Open Discussion: The integrity of crafts

Growing up, my Nanny (grandma) was obsessed with cross-stitched magnets to put on refrigerators. She made a variety of designs that we all thought were ingenious and adorable. In retrospect, however, I can imagine that many of her designs were derived from the innumerable little kits she picked up at Ben Franklin on sale for 25 cents each. In that same vein, my mom creates cards and uses various books and magazine as inspiration. She naturally comes up with her own techniques and colorways, and she's a big fan of recycling (or "upcycling") materials as often as she can, but many of her designs are not wholly original. And then there's me. I can spend hours on Etsy and other sites looking at beads and jewelry for inspiration. I don't necessarily think that my designs mimic (or mock) the designs of other folks selling on Etsy, but I will say that were it not for the varied and diverse collection of artisans accessible via Etsy, I would certainly lack the motivation to even imagine half the stuff I make.

This is, essentially, what I understand craft to be. There are enormous and overly complicated arguments and discussion in the craft and art world as to what "craft" really means, and for many it's a very elaborate and expensive process that leads to something of a showcase piece. These are the images that fill American craft books and magazines...not only things I could never aspire to create, but things I could never afford to create either. The intangibility of commercial, for lack of a better word, craft is perplexing to me. I am, and self-identify as, a crafter but I am NOTHING like those folks. Which leads me to a personal definition and understanding of what craft really is...my generational experiences and personal connection to craft inspires me to define it as a movement to make for your self that which is unattainable. This could mean that the commercial piece, such as a prom dress, is unaffordable. It could mean that you make your own jewelry instead of buying it. And it could also mean that you cross-stitch little bits of material and adhere magnets to the back to sell at craft fairs because you really need something to hold up the local pizza menu in style.

What I make, my crafty business, is original enough for me to sell, based on my research. But sometimes there is a fine line between producing something that fills a need or a void (my crafting) and selling it (my crafty business), and figuring out the mechanics by which you can make something to profit on top of an already existing design. I've piddled around Etsy and other craft sites trying to find a good example of what I'm trying to discuss here. There was a big hoopla recently over Urban Threads and Sublime Stitching having similar-enough designs to cause anger, strife and outrage over the integrity of the indie world and what constitutes thievery. I've seen various sellers post links to other sellers highlighting the staging, ingredients or even design of a product that is entirely too similar to something else that someone has either trademarked, patented or copyrighted. Or the victimized seller has done none of the above and they still feel outraged that someone would mimic their creativity for profit.

Here's an example I found on my own. Please pardon the bathroom-ness of my example, but it just jumped out to me as Etsy is currently featuring this item as a potential "best baby shower gift" candidate.

On the left we have Pee Pee Teepees, designed and patented by Peter Malcic for the Beba Bean brand of British Columbia, Canada. On the right, an Etsy seller I'd rather not name because I'm not the Patent Police. I think we all have a general understanding of what a patent means...it's basically someone's effort to secure protection for their design by applying and being awarded a set of rights by a state (or in this case, by two countries) that give a designer the platform upon which to say, "I thought of that, stop selling it or I'll sue you". Will Beba Bean pursue this Etsy seller who has essentially mimicked their design for profit (substantial profit too, based on their number of sales)? I doubt it. I do think, however, this is a perfect example of how we, as crafters, are often swept up into the selling machine carelessly and without guidance. When craft becomes consumerism, there are different rules by which we all must play. I think this is something that markets and middle-man should help delineate too, but that I'll save for another post.

Crafters all have to be wary of this line when we cross it...the selling line, the white checkered flag into capitalism. When we make ourselves visible and open to legal and verbal (because that hurts too) assault by patent holders and other entities that might jeopardize our business, we have to consider what motivated us to get involved in the first place. Our creativity should be our bottom line, not our ability to make less expensive versions of things that already exist in order to make money under the table of integrity. Crafters should be compelled to create whether or not Etsy and other selling website exist. And if we make ourselves accessible in these markets, we need to be prepared for the consequences. Many of us are not prepared; I am not prepared. The internet, for starters, is a valuable resource. Get going, get knowing!

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All content © Meaghan O'Malley, 2009-2012. Header image by Rebekka Seale.