Instagram: The Imitation Game

It’s a fine line. An act that can cut deep if poorly done. It can stir up a mixture of emotions; anger, frustration but also delight. And it’s a topic that recently has been the height of conversation amongst many Instagrammer/bloggers, including myself. Of course, I’m talking about the subject of image imitation and the blurry lines of ‘being inspired’ on Instagram. Where we get our inspiration, how we ensure we’re being transparent and how do we know when we’ve crossed the line? The rules around copyright on Instagram are vague and are predominately geared towards people sharing or using your images on their account without permission. They seem to ignore the other side of the problem – when people recreate your images and share them as their own without crediting appropriately. So, how do we determine what is right and wrong? Who has the right to decide if an image has been inspired by another or just out-and-out copied? What’s the difference? What is the Instagram etiquette – is there even such a thing? How do we go about appropriately crediting accounts we’ve been inspired by or is that an unnecessary act that’s gone too far? So many questions and I feel like I’m diving into murky waters here, but I’m going in any way.

This blog post has to be from my own personal opinions/experiences, there is no rulebook to go by as such, we’re just trying to navigate our way around the issue and grouping together to figure out what we believe to be the right course of action – all while keeping the community spirit alive and being a valuable team player. Phew! Who said Instagramming was easy? From what I’m seeing and hearing, there’s a cloud of anxiety beginning to loom over the app. We’ve become nervous about stepping on each other’s toes, and there’s a new heightened sensitivity around what we post. There’s a new reluctance to post images for fear of reprisal. And I’m hearing of people scrapping perfectly good photos that were taken days in advance and were waiting to be posted because someone pressed published on a similar image first. The act of crediting is becoming a guessing game, sometimes too much – I was once credited in an image that even I was unsure as to why – but then sometimes not enough. So, how do we find a happy medium?

Let’s start by being honest, the majority of images that we see on Instagram have been inspired by something or someone; an original idea is rare (even the ones that we believe are have most likely been subconsciously influenced by something we have seen months even years before). And with books such as Steal Like An Artist (which I’m eagerly anticipating the delivery of any day), Austin Kleon the author makes the point that the so-called “original” thinkers and creators are merely people who effectively learn to remix other people’s materials. But how much inspiration can we take from someone else before we have to add a credit the original? Do we ever have to credit the original? We’re all in the same community, soaking up the same ideas, so if we began to credit each and every artist we were inspired by, then surely every image we post would be tagging another user. Then crediting would go mad; there’d be arguments that we’d credited the wrong artist and that actually that person had actually taken the idea from another, and then someone else would claim it. And soon we’d all fear the act of crediting in worry of the backlash, so we’d stop using the app and then Instagram would be no more. Too much? It’s murky waters, but I can see if from both sides. There’s the heartbreak and hurt when you witness someone swiping an idea that you’ve poured all your energy into (worse if they just take your image without permission, but that’s a whole other conversation). But, on the other side of the argument, I can sometimes (and I stress sometimes) sympathise with people who do it. And after all, if someone is using you as their fountain of inspiration, then you must be doing something right.

 

When is it ok? Or is it never ok?

When we first start out on Instagram, our personal style isn’t packaged up with a red bow, just sitting there, ready and waiting to be selected and shared – although if it were, it would make our lives much easier. Imagine little vending machines of Instagram styles, just waiting to be picked. But, due to the gap in the market of ready-made Instagram style vending machines, we have to work hard to identify what ‘style’ is our style. Without knowing anyone, at first, you’re tossed into a pool of awe-inspiring creatives with no lifejacket and told to swim amongst a multitude of accounts which you admire and lust over. So, it’s no surprise that people will, at first, look to the content that accounts bigger and more-established are sharing and use it to develop their own. It’s never done maliciously, far from it, it’s simply looking for direction from accounts that they admire. And let’s be honest, didn’t we all do this? When I initially started my account, I was convinced that the only way to succeed in this world was by posting an abundance of floral images. And when you’re a girl who doesn’t buy flowers and rarely has them in her home or even in her garden for that matter, it’s not hard to see why my interpretation on the floral trend was so undeniably shit. But, during this time, I had less than 5k followers and the accounts I was taking inspiration from was accounts of over 100k, so thankfully they probably didn’t notice my abysmal efforts. I was by no means hurting their account.

So, personally, if I see a new user using my account for ideas and sharing similar images, I tend to ignore it and let it go. Just remember how scary it was for you when you first started. It can be daunting to put yourself out there and their intention is not to be malicious or doing it to hurt you. They admire you. And soon, their confidence will grow, they’ll stop looking to others for guidance and will begin to post their very own awesome content. But, with every happy ending, there’s also a bad one, and as with all walks of life, there are some who don’t follow the unwritten rules. Once you graduate from the Instagram initiation process and you begin to gain a strong and steady following, people tend to be less sympathetic to your image experimentation stage, especially if it involves you taking ideas from their account and creating images with great similarities. So…

Taking Inspiration

It’s difficult to understand how much inspiration you can take from someone before it gets murky and starts to cause upset, and I guess, as there’s no Instagram referee it’s all down to what level we, as the creators, can stomach from others. From my experience, if you’re taking inspiration and creative ideas that you see but then you put your own unique spin on it, make it your own, then (in my eyes) you’re good. There may be a hint of the original image in there, the concept is the same – and some users may be able to link the two -but you’ve either re-worked it, added to it or changed the overall aesthetics. So, although seeing another person’s image sparked the idea initially, ultimately you’ve created something new from it. It became your own interpretation of the original, you ran with it in your own way, and you flipped it into something new. In these cases, I don’t believe credit is necessary. If we did credit the smallest hints of inspiration, then we’d be crediting almost every post, and it would quickly get out of hand. And who can be bothered with that?
When to credit

Okay, so say you see an image that you love on Instagram, you love it so much that you decide to recreate it for your own page and for your audience – great, go forth and shoot. Once you’ve finished, if you compared your end result to the image that fueled the idea and the likeness was undeniable, or if someone else could instantly see that one came from seeing the other, then you should credit. If the similarity is irrefutable then adding a credit is not only giving praise to the original artist (which is a bloody lovely thing to do – you loved their work so why not tell your followers about them too?), it’s also showing the rest of the Instagram community that you support your ‘co-workers’, you’re a humble human and that you have integrity. There’s no need to write a long-winded caption dedicated to the user declaring how amazing they are (I mean, you can, but it’s not expected), but a simple ‘inspired by: xxxxx’ is ample.

Being on the other side of an ‘inspired’ image

You’re innocently scrolling through Instagram with your morning coffee when you stumble on an image that jars you. It looks oddly like the post you proudly shared last week, only it’s not you in the image; it’s someone else. It can feel like a real blow when you notice someone has ‘copied’ your idea. It can almost feel like a personal attack on you; but in reality, it’s leaning more towards a compliment (although I know that at the time, it feels anything but). As my mam once told me, when a school friend copied the shoes I’d been given for my birthday, take it as a compliment – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If someone is copying your ideas then you’re obviously doing something right, and they’ll always be second best – nothing is better than the original 😉. I know, I know, these words and phrases are so easily said in practice or as a spectator, when it’s happening to *you* it can feel heart-breaking and those feelings that are stirring up inside are completely normal.

How To Deal With Image Imitation?

  • Be honest and ask yourself was it really *your* idea to steal or were you too inspired by someone else? When Austin Kleon released ‘Newspaper Blackout’ he was criticised that his work was unoriginal and that he was essentially ripping off an artist called Tom Phillips’ work. However, when he started to research these claims, he found that, in fact, Tom Phillips had taken the idea from someone else. And as he continued to delve into it, it went further and further back, each artist inspired the next. So, be sure that the image your own or as much as it can be.
  • Why has it upset you so much?
  • Is it a one-off or is it a continuous issue?
  • Is it hurting you or having a detrimental effect on your account in any way?
  • Are they making a career from your work?
  • What have you got to gain from talking to them about it?
  • Sometimes by the time these things are noticed, it’s too late, and already their audience has seen and engaged with the image. Adding a credit at this point will unlikely benefit you now, it’s gone too far. So is it worth reaching out?

Sometimes these things do happen. So, at first, give the other user the benefit of the doubt and hope it’s a one-time mistake, a slip-up, a lapse in judgement – which it absolutely could be. Keep an eye out for any other questionable images, and hopefully, that will be the end of it. I always try to avoid confrontation, at all costs, so if I can brush it off, I will. However, if these issues keep reoccurring and it’s beginning to affect your account or your psyche, then speaking out can be the answer. This will always be my final course of action, Instagram is such a lovely place to hang out that upsetting that balance is something I would strongly avoid, but I do understand that sometimes, unfortunately, it is necessary. Simply send a polite message to the offender, sending over screenshots of the images that you believe are direct copies of your own so that the recipient can see the likeness. The most promising result would be that they’re as shocked as you are and haven’t thought their actions were wrong. They say their apologies and that is that. They may even offer to delete the posts in question. You feel better, they might feel a tad embarrassed (which, as you’re such a nice person, you’ll tell them not to be), and the story ends there. Or it could go the other way. If you confront someone, be prepared for it to take an ugly turn. The offender is probably just as precious about their work as you are and by accusing them of stealing ideas you’re questioning that, so it might not go the way you’d hoped. They could push back, deny it, or even ignore it all together. In these cases, be pleased that you’ve used your voice and hopefully by sending the message (no matter how it was received) and putting your point across will stop any further issues.
It’s always going to be murky because it’s all down to personal preference. But I hope this blog post has given a clearer view of what I – someone who has been through it – feels and does about it all.

 

We’ve been talking about this issue and all things Instagram over on The Social Gathering which now has a monthly payment option of $20 on a no-contract basis. So, if you’ve been considering signing up, now is your time. Click here* to join the discussion.

 

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  1. Ali buckley

    20 January

    Lots of food for thought Dominique! I think you hit the nail on the head. No ideas are truly new ideas. But having a certain style to your work overall is like a fingerprint. And when someone tries to steal that individual identity it must feel pretty rubbish. Murky waters indeed and one that is far wider than the ig community. X

    • Dominique

      22 January

      And that’s when it can feel personal. An odd image here and there is excusable, but replicating someone’s Instagram style, that’s harder to ignore.

  2. Great article Dominique. It is true that many Instagram accounts (including yours) are an inspiration to lots of us. I, personally, look forward to your posts. But that doesn’t mean that I get to copy the images that inspire me but subconsciously at a given time I might come with an image similar to somebody else’s. I don’t know. Just my thoughts….. xxxx

    • Dominique

      22 January

      Exactly. We’re all inspired by each other – when we’re all drinking from the same pool, how could we not be? And being inspired by others is normal, it’s fine, it’s something we all do, me included, and if you were an art student you would be actively encouraged to copy from the greats. But for the most, we understand (or have an idea) of how far is too far. Instagram is a relatively new playing field, we’re all shooting in the dark with any issue that comes our way, but it’s also a community and I think we should all work together to keep this supportive, loving, and pretty awesome community alive.

  3. Stephanie

    22 January

    Hmmmmm, thanks for sharing! I was thinking about this issue the other day because I ran into one article that encouraged you to see inspiration everywhere and another the very same day that basically cautioned you too cloister yourself off to Tap you own creativity 🤷🏻‍♀️ Sigh….it’s definitly a touchy issue but I think you laid out both sides well. I’d definetely by hurt is someone ripped off my photo but at the same time I’ve had the exact situation you talked about happen! I had a photo cued up or in the works and someone else posted almost the exact same thing; how!? Of course then it made me rethink posting my own because I didn’t want people to think I’d straight up copied them, it was so frustrating!

    • Dominique

      22 January

      Oh no! It’s awful when that happens. My opinion is to combine the two – be inspired but also push your creativity to be the one who is inspiring others. I get inspiration from others, absolutely, but there are also images I share which have been thought of by simply sitting on my kitchen table and brainstorming that I believe to be something new (in reality, if I delved deep into my brain, it’s probably something I saw years ago). The allthatisthree series for example, when I posted that, no one on Instagram was doing anything similar, which is why I’ve always been so proud of how it’s developed, and I still love to see other families taking part and creating their own versions.

      Instagram is a tricky one though. Take you creating an image then someone pipping you to the post, for example. They weren’t inspired by you, and you weren’t inspired by them, you were both most likely inspired by something or someone, maybe a Pinterest image or another image you’d seen on Instagram. If you were anywhere else you could simply post it and be confident that no lines were crossed, but because Instagram – for all it’s enormous – can often feel like a tight-knit community, it can feel like we’re stepping on our best friends toes, and that’s where the murkiness comes in. If it was someone you didn’t know, you probably wouldn’t care and would go ahead and post it regardless, but as it’s someone you follow and engage with, you don’t want to rock the boat. It’s definitely an interesting topic to keep discussing.

  4. Cintia

    23 January

    I know the person who you talk about, and she no copy to maya. It’s casuality!! It’s a lot carton pictures with the same idea. This problem is a terrible error. Kises.

  5. Ghazal

    24 January

    Thank you so much for not just inspiring us all the time with giant ocean of creativity but also with pearls of wisdom like these..!! I am always looking for inspiration and always scared that I don’t cross THAT line coz honestly while testing my own creativity (which is a slow paced process of making the moments) I don’t want some one to feel bad or feel being robbed.. It’s tricky..
    Xx

    • Dominique

      24 January

      It is tricky, absolutely. Most people are understanding when it comes to inspiration, especially when an account first starts out – we all have to start somewhere. But, if you know definitively that another inspired an image, and you haven’t altered it enough to make it your own version, then simply add a credit. Crediting someone else doesn’t negatively impact your own image, but it can turn a murky situation into a complimentary one for them.

  6. Ramona

    26 January

    Love this Dom. It’s the perfect balance of honest and open minded. And also I totally relate to the early floral stage. It got expensive after a while!!

  7. Violetta Tkach

    26 January

    I don’t think I’ve came a cross a wiser blogger, the way you interpreted and put everything out there I was shaking my head (in a good way) and saying to myself, this woman is a keeper, she’s not only wise, she’s been through it and she’s not afraid to share it with us and let us know where to step next. I love you Dominique ♥️

  8. Lyndall Linaker

    26 January

    This is well thought out and written. I would think that as Instagram is based on photography that your works would have certain intellectual property rights under copyright law. I agree that subconsciously many people are influenced by other people’s works but direct misappropriation would breach copyright just like other creatives in music, art and literature. I do think that copyright laws are finding it hard to keep pace with other he digital age but that they will eventually catch up. For me, with few followers, Instagram is just for pleasure but for you and others who have it as a business, that must be both frustrating and disappointing to experience.

  9. Sarah

    28 January

    Really great article, Dominique! Always love reading your blog and seeing your take on things. As a fellow Instagramer it’s great to get someone else’s input. Lovely work, and keep on writing (and taking those awesome allthatisshe photos) – it suits you!

  10. Kim

    30 January

    Thank you so much ! I’ve been doing some changes on my insta feed recently and been really inspired by people like you and I really needed a post like this to get my mind clear and not to be afraid to get inspired by people 💗

  11. Emma Bell

    1 February

    Can I subscribe to your newsletter please!

    • Dominique

      1 February

      Hi Emma, there’s a ‘subscribe to my newsletter’ option on my homepage – have you entered your email dress there?

  12. Peta

    7 February

    A really well written piece Dominique. It’s tough navigating the murky waters of instagram at times but it’s lovely creators like you that make it easier for us all.
    Peta x
    http://www.pe-ta.com

  13. Kirsty Hartley

    18 February

    This is a great analysis of a real issue.
    When you make something you have a passion for your career, it feels good to inspire others, but when inspiration crosses into imitation this can hurt. I have recently discovered a company selling lookalike kids cothing patterns to those in my books, ( ok – so you can’t copyright an idea) ,but also marketing them using my brand name ( a trademark no-no) .
    Instagram removed the reported images with my evidence of my Brand Trademark .
    When infringement crosses the line its always best to deal with it head on- otherwise ketting go is far healthier.
    Love what you do BTW x

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