Is copying ever ok?

Has anyone ever told you that it’s wrong to copy, trace, or create fan art? It can be a common thing to hear if you dip your tow into the art and illustration world, but you might be surprised to know that copying can be okay in some instances!

What do I mean by “copying?”

Copying can be: 

  • Tracing exactly someone else’s content, colors, drawing, writing, a drawing style or character, or any combination of the aforementioned
  • Copying from sight or memory someone else’s content, colors, drawing, writing, a drawing style or character, or any combination of the aforementioned
  • Doing any of the above and sharing it as your own original work, not giving credit to the original author. (aka “plagiarism,” “copyright theft,” or “impersonation.”)

Sounds pretty bad, right? But it’s actually okay in very select circumstances:

  1. You want to learn how an artist creates. You trace their artowrk to get a feel for their style: how their characters are drawn, or the proportions, how they use color, or how they create lettering. This is perfectly okay to do as a drawing and personal growth exercise, as long as you don’t share this work at all publicly, and definitly don’t claim this work as your own. This should be done in private and kept private. If you do share with others, you should be very obvious and call out the works as tracing and an exercise and credit the original author.
  2. You want to learn how to draw something specific, so you trace original artwork by others, such as clipart or characters. Tracing the clipart isn’t wrong so long as you don’t ever use that tracing in any work or claim it as your own, and definitely don’t ever credit the tracing as original. Instead, you should trace to learn, adapt it and create your own version, THEN share it. Crediting the original artwork and saying you created this as a  derivative work or “inspired by” is a nice gesture.

This process of learning from others and adapting it to make your own version is called “Stealing like an artist” a phrase coined by Austin Kleon (and the title of his book!) Here’s how you steal like an artist:

  1. Study, credit, remix, mash up and transform. Creative work builds on what came before, and thus nothing is completely original.
  2. Don’t just stop at one or you risk ripping off. Let many artists influence you!
    Copying can be an excellent way to
    expand your artistic horizons and
    explore different styles!

“Not copying” checklist:

  1. If you shared the work publicly, did you acknoledge what it was (tracing, copy, inspiration, derivative work) and credit the original creator?
  2. Did you keep it private, for your own personal growth and experimentation? 
  3. Did you get inspiration from multiple sources before creating your own version? 

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