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…
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.
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