emulate: to strive to equal or excel
imitate: to produce a copy of : reproduce
tribute: something given or contributed voluntarily as due or deserved; especially : a gift or service showing respect, gratitude, or affection
When does emulation, imitation, and maybe even a tribute go into the realm of outright theft? At times we all get inspired by something someone else does. Be it a gesture, a novel, or a piece of art they create. Inspirationally motivated art is natural. Most people have a vast internal spring of creativity which they draw from. But, from time to time — be it from temporarily drying up, not being able to access it, or just plain laziness, that internal spring doesn’t provide us with much. That’s when we look outside of ourselves to other sources. We see something that blows us away and leaves us in awe. It might spark something inside and our internal creativity spring starts flowing again. Maybe it even flows into an imitation piece of what you saw. It so inspired you that you just have to copy it. Let’s say you copy it to the point that your piece looks almost identical to the one that inspired you. Side by side it would be really hard for someone to say who did which one and you don’t say anything. You don’t give credit to the original for your inspiration. You just allow people to think how brilliant you are. They are in awe of you and your life starts down a new fabulous path full of accolades and wealth. Is this right? I’m not going to get into the legal aspects of copyright infringement or intellectual property laws. I just want ask you the reader to think about it. How would you feel if you were the author of that original inspiration? Would you do anything in the case above? Would you say anything? What if you never found out? Now think about this for a minute……
The main question I ask myself when I emulate, imitate or do a tribute is “What are my intentions” for this piece. I think if your intentions are a true emulation, imitation, or tribute and they are clearly stated that way, then you are good to go. By all means emulate, imitate and do tributes to those that inspire you. Let them know how much they push you to grow but DON’T pass something off as yours when it is clearly not. We’ve all heard that imitation is the highest form of flattery. I would agree, to a point, but I think imitation with direct line of sight to original is even better. I mean it’s hard to come up with truly new concepts in this day and age. Well, it is and it isn’t. The ever-updating development of software, which allows for the expression of just about any idea you can have, certainly helps. But the basic concepts of standing on a train track, silhouetting yourself inside a doorway, snapping selfies in the mirror… etc so on and so forth… these basic ideas are not new. Rather, it’s how you shoot and process them that makes them yours. As Brian suggested in his great article on style, you develop your own style as you go. You may incorporate a bit here and a bit there from other people, but as you go along sooner or later I think you come into your own. You come to know what works or doesn’t work for your tastes. Don’t let theft work for you. If you develop a style akin to someone else but it it uniquely yours, wonderful. We are all different people. Use your own voice and creative spring to express your creativity. Don’t use someone else’s creativity and pass it off as yours. Don’t cheat them or yourself.
Back to the original case where someone created something derivative and gets everything their heart desires handed to them because of that one piece or series of pieces they did based on your work. How would you feel? Would it matter if they gave you credit for being their inspiration? What if everyone knew you inspired them, but still the other person is the one reaping the rewards. Does it make a difference if they gave credit where credit is due? Does it matter if they are profiting from it? What if it was just a tribute on Flickr or Snapfish? Does that change your mind at all? What are the criteria for you personally when it comes to how far someone can go with your idea? Was it their intention to get famous and make $$$ out the wazoo or was it some freak circumstance that someone saw it and promoted them? Do their intentions matter? Do you know how to stop someone from blatantly using your ideas? Have you asked yourself these questions before? You should. If you do this long enough, chances are you will run into this. Someone somewhere will either knowingly or possibly unknowingly use an idea that was first born in your own mind. How will you react to it?
I imagine it isn’t always cut and dry. Circumstances and intentions all matter. I mean, for me, getting a tribute or having someone emulate something I do out of respect or just playing around is flattering and the results are usually pretty cool. Just remember we all draw inspiration from internal sources and external. If you do emulate, imitate, or tribute something just leave the proper acknowledgments. It’s common courtesy and could lead to a whole new world of collaboration. You never know, your emulation today could be someone else’s tribute tomorrow.
What about using someone else’s textures to create your own work? We’ve all seen it before ‘feel free to use this free texture in your own work’. They also might ask that you link back to them or some even ask that you post the image you made. Now without getting into the legal aspect of it, you do owe it to that person at the very least to let them know how you used their image. Whether through a link back to the original image, a comment notation to that effect or just a simple email. It is their original work after all. Give credit where credit is due. If you go on to sell your final image then you could be setting yourself up for a whole legal mess if you didn’t notify the original creator. Everyone is different some people don’t care how you use it, whether personal or commercial use, other people care deeply. So before you use anyone else’s work, as common courtesy once again, just ask. If it’s advertised as a free texture, then it would still behoove you to do a little research and see what exactly they mean by that. A little common courtesy can go a long way.
Here are some link to sites about licenses and copyright information. This list is by no means extensive and your intentions for your own work may differ from what you find here. I encourage you to do your homework and find our what your rights and responsibilities are.
Types of creative common licenses
*all photos in the post are tributes or were inspired from outside sources.