003: The Importance of Originality in Illustration

A colourful and perfectly symmetrical illustration of the human brain taken from a birds-eye perspective. Various colourful lines appear to be emanating from the brain in the centre of the image creating patterns and geometric shapes representing unique and original brain waves.

003: The Importance of Originality in Illustration

Recently I listened to an informative podcast addressing the subject of originality in work, and it made me think again about my own business and what I was creating.  Provoking thoughts about not only the legal aspect and the legal consequences you may face if found guilty of producing work based around someone else’s copyright, the podcast made me question what I really wanted for the future of my brand and the way it was seen by the public.

By no means do I directly rip off anybody’s work, nor do I think any artist should.  However, my recent illustrations have been based around my love for hip hop or more accurately my appreciation of certain personalities of the hip hop scene, even some characters from my favourite TV shows such as Netflix’s “The Get Down.”  Why is this a problem?  Well, while I’ve been producing these illustrations and sharing them on my social media accounts with great response from people, including some of the artists and actors themselves, one of the main reasons people enjoy them so much is because of the success and quality of the material produced originally by those musicians, writers and directors.

This raises the question – Do I want to be known as the guy who draws famous people?  Some artists already make a living from this, artists who I respect and follow.  These are artists who I’ve grown up admiring.  I’ve bought their artwork, hung it on my wall and I love it embellishing my rooms even today.  Is it really correct to create your own success off somebody else’s though?  Arguably, it may be ok to share artwork created of characters from popular media, but what happens if you start selling prints or products depicting those characters?

For example, if I started producing prints of the Shaolin Fantastic illustration I’ve created and sell them online, that is infringing on Netflix’s copyright of the TV show and that particular character.  Part of the reason people would buy a print is because they love the style of the artwork, while another part will be because of their already established relationship with that character or brand.

So what are the implications of that situation? I’m going to break it down to a couple of different possibilities.  Let’s pretend that this asset, my art print, gains popularity and begins to bring in significant revenue to my business through sales on my website.  If Netflix catch hold of this, it is within their rights to ask me to take it down and cease sales of that asset.  That revenue stream created from that asset no longer exists and business suffers.

In a worst-case scenario, Netflix could even take legal action.  They might claim that I’ve been generating revenue off of their ideas and products and make moves to claim that generated revenue for their own. Again, this is well within their rights as legal owners of that copyright. Not only would I have to remove the art print from my website and lose that stream of revenue; I could be at risk of having to pay Netflix back all of the money generated from those sales.  Situations like this could potentially cripple a business, especially for a freelance creative.

There’s the whole argument of whether taking actions like that is right or wrong too.  Whatever you feel about that subject, the reality is that Netflix, or whoever owns that property, has the legal rights to take actions against protecting their property.  Let me ask you the question I asked myself.  How would you feel if you found somebody making money off your original artwork without consulting you?  I wouldn’t be very happy about that.  Whether you believe copying is the best form of flattery or not, the truth is that people are making money off of your creativity; money that could be helping fuel your business.

There is a safety in originality.  Even if you come out the better side of one of these situations, your time would be better spent growing your business than being consumed by the worry and actions taken on these matters.  That said, you may stumble across situations where people will contact you claiming that you have copied their ideas, demanding that you take a design down from your website or shop.  While sometimes these may be from people you’ve never even heard of or seen their work, knowing that your designs are original will give you peace of mind.

My intentions by writing this post are not to criticise anybody’s artwork or process but rather raise the issue around originality in artwork.  When listening to the Invisible Details podcast episode that addressed this issue it really made me question my own methods and content creation.  This conflict wasn’t because I directly rip off anybody else’s work in my design process but instead questioned what I really wanted my brand to be known for.  That is why I am going to take even more careful consideration about what I create and what I share from here on out.  It’s a smart idea to question your direction from time to time to make sure you’re still following the correct path.  In my case, I’m taking a few steps backwards in order to correct my way.

If this article has interested you or made you question your own process then I would recommend you check out the original podcast that inspired it.  Another great resource that helped me gain a better understanding about how original my own work is “Steal Like An Artist,” the famous eye-opening book written by Austin Kleon. I honestly believe this a book all artists should read and gain an understanding of.

Make your work original and keep hustling.