Get inspired, but don’t copy

This post was inspired by a comment made in the Educational Theatre Association’s Open Forum by a member who mentioned his set design for a show was used by other groups without permission or attribution. He indicated it burned him — and I have to agree with him — so I wanted to offer some thoughts on the subject.

Although I’m not aware of anyone copying one of my set designs, I had a related experience a couple of years ago. For many years, I’ve been involved in stage magic, first as a professional performer, later as a hobbyist, and more recently as a columnist for an online magicians’ forum. At the suggestion of a friend, I also started designing and building props for professional magicians and collectors, which have sold through a highly-respected dealer.

During a magic builder’s conference in 2018, one of the guys mentioned he had seen one of my designs (with working drawings) published in a magician’s journal. It turned out that the writer had visited a collector a year or so previously and had shown interest in my piece. However, when I read his article, it was obvious that he was presenting my design as his original creation. After a slow burn, I wrote a couple of letters, and the writer published a sort-of-retraction in the next issue of the journal, admitting that he had seen my piece, thought it was an antique, and was “inspired” by it.

“Inspired” was hardly the correct term: he copied it outright. But at least we set the record straight.

The reason I’m mentioning this is that copying has been a problem in the world of magic for years, and it’s had a serious effect that also relates to theatre. People will create a new “trick” (anything from a card trick to a vanishing steam locomotive and then some), and someone else will come along — often in a foreign country — make inexpensive copies, and offer them for sale at a lower price. Then people will buy the cheaper version and often later complain that it’s not as good as the original. History just keeps repeating itself. But, as a result, some of the best creators have stopped publishing or marketing their pieces to avoid having them ripped off. They have shut the door on their skill and imagination.

Okay, I know what some of you are thinking: sue them. Unfortunately, given the relatively small amount of money at stake and the expenses involved, the only people who might gain anything here would be the lawyers. It’s just not worth it.

The same is true in theatre. What it comes down to is that copying someone else’s design without compensation, or at least securing permission, is basically stealing the time they put into that design. Although the notion that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”  has been around for a long time and makes sense in some ways, it is also unfortunately often used as an excuse for laziness.

In fact, some years ago, a production in Cincinnati was cancelled because of a plagiarized set design. In professional theatre, the set designer’s union (the United Scenic Artists Association) stipulates, in their contract with the producing company, that the set designer owns the rights to the design. The Association’s Standard Designer’s Agreement states, in Section IX. A.: “All rights in and to the design as conceived by the Designer in the course of his/her services hereunder shall be, upon its creation, and will remain, the sole and exclusive property of the Designer.”

But — on the other hand — there’s nothing wrong with being inspired by someone else’s work to crate your own original work.. Artists, designers, engineers, writers, and many others have been doing it for centuries, and it’s an accepted practice: studying other people’s work is a great way to learn and to develop your own creativity. In fact, in school, we were expected to study other set designers’ work and understand why they did what they did.

But there was a line we were not allowed to cross.

So sure, by all means, look at other designers’ work and use ideas from it to create your own original designs. But don’t copy it. In the vast majority of cases, it won’t work for you as well as it did for the original production. Tailor your design to your own production.