One More Thing About Copy + Right, Part I

There’s so much I still want to talk about. Bear with me, OK? Beyond the copyright of images, beyond what’s legal, beyond what might get you in trouble, there’s the issue of what is right. While there’s a lot of discussion and argument about this, I think most people, no matter what they say out loud, know at their core what’s right and what’s not.

Let’s say you go to an art retreat and take a workshop. Let’s say it’s Ty and Marcia Shultz’s Big Birdz workshop (and oh, my, aren’t you lucky? Note: the reason I’m using Ty and Marcia’s workshop as an example here is not because we’ve discussed this or because this has ever happened to them (I have no idea if it has or not), but because 1) I got to go in and see their cool workshops and 2) they create workshops based on their years of experience making props for movies and 3) their workshops are the kind that make your brain open up and grin).

So. You take the workshop. You have a fabulous time, you create a wonderful bird, and you go back home full of excitement. You play in your studio and experiment with Paverpol, the stuff they used in class, and you tell all your friends about how much fun you’ve been having. They want you to show them, so you take your Big Bird and a bottle of Paverpol to the next art night and do a little show and tell. You give them a link to Marcia’s website, and you tell them where they can buy Paverpol locally or online. You let everyone get a close-up view of your Bird, and you answer the questions you can and refer the rest to Marcia.

Cool. In fact, maybe there’s enough interest that your art group wants to find out where Ty and Marcia are teaching next and do a road trip. Or maybe they want to try to figure out how to bring them to your town to do a private workshop. Who knows?  You send Marcia a note and tell her how much everyone loves what you learned in their workshop, and everybody feels great. Good vibes abound.

Let’s say, on the other hand, that maybe you’re a different kind of person (one who is not *you,* of course. We’ll just use “you” instead of saying “one,” OK?), and that when *you* come home and rave about this class you took and your friends want to know more, you offer to teach them. You get the workshop handout and make photocopies of it, and you copy the supply list to hand out ahead of time. You go over your notes to make sure you remember all the steps, and you go to art night and teach the workshop, just like it was taught to you. Or, rather, as well as you can teach something that you didn’t learn through months of trial and error and experimentation, something that isn’t backed up with years of experience in creating props for the movie industry and a lifetime of learning as an artist. But you figure, hey, you paid for that workshop, and anything you learn is now yours to do with as you will. Right?

Wrong. It’s wrong and you know it’s wrong. Just because you pay for a song through iTunes doesn’t mean it’s now yours to use however you want. Just because you bought a Mickey Mouse postcard at Disneyland doesn’t mean you get to copy it and transfer that image to t-shirts to sell in your Etsy shop (and if you think it does give you that right, you haven’t paid much attention to how Disney feels about copyright).

This is something I can talk about from experience. Once I taught a technique to a friend. A couple weeks later, I contacted a local stamp store to see about teaching the technique. The owner said, Oh, gee, didn’t I know my friend was teaching that? Huh. Lesson learned.

But apparently not. I was teaching another technique at another stamp store. The owner sat in on the class, using the supplies and making the project (all at no charge, as a courtesy, of course). People loved the class, and when I contacted the owner about teaching it again, she said, “Oh, I can teach it myself now. Then I don’t have to pay you.” Yeah, she actually said that. [Note: she is no longer in business.]

I don’t teach any more, and these are two of the reasons. People get really weird when it comes to figuring out ways to make money, and they’ll do things that just boggle the mind. Copy and distribute workshop handouts. Take a class at a major art retreat and then go home and teach it locally, charging the same fee as the artist who designed and perfected the original workshop. This isn’t just hearsay; I know someone who does this year after year.

Maybe you argue that your friends can’t afford to travel to the major retreats and the artists never come to your town, so you’re doing everyone a favor by spreading the information. No, you’re not. While you may be doing your friends a favor by teaching them how to do something, and you may be doing yourself a favor by earning enough money to finance next year’s trip, you’re stealing. You’re taking a workshop someone else has designed based on their experience and skills and experiments, and you’re making money off of it. Not only are you taking something that’s theirs, but you’re also diluting the entire workshop: if you didn’t create the project and perfect the technique, you can’t answer the inevitable questions: What happens if that doesn’t work? What happens if you do this instead of that? What happens if you move this piece over here? You don’t know because you haven’t worked at this for weeks or months, ironing out the rough spots and experimenting with variations.

So what am I saying? That you can’t teach anything you learn? That unless you create something from scratch, you can’t teach it? What I’m saying is that you can’t take something someone else designed and claim it as your own. In our example, above, you cannot teach a Big Birdz class, not even if you call it Big Burdz or Large Avian Creatures. You can, however, teach a class on how to use PaverPol *after* you spend a couple months working with it, trying everything you can think of to see what will work and what won’t, how it behaves under these circumstances and how it reacts to heat and light and water and being dropped off the kitchen counter. (You have to find out this stuff for yourself, so you know. You can’t just ask someone else. I’ve had that happen:  someone was going to write about a process and didn’t know how to do one of the steps and asked me. I told them they needed to learn to do it themselves: you can’t teach what you don’t understand thoroughly. At least you can’t teach it *well.*) And then after you design your own project using it, something that no one else is doing and that you didn’t find by downloading instructions off the internet. Something that you thought up and worked with and perfected. You can learn techniques and processes and then teach those, but there’s a whole ton of work in the middle there, as there should be.

In short, there is no short. No shortcuts, no short way to making a ton of money to recoup what you spent traveling to take someone’s workshop. There’s not supposed to be. The reward isn’t that you get to come home and teach everyone else how to do it and make the big bucks. The reward is that you get to learn something new, something cool and exciting that you can work with and take off on another tangent and incorporate with whatever else you know how to do. You probably won’t ever make a penny from it, but if making money is the reason you’re taking workshops, you’ve got some serious thinking to do. Sure artists take each other’s workshops all the time.Teachers take each other’s workshops. They learn new stuff, new techniques, a new way to solder. But if you think the top teachers are going to take someone else’s workshop and then claim it as their own and start teaching it, think again: they wouldn’t be A Top Teacher very long.

On Monday, we’ll have Part II. Sorry: I thought I could get it all into one post, but you know me–always more to say than I expected.


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