My guitar friends asked me some interesting questions about being an art fair potter. It began an interesting discussion. The opening question was whether I'd ever had an idea ripped off. There are a couple of other questions in the text of the long discussion duplicated here:
Interesting coincidence that you would ask the question right after my South Carolina show. The show, "Artisphere", did something that artists have talked about for years now, but no show that I know of has ever done anything about. As we were setting up on Friday, the show passed out signs to post in our booths saying:
PLEASE DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH THE WORK IN THIS BOOTH
WITHOUT THE ARTIST'S PERMISSION
And, of course, this prompted discussions among the artists over the rest of the weekend. Story after story was told of having work pirated.
One of the more interesting was Ed (name changed), a watercolorist who caught the same photographer surreptitiously taking pictures in his booth in consecutive years. Having caught the fellow (long story) it came out that the pirate was paid $500 for any image that his Pac Rim employer put into production.
I know one mixed media artist who had a curious drop of sales -- in particular from a gallery that had previously been her biggest and most regular customer. As fate would have it, a friend of this artist happened to be touring China -- including some of the "art" export factories. To this traveler's shock, she saw her friend's artwork being assembled in the factory. She called her friend back in the States and told her about it. Mystery solved. The gallery had sent the artist's work to China to be reverse engineered and created at pennies on the dollar for the gallery.
Mike (name changed) and I began our online sales ventures at the same time. Because of that, it was common for Mike and me to discuss the latest web developments when we'd meet up at art fairs. At one winter fair I ran into Mike and asked the usual "So, how's it going?" question. That's when Mike related the following...
Seems that just a couple of months earlier, Mike received an unsolicited email from a company in India. It offered to make Mike's jewelry for him at a fraction of his manufacturing cost....and attached to the email was a page of images of prototypes of Mike's work as manufactured by this Indian company.
Mike wasn't exactly sure what to do. He'd never authorized the copying of his work and that in itself was offensive. He could, he supposed, find a market other than art fairs (where having the work manufactured elsewhere would break the artist/art fair contract that demands that that not be the case). Still, it was unsettling to have his work pirated. As he sat on the offer, not sure what to do....less than a week later the same company sent a follow-up saying "Oh, by the way, we can also offer you these works as well." Attached was page after page of jewelry pirated from other jewelers like Mike.
That was bad enough, but Mike then delivered the capper: "....and there's a jeweler at this art fair with some of the work I saw on those other pages."
Smart guy that he is, Mike immediately saw the other problem that represented. That is: There is no way to know if the other jeweler at the show was similarly (as Mike) pirated, or if they were breaking the art fair rules of production.
I presented these three examples (out of dozens I could cite) just by way of illustrating that there is a problem and it's bigger than one might think.
And so, as you'll see when I tell you my story, though it seems improbable, my answer to "Have I ever had my ideas stolen?" is....yes, I think so. I'm almost sure. And on a huge scale.
Starting about 10-12 years ago I started to have amazing success with a particular “line” of pots. It was the kind of success that was the buzz of the art fair scene. It was also the kind of success that couldn't be hidden. At its most extreme, things like this were happening:
At one of the biggest art fairs in the country for several years running, though the show opened at 9:00 AM on Friday, by 8:00 AM there would be a line extending 20'-30' out of my yet-to-be-opened booth with patrons waiting to buy.
Everyone knew about it. You couldn't not see it.
Now here I seem to change the subject. This is just a little background. A little, "think about this".
Say you are a major national company with millions invested in the marketing end of cheap import housewares. What do you suppose might be the most cost effective way to do the market research and development for the next items that you plan to have manufactured overseas for your catalog? Do you suppose you'd hire 20-somethings fresh out of design school? Do you suppose you'd put an ad for designers in some online employment site?
No, if you're smart, you'd simply go to where creative people are already making the next new ideas and doing the marketing research for you by going from town to town and testing their work in front of an audience of cumulative millions of buyers each year -- the art fairs and the art fair artists.
And as an added bonus? The art fair artists are too small-time to offer up any legal resistance to your ripping them off.
Enter the photographers/spies. Go to the biggest art fairs in the country and go from booth to booth and look for the next ideas you want to have made in Pac Rim companies for your import biz. OR…….even better and more efficient? ....don't go from booth to booth -- go from crowd to crowd. Simply go to the booths that seem the busiest and see what the crowd is buying. Photograph THAT work and have it duplicated for your store.
This is a long way of answering that, yes, XXXXXX&XXXXXXX obviously witnessed my outrageous success. One Autumn morning, as I was walking back from my mailbox to my shop leafing through their catalog, I was stopped dead in my tracks. I had just reached a page in the catalog that was my line of pots as interpreted through mass production.
And, no I can't prove it. And, no I can't do anything about it.. And, no the work wasn't exactly like mine (to manufacture the stuff, they cast what I threw....though some of the pieces were pretty much a dead-on copy of mine).
FRIEND: John, That sucks. Do you now make an extra effort to create stuff that cannot be easily mass produced?
It's a good question. This problem isn't a new one. There's always been a degree of idea piracy going on at art fairs. And the better among us are really a front line of creativity -- and as such, really fruitful targets. Our survival demands that we continually move on, and we small studio craftsmen aren't usually married to a process that is so committed that we can't sort of "turn on a dime". That nimbleness was always our strength.
The thing that's changed everything is the exponentially easier and faster means the pirates have at their disposal to duplicate us. Between technological advances and easier access to the Pac rim, the game has changed.
One thing that used to favor us artists was the huge cost and commitment that the factories incurred in copying us. They had to be pretty darn convinced it was worth the process, because it was going to cost them LOTS to copy us in order to make it worth their mass-producing while. Yes, that's why they appreciated the degree to which they could rely on us for our product market research , but still, it was a commitment for them to go into production on one of our items.
No longer. Now even they can do a short run at low cost. And they can do it fast. They can be in the market in a matter of short weeks, should they decide to start production. If they're a bigger concern, they are on it with the next catalog/season cycle.
But there are things inherent in my process that they will not do. They won't hand-throw. They probably won't high fire. There will be distinctives in my work that will matter in the market. But perhaps those distinctives will only matter to a smaller audience, and the larger audience I might have once had will be satisfied with the knock-off.
Nimble is the name of the game. But I'm old. Nimble is harder.
FRIEND: I browsed a local fair here two weekends ago. The no photography signs were in evidence in all the booths. That's fine, but what of the online sales? You have nice images right there for the pickins.
I have many friends who won't sell online for that reason. It's a problem as my friend, Mike, found out. I guess if there's a small consolation, at least online there is little indication as to the success of the piece/line. At least online they don't see a line hanging out my booth and halfway down the aisle waiting to buy, letting them know that the duplication is worth the effort.
I think this insight is the only safe harbor -- be different and inherently harder to duplicate. It's a tall order, but probably the only avenue beyond faithful "followers" and the ancient artist marketing model based on some vague sense of mystique and notoriety. Certainly the possibility is always there that who the artist IS may be able to trump the competition from piracy. That's another LONG discussion though....