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Art and Copying - What to Do and What Not to Do

An image of Oscar Wilde. His quote "Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery that Mediocrity Can Pay to Greatness" is written to his left.

“Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery that Mediocrity Can Pay to Greatness.”

This quote coined by Oscar Wilde is a saying that’s been thrown around for nearly two centuries. It’s been said to us when our little siblings begin to repeat everything we say, or when a friend begins to dress the same way we do. However, with the rise of art theft and blatant copying, this initially sweet quote feels more sour on the tongue.

Within the arts community, copying is something that tends to be very highly frowned upon. However, in some cases copying can be encouraged and frequently done (with some conditions, of course). Here are some of those dos and don’ts when it comes to copying other artists.

What is Art Theft / Plagiarism?

Art theft is when someone blatantly copies the work of another artist without crediting the artist, whether it’s for monetary value or not.

More times than not, we’ll see people copying other work in order to gain some form of attention, most notably on social media. Tracing or copying and then uploading said work to the internet under the guise of it being an original work is blatant plagiarism. Even if it’s posted without monetary gain, you’re still presenting it under the pretense of being the original artist. If monetary value was added on top of the recreation, it could result in a lawsuit.

This extends to platforms like YouTube as well, and in turn extends to other forms of work. Photography, music, illustrations, etc. that are used without permission can result in copyright strikes. This can lead to a termination of your account, and/or the original artist/company taking all revenue from the video in question.

If I credit the artist in my post, is that okay?

In most cases, no. The only way that copying and then posting the work is okay is only after getting explicit permission from the original artist. Once permission is given, only then can you post the work and credit the artist appropriately. Make sure explicit permission is given first if your intention is to post -- that way, you know ahead of time if it’s alright.

Sometimes, artists will also state on their profiles the simplified terms and conditions when it comes to their artwork (whether they allow reposts, recreations, edits, etc.), and it’s very important to respect their wishes and follow them. If an artist has already stated that they don’t want reproductions or reposts, don’t bother asking, because it wastes both of your time.

But you said there were “dos” to copying?

I did. If you choose to copy an artists work that you found online, but also choose not to upload it to social media or include it in any kind of portfolio, that’s okay. This is called copying for educational or learning purposes, or a study.

Studies are something many artists do to pick up techniques from other artists. Studies from other artworks are okay, so long as they stay as just that -- a study. Don’t post studies based on the works of current artists and don’t use them in portfolios. Posting them with or without credit is still blatant art theft, and putting them in a portfolio will most likely get you rejected. However, master studies can be placed into portfolios, though an original work will definitely score higher.

What if the artist know…

Studies or recreations from historical artists is called a master study. Master studies are a special case, in which recreation and posting to social media is generally okay, but you should still avoid including these in portfolios, and should never claim them as entirely your own. When posting to social media, you must say it’s a master study and credit the attributing artist and piece. However, you still shouldn’t add these into a portfolio, as it’s not considered a completely original piece of work.

Master studies from historical artists such as Rembrandt or Monet are actually quite encouraged in art school -- copying from old masters is a fantastic way to pick up their techniques and skills, and can definitely help boost your artistic prowess.

What if I’m just inspired?

A parody piece of Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer. The girl is Princess Peach.
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer drawn as Princess Peach.

Creating a piece inspired by another artist is a different story. As long as nothing is blatantly copied, generally this is okay to post with credit, though I’d still be hesitant about adding it to a portfolio. If you’re creating a piece that’s inspired by someone else, do not use explicit reference -- this can result in copying if you study the work a little too closely. Instead, create a piece that may take elements of the style or palettes that they use frequently.

Creating parody pieces of artworks are the main exception to this rule -- parody brings new meaning and openly criticizes or adds a new spin to the original work. Parody also falls under fair use laws, which is a whole other can of worms to unpack, but the short explanation is that it’s technically legal as well.

You may also want to take inspiration from more than one artist. Blending styles and picking up on bits and pieces of other art styles is how we grow as artists and develop our own artistic voices. Every artist was inspired by another! Posting works that aren’t explicitly inspired by anyone is usually okay, but crediting the artist that inspired you is certainly appreciated and can be very flattering. Otherwise, if you choose to keep it to yourself, this is still a fantastic way to learn and develop an art style.

Wait, does that mean my fanart is plagiarism as well?

Technically speaking, yes. In a lot of ways, fanart doesn’t fall under fair use since it isn’t extremely transformative in nature. However, since it isn’t very harmful to larger companies, I wouldn’t worry about it. In fact, some companies encourage fanart and fan creations -- this is a case of Oscar Wilde’s quote being used for its intended purpose.

However, things can get tricky if you choose to sell merchandise of said fan creation. Some indie game companies have explicitly stated that they do not want fan merchandise created for their games, and some larger companies go around giving takedown warnings to artists about fan merchandise that’s up for sale.

Fanart posted without monetary gain, however, is generally fine and sometimes encouraged, so feel free to draw as much fanart as you’d like.

If you’re not too much of a reader, a little TL;DR of this whole blog can be summarized in these few points:

  • DON’T copy an artist’s work to post on social media, whether for monetary gain or not. This is plagiarism.

  • DO create studies. So long as you don’t post them, this is okay.

  • DO create master studies. These are very highly encouraged, and can be posted afterwards so long as you attribute the correct credits.

  • DON’T claim studies to be completely yours. This is also plagiarism, whether it’s a master study or not.

  • DO be inspired by other artists without copying them. Art is a community, and we should gain inspiration and share our knowledge with one another!

  • DO create fanart, but BE WARY of creating fan merchandise.

If you’d like to learn to develop your own art style, you can get personalized feedback and lessons in our art mentorship classes, which are built to help you create and polish your portfolio. But if you’re not too sure where to start, check out our other virtual art classes to help you seek out and pinpoint your artistic voice. If you’d like to read more about fair use and fanart within copyright, check out these articles that concisely explain what fair use is, and that explains how fanart and plagiarism fall hand in hand.

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