Thursday, April 29, 2021

A Grey Area or: Art Biz Ethics 101


Thanks for meeting me here. After YEARS of neglect, it's back! I'm certainly not tricking myself into thinking I'll be consistent in my posts, but I promise to announce it when I do get around to adding things in. I'd love to hear what you're interested in seeing in this space.

This first collection of my ramblings is a heavy one, one that can't just be summed up in a tight IG or FB post - hence the idea to use this great bloggo again, to dive deep when I have the time to. 

This is super long-winded, but it's my hope that other doll Makers ( especially aspiring doll Makers) can gain perspective on this topic, do a little deep digging and introspection, and then feel confident to stand in their own power around creating original work that inspires them. 

And I know I hold some VERY UNPOPULAR opinions here. But, my sense of justice generally overrides my sense of self-preservation and I don't shy away from hard topics. We can disagree and I won't feel bad about it or about you. If you want to open this discussion further, please comment below. It's a loaded one.

So, here's a little (big) story about complicated things:

This week in the doll world, someone called another maker out for borrowing a little too heavily on a design I had created weeks before. Instead of brushing it off, I chose to agree. And, wow, that admission really sent off a spiral of bad feelings throughout the doll community. 

Imagine: MJ's classic Beat It video, doll lovers all red leather-clad, ready to rumble, maybe a switchblade or two? 

And I own that. I'm not playing the victim here - I chose to address the elephant in the room and contributed to the already too toxic crap that goes on online. I take full responsibility for being a jerk.

To get to the heart of this matter, which is Ethics in Art Biz 101 (eventually, I promise!), I'll need to back track a bit. For me, this all started behind-the-scenes (where oh so many weird & wild things happen. It truly is exhausting). 

A year ago, a group of people saw a doll in a private FB group that looked like a replica of my work. My first instinct was to just ignore it, as that is my typical mode of conduct, so I did. I received messages from other makers that they had seen it & told me that their work also had been 'borrowed' heavily from this maker, and I just shrugged my shoulders again. But it never really sat right with me. 

Soon that maker reached out to me (editor's note: this is good!) but instead of apologizing, she explained that she "simply had a custom order request to fulfill" to make it look like my work *shrugs* (editors note again: this is not good). 

This really rubbed me the wrong way from an ethical standpoint. But, I shook my head and looked the other way. And, AT THAT POINT is where I went wrong. What I should have done was hunkered down and taken the time to politely-but-firmly write to her and/or write THIS post about morality and ethics in the art biz community. Because, let me tell ya, people have some wild ideas about what is acceptable. 

And because I didn't, because I shut myself up and tried to play 'nice' instead of speaking my mind a year ago - when a watered-down version of a weeks-old Tansy design came around and hit my eyeballs this week,  I simply agreed that it was inspired by my work. It wasn't an out-and-out copy again, but it was obvious to me that she had been influenced by Tansy.  

And, woo wee! Cue the West Side Story fight scene.

I'd like to preface all of this by saying, I understand. I completely understand that Maker's friend's need to jump to her defense. I feel no ill will towards them or her, because it's a complicated issue - not quite seen in the same way by different people. There are those other Makers that came to me privately that I refuse to "out", and so it makes me sound like a bit of a nutter. I get it. And I don't blame them for not speaking out either. The blowback has been ROUGH. 

I also want to very clearly spell out that it was not my intention to take any support away from this Maker. When we know better we (hopefully) do better. They are very talented and I appreciate their skill. The only intention I had at the time, however short sighted, was to bring my truth to a sticky situation. But my intentions in that moment don't matter, because it DID effect them personally in a negative way. 

So, after 25 years of experience working as a professional artist in different fields, I will now polish off my Art Degree and have a talk about Morals & Ethical conduct in the art biz community (notice: I said biz - because if you're not selling, then this doesn't apply to you at all. If you're just making for the joy of it, then make away my sweet lil' artsyfarty darlin'.)


Now, I believe we can all agree that you're NOT supposed to make copies of copyrighted work. Unfortunately though, in the wooden toy world, it happens ALL THE TIME. 

And, it truly baffles me that when 1/2 of an artist's portfolio consists of Elmo, Winnie the Pooh, and Mickey Mouse, some people can't make the jump that the same Maker would privately be copying other small Maker's work by private request too. Cognitive dissonance is real, people.

And, trust me, I understand that this is every Wooden Toy Group admin's worst nightmare - having to deal with constantly deciding when someone has crossed the line. I can't imagine how exhausting that is. But I applaud the ones that do. Because when I see posts that read,"Looking for someone to make me a Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus set" I shake my head. 

Is it a bummer that a wooden DLtPDtB set doesn't exist? Sure. Are you entitled to own a set like this just because you really want one? 

No.  No you're not. 

You are not entitled to a design you like just because you can't purchase one from the original designer. Period. (Sucks, huh?)

If you don't believe that this is a big deal, please - go ahead and tag the estate of Mo Willems the next time you make that set for sale. I double-dog-dare-ya. 

(See, I told you I had unpopular opinions)

So, my advice to makers is this: don't do it. It is a slippery slope, my friend.

I know that Disney princesses will make you some quick cash in the short term, and I know that people really love them. But if you want to grow your business and separate yourself from "copy artists", your best path forward is one that involves pen to paper and many, many sketches before jumping into your own style and design aesthetic. 

Trust me, your original princesses will be just as cool as those copyrighted ones. I believe in you (and I KNOW I sound harsh, but I always hold fast to the fact that we are all learning. I'm not judging you. Even if you do this practice now and continue to do it after you read this. This is simply my perspective. And I know it's not comfortable or palatable for many people.)


Did you know that you can still be sued for copyright infringement even when a maker doesn't have a copyright?

SURPRISE! You can. 

Generally, the artist won't collect as much money from you as they could if they HAD a copyright, but you can still find yourself in court. Refer to Myth #3 in the below 'American Bar' link if you're having a hard time processing this one.

I've seen many-a-person give this incorrect "no copyright, doesn't matter" counsel when advising makers. Mental note: if you aren't a copyright lawyer or haven't taken an art business course, maybe stay in your own lane on this one.

Many people use the phrase, "Well, you can't copy an idea!" to justify their assertion. Well, in legal speak, an 'idea' is when you tell someone of your plans. It's floating in the atmosphere. When you create something, it's not an 'idea' anymore. It's tangible. And tangible things can be compared to their copies. See the difference?

So: What do you do if someone comes to you complaining that another Maker's prices are too high, their work sells too fast, or it's in some other way inaccessible to purchase? And they ask you to "Pretty, pretty please make one for me?!"

You tell them no. 

It's very simple. Integrity is the absolute backbone of your creative experience as a seller. I promise you. If you let monetary gains guide your moral compass, it won't end well. 

As artists, we spend so much of our energy building our businesses. You want that business to last, so do yourself a favor and blaze your own trail.

If you think, "Well, I'll just tweak this slightly and they'll never be able to pin it on me." They will. And it's not a good lewk.

In the immortal words of Judge Judy, 


Now, here we enter into grey area. This is advice that will keep you off of other Maker's bullshit detectors:

If you find yourself inspired by other Makers and want to try something out, for example: someone took ladybug pegs and made them into cute bunnies and you want to try it. 

Now, I think we can all agree that this is a pretty loose concept. But, my thoughts are this: if you're connected into a very small group of other artists/makers in a particular genre or community and you consistently do this sort of coat tail riding, there might be trouble. 

But! My advice may surprise you, it's:

Go for it!

And after you went for it & they are super cute, you have 2 choices:

1. don't showcase them on your page and don't sell them. Give them to your nephew for his bday.

2. contact the original maker, let them know they inspired you, ask for permission to sell and if/when you receive permission, credit (tag) them. I'll repeat that again: CREDIT THE ORIGINAL MAKER

Sorry for yelling.

You would be surprised to know how many makers are totally cool with this, me being one of them. And you may just become fast friends. But, flat out denying that you gathered inspiration from a Maker will piss them off. It's really that simple.

"Now, Lesley, you're telling me that no one can make Koalas with babies just because someone else made them! That's absurd!" 

You're right. That IS absurd. But you are so close to grasping the concept.

Here's a solid process to remember: if your Koala design begins with referencing another maker's Koala design first - you are doing it wrong. 

Now, every artist uses references, it's an important tool. But! I recommend beginning with photographs of Koalas with babies then grabbing that trusty pencil and paper of yours. Sketch out 15 Koala styles before you settle on one. 

Do you know what it will save you? Peace of mind.


I hope all of this advice helps you navigate the murky depths of selling original work. There's a TON of gray area, and I've only skimmed the surface. 

My intention isn't to freak you out, or worry you that you'll be accused of something. My goal was to give you a process by which you will have the confidence of someone who needs no defending.

I know I come across as very strict on this matter to some people's eyes (or a know-it-all, egomaniac, etc...etc...I've really heard it all). But, when you've known the amount of Artists I do that have completely stopped making because Urban Outfitters or an Etsy account ripped them off - you might feel the same protective energy that I do.

And if you scoff at comparing Urban Outfitters with smaller Makers copying each other - all I ask is that you take some time to examine those ideals of yours.

As a community, I KNOW we can hold ourselves to a higher standard that includes accountability.

Contrary to some people's beliefs about me lately, I am a fierce supporter of Artists and Makers and LOVE it when a new wood worker comes on the scene. I'm a doll collector myself and I'm always happy to help people get started on their journey. 

In fact, I think my next post will be about the tools of the trade. Let me know if you have any specific questions. We can talk business licensing, we can talk getting those fresh & tight wood burned lines. Whatever sounds like good info to you.

Thank you for listening to my TED talk.



Great Links for further reading!

Messy Ever After copyright myths

Just ONE of UO's copycat lawsuits


  1. Lots of food for thought! I have 0 interest in designing wooden creations for a profession, but have always been intrigued by the potential hobby. I know there are a lot of groups/posts/videos, etc but if you're going to make a blog post, maybe you could talk about which tools you need for hobby work vs. daily job? Or if they are the same, which skill you would focus on first- painting, wood burning, sketching, etc. I'm too scared to start because I don't know what to learn first, buy first, do first.

    1. Hey! Thanks so much for letting me know what you'd like to see here! I'll include all the tools I use & products I really like in the next post. I'm excited that you're going to start working with wood! xo Lesley