I know, I know. The Urban Outfitters Twitter disaster is soooo two weeks ago. I have been wanting to write this post since before Memorial Day. And now, I’m finally getting the chance to do so.
It’s all about me, me, me
Hey Internet, we need to talk for a sec. First, I tweeted something that went insanely viral, trended internationally. Hundreds of thousands of retweets? Complete insanity. The day this happened, I was about to go to the gym and throw some weight around, but decided I wanted to stop by Starbucks and write a post about what happened instead. Why? I thought that maybe a few people would click from my Twitter profile to my blog, and I was a little embarrassed that I hadn’t updated it in a while. Oh, and I’m totally turned on by social media and fascinated by word of mouth marketing and social justice and all that, so hey, perfect post opportunity.
Then something crazy happened. THAT post went viral. Whoops. I didn’t count on that. And if I had known that it would get hundreds of thousands of clicks, dozens of comments, and over 25,000 shares (from my blog alone, which on a given day gets 300 views) I would have written it a little differently. Less about “OMG I WAS TRENDING, AIN’T IT CRAZY???” and more… reporter-y? More telling the whole story, and not just giving my perspective of how things happened, to me. The whole day, my phone and email were blowing up. I was interviewed by the Washington Post and a national Canadian news radio station. I was on the local news. I got a job offer in Seattle. Weird crap was happening. Meanwhile I was trying to pack for a 3-day camping trip. The husband was not amused.
You got me twice, Internet! Many, many people commented on the fact that my post was very “me, me, me” in the first place. And then when dissenting opinions came out about the origin of the necklace in the first place, even though I linked to them in my followup post, I got a lot of comments like these, on Twitter and on my blog:
I left Saturday morning (the day after the media blitz and my other post going viral) for a camping trip and had no phone or internet for 3 days. Then I was back in my office for a day and went to Minneapolis for the AIGA Leadership Retreat (which was ah-maze-ing and life changing, no seriously). And I had zero time to work on things for my clients much less make a blog post. I got a few really angry @replies that I was “ignoring the issue” and being silent. A couple people asked me to print a retraction. Wild! Okay, so here is my official feelings on the whole thing.
What I learned
No matter how invisible you think you are… you aren’t.
I probably would have changed the way I “reported” things if I knew my post (and tweet) would have gone viral. But I didn’t know. I also didn’t schedule it so I wouldn’t have time to respond to everyone since I was traveling when this all happened. I just reacted from my (yep, self-centered) perspective. In both cases. And both times, my words were in very public view. So I’ve taken a lesson. Think before I speak (write). Think about how this tweet or post will look if it makes national news. It could, you know. Social media is a crazy thing.
I offer my apology to those who I have not been able to respond to in a timely manner. I’m human. I’m not a reporter. I’m short on time. I encourage you to write your own feelings on the subject. Put them out there.
So what about the fact that there are *lots* of those necklaces out there?
Artists can (and often do) come up with similar ideas, independently of one another. Just this weekend, I was looking at Pinterest and happened to see this lovely print by Jaime Derringer of Design Milk. I’ve been making a similar pattern without ever having seen Jaime’s print…a genuine mistake on my part to not research the pattern better. I didn’t intend to copy Jaime and was genuinely mortified when I realized that I had been drawing the same pattern. With regard to the current U.O. situation, it’s very clear that several artists have been making very similar work (see this post on Regretsy). Who came up with the necklace design first? I’ll admit that those waters are pretty murky.Here’s the thing though: this isn’t the first time an independent artist has cried foul. Urban Outfitters and Cody Foster & Co have repeatedly been accused of stealing ideas from independent artists (people like you and me!) and are making a profit from these stolen ideas. Do I really need to say this out loud?! Making a profit from stolen work is not OK.
Here’s the thing: just because you see many versions of similar items doesn’t mean someone somewhere wasn’t ripped off. It means there is an epidemic of thievery because copyright is difficult to protect. It means there was a designer who created something that fit a trend, had the design stolen and didn’t (or couldn’t) protect their work on the front end of the process, so another designer stole the design, then another and then another. For the purpose of this blog post, this is specifically a nearly identical creative design, duplicated by many different sources. Design theft is still a part of this process, the infringement is harder to trace, though, due to the saturated market of identical designs.
With regards to the collective conscious, many similar items will be made. We have a lot of information coming at us in strong tides. Themes, trends and interests sweep like waves and we can’t help but absorb the information. There will be other items similar to the ones we make. It will happen, and they will show up in shops large and small. To say there is nothing original is simply to make an excuse not to try.
I’m not talking about finding influence: liking the shape, proportion, even qualities, textures and colors, then digesting the design, playing around with it and creating something similar but with your own perspective distinctly added through materials, patterns, form and basic design. That’s how you place your own design fingerprint on something.
I’m talking about dissecting the design of an object and duplicating it. While I’m at it, the US copyright laws make no differentiation between personal use and resale.
But Urban Outfitters *does* support indie designers. What about that?
Did you see Urban Outfitters’ completely lame-ass press release about the whole thing? Other than the fact that they completely ignored that the story was happening on Twitter, with their customers, with the public… I find it HILARIOUS that they linked to the Regretsy post, which specifically calls them out for ripping people off. Is their PR department completely sans clues?
Renee from Wolfie and the Sneak points out that while yes, Urban Outfitters (and Anthropologie and Terrain) all have been accused of ripping off designs and selling knockoffs, they do actually sell some independent artists’ lines. So it feels a bit icky calling them out. But they also support Cody Foster, a giftware manufacturer who “shops” etsy and then sells identical items to UO and its sister brands. That’s not okay to me. At all.
Corporate/Company Social Responsibility (CSR) can be seen as separate from a Company’s legal responsibilities. Just because something is legal to do, does not make it the moral thing to do. If the only guidelines of a company’s are legal, then we might – as consumers, and general members of society – question whether that company’s position within the marketplace is valid. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you do. Just because others have recreated a specific design, does not justify a large Company’s actions. 12 wrongs still don’t make a right. This is not a level playing field; a multi-national corporation is not operating on the same plane as a small independent.
Oh, and the token, small number of independents that the corporation supports by offering shelf space, does not wipe it’s hands clean. And the assertion that your reply is in defense of those few independents is PR spin; it’s really about damage control for the corporation’s face.
When a mistake is made, I believe the best course of action is to be human. Apologize. Ask how you can make it right. And do that. I think this goes for an individual and for a corporation, it’s even more important.
So what do we do now?
Let’s consider placing value on a work of art or craft, I see no reason to differentiate art and craft. Let’s allow the designer their right to make money on art without the arrogance of devaluing their skills by copying. The artist’s skills are a culmination of experience, talent, skill and expression. Their work is their own unique fingerprint, their own expression.
By all means be creative, find influence, seek inspiration. Build, create, grow! Add to the dialog of the visual language. Get in there and express yourself, but don’t take another person’s cumulative experience (as expressed through a visual work) and tell the story as if it were your own.
Remember the person behind the design: the face, the designer. Respect the human being behind it all.
Honor their skills and hone your own skills by building upon creative dialog rather than echoing sentiments already expressed.
That goes for opinions, too. Digest the information available to you, think about it, form an opinion. If you don’t like the behavior you see, if you feel a designer has been trampled on and you feel the ick factor, speak up.
Ask for accountability.
Talk, it’s one of the ways we can increase the value of good design.
What do you think?
Thank you to everyone for your input (positive and negative), for the many lessons I’ve learned because of this ordeal, for the inspiration, for showing me that social media is exactly as awesome as I always thought it was. Any final thoughts on this whole thing? Tell me in the comments.