So you heard about that whole kerfuffle last week, when Urban Outfitters was accused of ripping off an indie crafter’s jewelry design? If this is news to you, read the crafter’s post, the tweeter’s post about it all going viral, Regretsy’s follow-up, and Urban Outfitter’s eventual response.

In sum, what happened was that a maker of jewelry alleged Urban Outfitters stole her design; the social media craftosphere picked it up and spread the allegation like wildfire; Regretsy pointed out that while the crafter likely didn’t rip anyone else off, her designs weren’t actually that original; Urban Outfitters quoted Regretsy in their official response.

So first there was this huge social media frenzy around big-bad Urban Outfitters and their habit of ripping off indie designers. (They’ve been accused several times in the past, which likely primed people to believe these allegations at first glance.)

Then there was the assessment of how social media can empower individuals and independent creators to fight the big guys and win.

Then there was the, “Oh. Maybe this wasn’t exactly a situation warranting such a fight, oops” period of reassessment.

Still, there’s much to glean from this episode.

  1. We independent creative entrepreneurs are very sensitive about our work, with good reason. Yet we must remember to take a deep breath before we accuse others of stealing it. It’s not just big business that’s often accused of stealing people’s work – I’ve seen knitwear designer throw down knitwear designer, readers hurl accusations at magazine editors, authors name-call authors – not to mention the gossip and behind-the-back name-calling. And most of the time, the allegations are unfounded. (Not all the time. See point #2.)
  2. Sometimes people really do rip off other people’s ideas. It’s amoral and sometimes illegal. But it’s not always what’s going on. That’s why we owe it to the preservation of our own professional integrity to do our due diligence before crying foul.
  3. Big business is very easy to hate. We blame it for the death of our small towns, we blame it for the suffering of our small businesses, we blame it for the homogenization of our culture. Big business is faceless and nameless much of the time.
  4. Urban Outfitters would do well to address the perception people have that they routinely rip off the little guy. (One way they might do this is to not rip off the little guy. Another might be to forge customer and supplier relationships, in part using, say, social media.)
  5. Social media is social. Ideas can spread as quickly through it as they do through a peaceful gathering of people that morphs into a rumour-fueled mob. As participants in the discussion, we owe it to ourselves and to our peers and audience to do our due diligence. This is hard to do, and sometimes we get it wrong. That’s okay, we just have to admit it and apologize and move on. Even if someone we trust alleges something, we must remember that an allegation is not necessarily the truth. Hurt feelings do not necessarily equal injustice. Similarity does not necessarily equal derivation.
  6. That said, allegations – founded or unfounded – can spread far and fast. Urban Outfitters did itself a disservice by not responding to this one sooner. Yes, within hours they had put out one tweet. It was a day before they released their official response. Given the virulence of their condemnation, even one day was far too long. Sure, they may have a policy not to engage with haters. I follow a similar rule myself. But this was different than any old hater – this was huge. Maybe Urban Outfitters hadn’t actually done its own due diligence, and didn’t realize how common the jewelry design was until Regretsy pointed it out. It doesn’t matter. Big businesses have to be able to respond to social-media clusterfucks when they happen, and UO waited too long.
  7. Social-media clusterfucks will happen. See point #3.
  8. Also, UO titled its response as if it were a press release. Press releases are, like, the antisocial medium.

People talk about the power of social media, and social media sure is powerful. But as a medium and not a message, it resides neither on the side of good nor of evil. It simply is as people use it.

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Isaac Watson

Social media is a dry grass field just waiting for a single neglected cigarette butt or lightning strike to set it into a furious wildfire. Much like Internet forums, I might add. But we must remember that all artists steal from others. Inspiration is often fueled by a “I can do better” or “I will make this my own” mentality. Nothing is original.

But in truth, I keep oscillating between the protection of intellectual property and the utter opposite: open-source exchange. There’s a time and a place, but I never know where to draw the line or just let it be.

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