power and creativity though – it doesn’t take more than a short blurb with the release of a collection to explain how it came to fruition. Hell, reference the TV show as the original starting point if you want, but demonstrate how your understanding of your own product along with some research can lead to a far more unique and personalised collection.
So, what now then?
Hopefully you see where I’m coming from and like me you hope for some positive changes amongst indie brands. I would love to see more thoughtful or even thought-provoking collections released during 2014. I’d love to say goodbye to derivative collections and instead get to know more about the people behind the brands. I’d like to know that while a maker loves Dr Who, what they really have a passion for is old school sci-fi, low budget special effects and that the show has a special place in their heart because they would watch it with their grandparents as a kid. I hope you see the difference between that sort of inspiration and the mere fangirling over a current TV show. If you don’t then this post has failed spectacularly. Or maybe you know that copyright infringement is a legal issue, but you accept copyright infringements amongst indie makers as a trivial detail. I’d love to know your thoughts, and discover whether you think some of these points could provide an opportunity for indie brands to go on to even bigger and better things.
1This is an example plucked from my tired brain. If an indie brand has created this polish it is not to my knowledge and is purely coincidental.
2I’d also ask that if you wish to comment you do so without negative references to any brands.