“I’m proud of the work I do and it’s flattering when other artists feel inspired by it, to the extent that they choose to try it on themselves… But don’t steal- not from women or from anyone else – not in 2018 or ever.”
A few months ago, Lorde posted this on her Instagram account, calling out Kanye West and Kid Cudi for stealing her recent stage design for their Kids See Ghosts performance. While the stage designs are very similar and seem like a blatant copy of the Australian singer’s design, the post raised a question for me: where’s the line? Where is the line between influence and adoration to plagiarism and theft?
By taking a quick look on music blogs and the IMDB trivia page, you can find countless homages that artists and filmmakers have done in order to pay respect to their influences. Whether its name dropping those that have come before you like 2 Chainz, sampling your influences like Kanye, placing easter eggs in your film like Rango or recreating a look in order to pay respect to those who have influenced you. There are countless ways that artists say thank you to their influences within their own art. But where does that ‘thank you’ turn into blatant theft? Let’s look at a few recent instances where artists or audiences have accused another artist of stealing or appropriating their work and if there is any weight to these arguments.
Virgil Abloh v. Everyone
Founder of streetwear brand Off-White and recently appointed artistic director of the high fashion house Louis Vuitton, Virgil Abloh has gained a lot of attention since his involvement with fashion giants such as Don C, Tremaine Emory and Kanye West. Virgil Abloh has arguably become the biggest name in the fashion world, but with this fame comes criticism. His career in fashion began with screen printing images on t-shirts such as, famous paintings, people, pop culture references, anything that would catch the eye. His work with Off-White has adopted this concept to a point where his “references” are becoming dangerously close to complete fabrications of other artists work, including Off-White’s logo, a repurposing of the Glasgow Airport logo by Kinnear, Calvert & Associates as Instagram account @diet_prada points out. In Abloh’s instance, when you give credit to those who influence you within your work, that’s okay. But when you try to present someone else’s work as your own, or you use someone’s work within your work without crediting them, that’s when it’s wrong.
Greta Van Fleet v. Led Zeppelin
Greta Van Fleet is the latest band to take mainstream music by storm. With huge sets at Lollapalooza and Coachella and appearances on The Tonight Show, they have found themselves in the spotlight for their energetic live shows, eccentric outfits and a strangely similar sound to Led Zeppelin. Honestly, it’s hard to deny the similarities. Being one of the most loved and adored rock bands of all time, Led Zeppelin is known for the unique voice of Robert Plant, the technical ability of Jimmy Page and the influential style of John Bonham. Together, the English quartet created music that no one ever thought could be recreated. Now before I go on, I need you to know that I don’t think that Greta Van Fleet is the next Led Zeppelin, but their style and approach to everything they do is suspiciously similar to their predecessors. The band itself is flattered from the comparison but feel that it’s unfair. “We’re humbled by the reference and honored by the affiliation. It’s a primitive, instinctual thing for people to take one thing and create parallels to better identify with something they don’t initially understand,” said guitarist Jake Kiszka in a recent Rolling Stone interview. I’m somewhat on board with Kiszka; they are creating original songs with original lyrics, which is not an easy feat. What I don’t like about the Michigan-based band is that their music is something I’ve already heard before. I don’t think it’s wrong to find influence in a band–plenty of artists do that. Michael Seyer sounds like a new Mac Demarco, LANY (sorry APU) sounds like The 1975, who get their sound from The Blue Nile and every mumble rapper sounds like every other mumble rapper. There is nothing wrong with this, it’s just boring. That’s my problem with Greta Van Fleet; they haven’t stolen anything, they’re just boring.
Independent Artists v. Retail Chains
I’m not sure I can count the amount of times I’ve seen a story about a large retail store ripping off a design from a small independent seller. It happens all the time. Forever 21, Zara, H&M and many more have profited off of the little guys and it’s totally legal. Due to outdated fashion laws, designs that are more generic in style and don’t contain any hyper-specific details can be replicated without permission. One artist who fought back against a retail giant is Tuesday Bassen. In 2016, Bassen contacted Zara because the large retail chain had blatantly copied her designs. But again, due to the fact that Bassen’s designs are supposedly too generic for the public to distinguish as her work, Zara’s replications were legal. It’s hard for me to say that nothing is going to change, but these large retailers have been doing this for so long that it seems like it will never change. The only thing I can say is that if you’re an artist just starting out, make sure you know the copyright laws and what sort of rights you have as an artist.
As an artist, it’s understandable to emulate your influences within your work. Everyone is influenced by someone before them and it’s a healthy part of creating something new. But that’s what artists need to keep in mind: it’s about making something new. Why create if it’s not yours? Give credit to those who deserve credit and make something that represents you and no one else.