Saturday, August 25, 2012

Am I stealing?

What is a source of inspiration, a good thing? What is theft of someone else's idea, a bad thing?

This morning, an article in the LA Times, about a $1billion award to Apple, by the court that decided Samsung had copied 6 patented aspects of Apple products. That's an amount to get your attention, though probably not much for such huge enterprises.

No one copyrights pottery that I know about. Some people keep glaze recipes private, but hundreds (thousands?) of recipes are published and shared.

What about forms? Decorative designs? Years ago, I taught in an interior design school. Students there were encouraged to look through publications of designed spaces, furniture, fabrics, etc., to keep collections of things that attracted them, and to use these in their designs. And there was ongoing, unfinished discussion of the ethical limits of using these materials: when does it become copying, theft? This seems a common issue in all design fields; may jewelers copy elements of others' jewelry?

In writing, this question has clear answers. Standards have been developed for quoting appropriately, and everything else is plagiarism, theft.

What about ceramics? We don't seem to have answers agreed on in the field, or very clear answers at all. When techniques are taught or explained in publications, it seems to me fine to use them. When recipes are shared  personally or in publications, I assume I may use them. Some people say: copy anything; there are no really new ideas in a 10,000 year-old craft, with traditions world-wide. Perhaps this is so, especially in functional pottery, which is what most of the traditions include. But surely artistic pottery, sculpture in clay, is full of invention, and the artists own and deserve to own their creative work.

Here is a case to consider:

I saw this pitcher on the kitchen windowsill, at a friend's house where we had dinner last week. I like the shape immensely, the proportions, the raised lip, the graceful handle, the flow of the whole thing. I borrowed the pitcher to try making something similar.

I've made several; this one came closest in form to the model. It is not as good, a bit squat, with a less smooth curve in the handle and a fatter spout. I think I like my base better.

It's unfired so far.  I am no painter, and have no intention of trying to match the original color or design. When I finish it, it will look quite different from the original, as well as being a different size. I'm thinking now of glazing it somewhat like this one:

So, am I stealing  from some potter whose signature I cannot read on the base of the borrowed pitcher? I am trying to copy the form, mostly. The result will look different, certainly. This is the other position I've heard from potters: go ahead and copy, yours will come out different anyway.

I think I may ethically make pitchers in this shape, keep and use one, give one to the friend who owns the model, along with hers. But may I sell them, as mine? I don't know.