While Instagram has allowed young designers to call out those who lift ideas, it has also made their work easier to steal than ever.
It’s been seven years since the birth of Instagram. Seven pretty great years, if you ask most people who indulge in a regular scroll. In its short life, Instagram has grown from an image editing app (remember editing a photo on Instagram only to upload it to Facebook?) into a handheld gallery space and inspiration database. It’s created fanbases for otherwise ordinary people and lucrative careers for others. It’s initiated a lot of cultural change, especially within the art world, reshaping how we talk about artistic plagiarism.
Plagiarism has always been a dirty word in the arts. For decades, creatives and legal teams have dealt with cases involving copyright infringement. But before the internet (and more specifically, the Instagram era), incidents of plagiarism rarely came to our attention. Without Instagram as an access-all-areas archive, when two designers or artists came out with a similar idea, likeness would either go unnoticed, be handled privately, or put down to creative coincidence. After all, it is possible for two people to share an idea, right?
Now it feels like every other day we’re met with a similar story. Take the recent incident involving Gucci, Central Saint Martins student Pierre-Louis Auvray, and a couple of alien lookalikes. The case received a lot of attention, and many young designers took to Instagram — the platform that most widely shared evidence of the similarities — to voice their opinions, making the issue a public concern. Whether or not Auvray’s allegations against Gucci are correct is a separate and complex issue; but it is worth considering how a situation like this might have unfurled pre-Gram.
In 2002, while at the helm of Balenciaga, Nicolas Ghesquiere was alleged to have copied the work of lesser known designer Kaisik Wong. When questioned, Ghesquiere admitted “[he] did it — yes,” and was let off the hook without much fuss (Wong had since passed away). A few articles were written on the incident, most of which recognized in a matter of fact tone that “copying is part of the history of fashion.” Which, in its essence, is kind of true.
But compare this attitude to the one we have towards plagiarism in fashion and the arts today. We’re much more vocal now and much less complacent. A quick recap of other recent incidents (Aurora James and Zara, Sködia and Topshop) and the online backlash that followed confirms that when it comes to copycats, we’ve become more aware, better informed, and less forgiving.
“Creatives share so much more of themselves, and the inner workings of their brands nowadays,” The Fashion Law’s Julie Zerbo told i-D. “I mean, being an artist on Instagram, you don’t have a choice. You have to constantly share ideas if you want to stay relevant. But still, young creatives get so shocked when something they’ve shared gets reused without permission. Instagram has given us a broader perspective and an increased amount of access to everything — both of which are major pros. But it’s also made copying much easier, which is a big con.”
Zerbo suggests our attitude towards plagiarism isn’t the only thing Instagram’s changing. With comparison photos and copyright “call-outs” dominating IG feeds, young artists are starting to think differently about the way they share their work online. For those of us who rely on Instagram to publicize and promote our art, the thought process of sharing a photo isn’t as carefree as it used to be. We’re left wondering: has the app encouraged greater transparency when it comes to plagiarism? Or is it actually facilitating this rise in idea theft?
“I’d be interested to know whether Instagram, in this instance, has been more beneficial or more harmful,” says Zerbo. “I think all of this talk about idea theft, it’s got young designers and artists thinking more strategically about when they’re sharing things. I think we could all be a little more strategic, really. Because by finding ideas on Instagram, through a hashtag or a search page, these big brands are being strategic. For instance, if you have a brilliant idea, don’t share it until you’re actually ready to make it or sell it,” Zerbo says. “That’s a big takeaway.”
Melbourne-based photographer Jack Hawkins knows Instagram is both a fundamental enabler and potential betrayer of his art. When he was notified (via Instagram) of the similarities between a personal project and Calvin Klein Jeans’ spring/summer 16 campaign video, Hawkins was sure his work had been poached straight from the platform and derived as inspiration — albeit too literally.
“Instagram is a massive part of what I do for myself and my clients. But it can be a nasty place,” Hawkins told i-D. When the similarities surfaced and the story went viral, Hawkins was advised by his peers and legal professionals not to be so liberal when sharing his work online. “The whole experience left me feeling a bit empty. But at the same time, Instagram is one of the greatest tools for creatives to fight this sort of stuff. My story wouldn’t have gained any traction without it. It’s a tricky situation. It’s like we can’t survive without it, but at the same time, it can be so damaging.”
According to Zerbo, while it’s no “sure cure,” there are things artists can do to reduce the risk of having their ideas lifted from Instagram. When approached by creatives caught up in intellectual property debacles, she’s likely to offer this piece of advice. “It’s easy to copy a single garment, or photograph, or print based on an Instagram photo. But it’s difficult to copy the entire essence of a brand. If you’re building a real community of consumers and you’re engaging with them in a way that’s intimate and unique to you… that’s the stuff that’s hard to copy. It’s important to build a brand that won’t necessarily fall apart if a single design is lifted. My advice to young creatives is to make sure you’re building more than can be taken.”
So for now, the sharing of ideas will probably continue as usual. Despite the bad taste left in our mouths by the “young artist gets ripped off by established artist“ narrative, not many of those who’ve fallen victim to Insta-plagiarism have ceased to upload, or switched from Public to Private. “With Instagram as a base for idea theft discussion, these young brands are going viralthat might not have gone viral otherwise,” admits Zerbo. A little publicity never hurts, right?