Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My Friends Ask The Best Questions


 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:


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....


  1. times are definitely changing that's for sure, reminds me of the mugs walmart has that say hand crafted, I have noticed however that a lot of folks turn pottery over and look for a signature, that may be the saving grace, a hand signed one of a kind piece.

  2. Hi John! Glad to see you blog again! Missed you.
    I was horrified to read about this "pirating"!
    What about taking out a patent? Then, if you see your beautiful work reproduced in a company catalogue, you, and other artists, can take action. That might put an end to this shameful thing.
    Also, I have seen potters online who post their pictures in a way that cant be copied.
    On the bright side, as Linda said, there are people who love and appreciate real hand made art, and look for the artist's signature.
    I am still a learner potter, and live in Israel; I enjoy looking at other potters' work in order to learn and enhance my own ideas. I work full time in an office, so my pottery is only the hobby kind, with gifts for friends and family, and some occassional sales as gifts. But there is nothing as rewarding as one's own ideas taking shape in clay!
    Wishing you continued success--despite the pirating!
    Shelley, Jerusalem Israel.

  3. HI John,
    This was well written and thoughtful and thought provoking. As a potter who lives among many other potters it is not only the mass marketers but fellow potters who think nothing of using an idea you have to add to their own lines. On the blogs I read more and more how others are inspired to make such and such after seeing someones posted work. I agree that we can not compete with the mass market but who are our customers these days? Are they moving to the mass market and away from a handmade item? Does it matter to them anymore?
    I also wonder as pottery becomes more and more expensive, another subject, that we price our work above what folks can afford.
    Good thoughts.
    On another note, it was great to meet you and we hope to see you again on another visit.

  4. Hey John, it's been too long.Nice post.

  5. Good information to consider, and worth reading through. Welcome back to blog-land.

  6. Good read. LOTS to think about....

  7. Dang! That is dreadful. Gives me the heeby jeebies!

    It seems that this is a new ugly reality we may have to face, and my question is whether we will ever gain satisfaction from the pirates or if we need to put our efforts into the consumer end. In other words, if we can educate the consumers about the difference between these handmade items and knock offs. That they are not the same merely because they LOOK THE SAME.

    If the audience doesn't know any better or doesn't care, then of course they will see no real difference. If they are just consumers of shapes and colors, what do we expect?

    One way out seems to be helping people to value handmade in and of itself. The things a potter makes him or herself have a value that is not translatable into shape or color. If people get this they also get the difference between our work and the work of pirates. And also the idea of supporting local industry. If people get this they also get the difference between our work and the knock offs.

    If the consumer is only aware of what we do as a consumer good, how it ended up on the market is probably unimportant. The pirates will have every advantage. What we have to do is educate our audience that it isn't just a product we are making, but a contribution of personal craftsmanship and sometimes local or regional industry. But as long as the folks buying our work are immune to our story of actively creating our work it will always be a hard sell. What we really need is to prove to them that being creative matters in their own lives. We show them that what we do as artists is interesting and important by demonstrating that creativity has a role in their own lives. They understand the role of creativity by being creative themselves.

    If our audience is only a passive consumer of products and has no clue about the efforts and creativity required to make what we make, and if they have no reason to value these things, then OF COURSE they will shop at Walmart for pots.

    To me it seems that the greatest difference we should be trying to make is to remind people that creativity matters, and that they can be sympathetic to our artistry because we all understood creativity once upon a time. Its only the naked greed of money grubbing capitalism that wants the audience in their strictly consumer role being spoon fed the latest model of innovation or the season's latest fads. Is that in our ultimate interest? Don't we want them to be more than mere consumers? Don't we want them to understand the difference between what we do and what the pirates are engaged in?

    In the end we stop the pirates not by hiring bigger gun lawyers, but by getting the public to take an active role in appreciating the work of individual creativity. The fewer people buy from pirates the less piracy is rewarded. The more the public care about our creativity the less we need fear pirates. The more they care about their own creativity the more the public will see value in the creativity of others.

    What do you think?

  8. So many great comments! I need to respond. I'll get to it after the weekend. I'm off to a show in Lansing, MI.

    In short, though, I've been thinking about many possible answers -- some already mentioned in the comments.

    1. Don't sit still. To call it simply "a bummer" to be copied unfairly understates the scope of the problem and the economic duress it causes. But the truth is, we probably aren't going to survive on old ideas.

    2. Live simply. A great idea may bring a windfall, but great ideas are even harder to come by than good ones....and good ones are hard to come by. If you are fortunate enough to come up with a great one, it might be good to put some away for a rainy day rather than develop a lifestyle based upon the windfall. This is obvious in hindsight. Not so obvious in the living. It certainly wasn't obvious to me.

    3. Teach the next generation of craftsman. We won't value craftsmanship as a culture if we aren't actively passing it on. That usually means leapfrogging generations. For some reason we are hard wired to reject our parent's values, but we quite often buy into the values nostalgicly presented by a grandparent's generation. I'm now old enough to teach a twenty year old (where's that smiley emoticon?)

    4. The emperor's new clothes just may be our friend.

    Thanks for the participation!

  9. I have missed your postings, good to see you back. I appreciate your insights and thoughts about rip off/copy cats/stealing…

    I find that relationships are important to my customers, they like to talk to me and “know” me as a potter...but I am a small time potter. When a potter gains in popularity and reach the cash flow is better, but fostering those relationships is much more difficult. The big craft shows are definitely one way to even with all its risks. Some people to do it on their own, such collectors…they take pride in their “relationship” with their favorite artist or medium or what have you. ( A special place in heaven for collectors!!)

    Big box companies don't have the luxury of developing relationships beyond cheap prices- I suppose they do get hoarders, if you want to call that a ‘relationship’! It’s just more stuff, it has no soul. I see some companies work the relationship angle by telling a story about their products or business- for each article/item (thinking of J. Peterman) and others work the "lifestyle" angle (Sundance, Saddleback Leather, etc.).

    As you point out, the advanced technology can prove to cause trouble with copies, but I hope social media (blogs, you tube, facebook, etc) can continue to develop as a vehicle for extending our relationships with customers and future craftsmen. Postings like yours get us thinking and talking... and help teach people how to appreciate time and effort. Ok, you may be preaching to the choir…but who knows?!

    I like to believe the “green” energy, organic produce, support local movements, and others, are signs that humans DO want and appreciate real…and that they want to buy handmade pottery.

    And with that I will add my emoticon

  10. I think this is just the leading edge of this problem. Low cost 3D printers are coming, capable of reproducing just about anything from a digital file. And we all know how easily digital files spread when popular...

    While the plastic or resin or whatever these devices produce won't be suitable for making coffee mugs and such, a wide swath of the handmade objects currently available at a typical art fair or on Etsy will be easy targets, and an interested consumer won't even have to wait for overseas manufacturers to choose a line and spin up production -- they can just go home and "print" one for themselves.

    With a few more generations of software development, and it could be as easy as snapping a couple camera phone shots; the device converts them to a 3D model and presto!

  11. Wait -- cell cam pics? What was I thinking? This problem has already been solved by the hardworking potters who provide Etsy with five views of the same piece -- both sides, top, bottom, detail -- in a effort to recreate a physical object in virtual space. One automated rip through that site, a la the opening sequence of the movie The Social Network, would provide thousands of seeds for 3D modeling software to feed to the printers.

  12. Scott,

    You're such a hand-thrown-mug-is-half-empty kind of guy. You see doom and gloom in science fiction. I, mister pollyanna mug-always-full-of-whatever-I-wish-to-be-drinking-at-the-time (and universal record-holder for the most hyphenated title in history) sees science fiction as the future in shipping. I will soon be able to beam my pottery to anywhere in the universe for free.


    Aye, but we're a-running oot uh poower, captain

  13. Hi John, I'm late on the bus, but Etsy for instance, has a "Sales" link where one may look and see what the most popular items from a particular store are. There is also another site that tracks the highest sales in Etsy by category. It appears for pottery, the top sales site offers customized name imprinted dog bowls...who knew.