Prying Control from Your Cold, Cramped Hands

Remember this, people.

With a couple of important yet not universally applicable exceptions (patents can be used to protect unique manufacturing processes; copyright can be used to protect the distribution of text and drawings), you cannot control what others do with your work.

The minute it escapes your possession, your work will be interpreted, judged, manipulated and sometimes downright defiled by people you don’t even know. One day I’ll tell you the story of how Greg reacted when his parents hung one of his stunning mosaics over the toilet*.

This is the nature of creative work. Hell, this is the nature of some dude on Twitter overhearing your vacuous conversation on the bus.

And I’ll argue till I’m blue in the face that this isn’t a bad part of creative work. Even if it stings. Even if it offends.

Which is why I think this post by Katrina over at the Salt City Spice blog is bunk. In it she argues that it’s bad behaviour to publicly bookmark (on Pinterest) a product with the intent to make something like it yourself, specifically if it’s a handmade item. That somehow it’s failing to support crafty businesspeople.

But that’s not how it works. The onus is on crafty businesspeople to make products that people will buy.

If your products are constructed very simply and you photograph them well and you market to a crafty audience, you’re going to find that some potential customers will make something similar for themselves instead of buying from you. If you want fewer people to do themselves and more to buy from you, you’re going to have to create some sort of perceived value that convinces them to buy your goods instead of making some on their own. This is totally possible. It happens all the time. Look at how many people turn a profit selling zipper pouches.

Even if your products are complex, people may take inspiration from them for their own projects. So what?

The scope of Katrina’s post is limited to recreational use – she’s not even talking about the far more complicated topic of where the lines get drawn when the parties in question are all selling things[3. Remember the recent example of the jewelry designer who accused Urban Outfitters of stealing her design? And then it came to light that her idea wasn’t terribly original in the first place?].

There is an insidious undercurrent of rule-following in the crafts world. Did you know there are people out there who think they could get arrested for altering a crochet pattern for their own use? They think making a short-sleeve sweater with long sleeves instead is violating the designer’s copyright.

Their fear of breaking these rules (that don’t exist) hinders their enjoyment of their craft. And then there’s the effect it has on their creative expression, in general.

That’s an extreme example, but as evidenced by Katrina’s post there’s a far more widespread assumption that we need to watch out for people’s feelings when we make creative decisions. And though of course I’m not advocating rampant assholery, I do think our creative business community would benefit from a somewhat tougher attitude. Not an attitude of everyone for himself, but an attitude that as businesspeople, we sometimes need to be headstrong rather than soft-hearted.

Creative work is personal. And so it can really hurt when people behave in ways we wish they wouldn’t when it comes to our work. But the sooner we accept that we can’t control these things, the sooner we accept that the free exchange of ideas is the basis of a healthy society, the sooner we’ll be able to return our focus to creating a sustainable business for ourselves.

A business, I hope, that participates in the exchange of ideas and knowledge in our creative community.

* He was all, “Uh. This isn’t really the best place for it, is it?” And they were all, “We don’t have room for it anywhere else.” And I was all, “Dude, you relinquished control over where this piece could be hung when you gave it to your parents.” And then his parents moved it.

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