Lets have a little conversation about intellectual property. How do we, as artists, draw the line? How do we stand up for our rights and how do we protect our concepts and work? It’s a tricky slope that has been walked over many times. Let us introduce a little bit of drama happening in that world right now.

Everyone knows about Threadless. It’s a neat start up company that made it big selling limited edition artist t-shirts. They’ve had some issues in the past with stolen work and have worked through them to become a rather huge operation. Hooray for that.

Now lets take a moment to meet Cate Anevski. She’s an artist that worked in Saint Louis for a few years and recently moved to Portland.There she is furthering her education in business management and accounting, along with working on new illustrations for clients and selling some pretty cute custom fabric.

She created a particular fabric design, Ghostly Paisley, and has been selling it at spoonflower (another fun start up) and on her etsy page. She’s been marketing the printed fabric for well over a year. You can see the print above.

Recently, Threadless, started selling a Paisley Ghosts shirt by Brandon Todd. You can see that design below. It’s the same colors and obviously the same concept too. If you look through the artists other works you’ll find that the Paisley Ghosts design is much different than his usual vector illustration style. That’s pretty interesting and leads us to cry fowl play.

We contacted Threadless on Cate’s behalf to address this matter. They said their lawyer would look into it and assured us that it gives them gray hairs to discover these problems after a shirt has been printed. Fair enough.

A few days later Cate contacted them. They told her that there was nothing to be done since it’s “similar in concept only”. Cate’s not asking for money or to be compensated in any way (even though Brandod Todd made $2,000 from Threadless for the design). She only wishes for the design to be removed and for an acknowledgment that these things do happen. I think that’s valid.

So where do you draw the line? What are your thoughts. Is Cate being unjust in her approach? As far as we’re concerned Threadless is being a little poopy in the matter and should be willing to work out any kinks. Especially due to their successes. It doesn’t look very good on them as a company working in the arts, and I hope they’ll take some time to reconsider.

Please, lets talk about these things and work together to understand our rights. Nothing cranky about that.

Concept Only?

Cranky David
I started Cranky Yellow in 2005 and I haven't stopped for a moment moving forward. I oversee nearly everything CY related. In my free time I enjoy biology, crafting monsters and assorted philosophy.

19 thoughts on “SIMILAR IN CONCEPT ONLY”

  1. Grrr. I do hate this kind of B.S. and unfortunately, it happens every single day. At this point, I think the best way to give Cate A. some help is to keep publicly calling out Brandon Todd. If legal action is of no use, then public embarrassment may be the only resource left.

  2. Cate’s work is more developed and she has an identifiable style unlike Mr. todd. If nothing else she should be proud of her work.

  3. It’s the worst feeling when you don’t get credit for something that’s yours, and I think that Cate is being very gracious by just wanting to have the designs removed. Booo, this makes me upset.
    Cate has such a unique and wonderful talent, I hope more people start appreciating her work instead of the knock offs. Boooo threadless, go Cate!

  4. Ummm… That tshirt is like a blatant rip-off… Right?! Even the name “Ghostly Paisley” & “Paisley Ghosts.” It’s similar in concept, colors, design. Booo.

  5. Well, Threadless does have a point. It’s not their job to stop people from copying other people’s ideas. I really really promise I’m trying hard not to use a slippery slope argument here, but I think it’s really tough to find the proper line where “too similar” lies. Unfortunately, while they’re obviously very similar, I personally don’t think this lies beyond the “too similar to be allowed” line.

    But I guess that’s really the problem, that line lies in different places for everyone.

    Of course, public embarrassment is always perfectly acceptable!

  6. I am a huge fan of Cate’s art. Her style is unique and easily identifiable.
    However, from an objective point of view, Threadless is correct in their assessment. This is not copyright infringement. Neither illustrator has any claim on paisley, ghosts, or the clever connection of those two elements. They are clearly different interpretations, and paisley patterns evoke a living dynamic for many people. I’ve always thought it looks like amoebas. These two artists saw ghosts. It’s not that far fetched. Brandon may not have had final say in what color combo went to print. You have no idea if he’s ever seen Cate’s drawing. It’s clearly not a photocopy or modified version thereof. Chastising Brandon is uncalled for.

    Realize that art is, biologically, an expression of pattern recognition and our only point of reference is what we’ve experienced floating around on the same tiny blue marble, with the same 5 senses. When you tackle simplified subject matter, you are more vulnerable to misunderstandings of “originality” which is exactly the case here. Artists of the same generation that use the same drawing techniques(especially line art) are bound to have colliding ideas. Cate’s character art has manifested itself as clouds, apples, and even Marie Antoinette. How awful would it be for someone to come along and try to lord it over her with an “intellectual property” claim? On the concept of an apple? Toying with the idea of copyrighting “concepts” in art is very dangerous territory.

    I urge you to reconsider your language and aggression in this matter. Don’t confuse this situation with those rare occurrences of disgruntled designers working for third tier mass-production-centric corporations who blatantly copy indie artists because their own creativity is under appreciated, under-compensated, and all their employer cares about is turning a profit. These are pretty much the only legitimate, enforceable cases of visual art copyright infringement that I have encountered.

    Rather, marvel at whatever strange quantum connection that led these two artists to illustrate the same idea at around the same time, and appreciate that they have both found successful outlets to profit from them. They should drop this nonsense, give each other a high-five, and go on their merry ways making wonderful art.

  7. I like Cate’s art a lot too, but pretty much would echo Autumn here — I have seen so much worse in the way of design lifts (cough Urban Outfitters cough), and the two stylistic approaches to the idea are pretty divergent. I could see Brandon Todd’s design easily come independently from the standard Threadless “anthropomorphize everything in a vaguely childhood-evoking manner” design impulse that gave the world an endless number of smiling cheeseburger t-shirts.

    Just my two cents, though.

  8. There is a whole spectrum of copying. Obviously.

    I understand the argument that this could be a coincidence and perhaps that is the case. That would really be the best senacrio, right!?

    Like if 2 people draw cute owls. Owls look relatively the same regardless.

    However it’s not like EVERYONE is making ghost paisley. Hell if you let google sort it out for you in an image search there are roughly NO other ghost + paisley designs out there.

    The fact that Cate won an award at spoonflower for the design about a year ago, and MULTIPLE random strangers in the threadless comments noted the uncanny similarity to Cate’s work makes this discussion completely justified.

    Everyone is willing to say, oh it’s not THAT similar, until it’s their personal work that is being lifted.

    The only problem is that threadless isn’t willing to even talk about it. They’ve noted their LEGAL stance and beyond that any ethical obligations are disregarded.

    If that’s not enough to make you pissy. Nothing is.

    Cate is being more than gracious in asking for the design to be suspended until it’s figured out. Perhaps if lengthy and expensive legal action was an option this could be settled at great expense to Threadless. No one is asking for that.

    Intellectual property is always going to be a touchy subject, but we have to talk about it and everyone is making great points 🙂

    It feels too close for comfort to some, but not all. I guess Threadless with their “community-based” approach could let their users vote. I’m sure that would be the fairest solution 😉

  9. J’accuse, my dear, dear David.
    There were only 2 users who made a total of 3 comments regarding the similarity out of 28 total comments. The rest were positive. One interesting tidbit is another commenter pointing to an artfully written blog post with the sub-title, “Little Paisley Ghosts Start Swimming.” Another commenter mentioned amoebas, like I did. I imagine that if I gave my 8-year-old a sheet of paper with upside down teardrop shapes all over it, chances are he would draw faces on them. Other by-gone era patterns have re-emerged with modern twists. I’ve done my own interpretation of toile, for instance. So have others by now, I’m sure. I would never allege that those artists are “copying” ME. The creative recycling of culture is not immaculate conception.

    It’s not uncommon for artists and a good deal of crafters to be naive about copyright law. It is too often cited foolishly. The free market of commerce may seem unfair at times, but you can’t cry foul on the grounds of ethics without the presence of facts, nor do awards or other recognition further your case without judicial precedent. Of course Threadless has no obligation beyond their legal stance on the matter, and I’m not surprised they arrived at their conclusion so quickly. This is clearly stated in the first section of US copyright law:
    “In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.”
    If the similarity of two works of art can be summed up in one sentence, nay, two words, then it’s an open and shut case. Legal action would not be an option for you because no lawyer would be willing to prosecute Threadless. You know I love you guys, but I hate seeing you look unprofessional by persisting on the matter.

    As far as having a discussion about adopting more rigid copyright laws, you are entitled to that, but my stance is that it would only serve to further stifle creativity and give corporations yet another upper hand as their armies of lawyers would proceed to make a clean sweep of independent artists from the marketplace.

    A full text of US copyright law is available here:
    It is in language plain enough for most people to understand. All artists and artisans should read it carefully before making accusations of infringement.

  10. J’accuse, my dear, dear Autumn, part two the re-match:

    Which also brings us to this website

    It lists almost daily tons of this sort of stuff all across the spectrum. From things similar to Cate’s case where it’s more about the “idea of it” and things that are more blatant.

    Furthermore Copyright law like many laws create a legal stance but do not always represent the best interest of everyone. That’s been the case since the beginning of law.

    No one knows for sure if Brandon copied Cate’s design. But under no circumstances should you ever say an artist isn’t allowed openly, communally , and fairly discuss the possibility.

    And to rub salt in the wounds: Threadless’s Lawyer is in place to PROTECT their company and THEIR assets. He is interested in their bottom line, not about if Cate’s work was lifted. Period.

    Artists are generally poor and I doubt many of the independent illustrators on the site get far with claims. It’s easy for Threadless in it’s now HUGE disposition to bully and disregard any attempt at conversation on LEGAL grounds.

    That’s not fair to anybody, and that’s why we’re complaining. Nothing wrong with that 🙂

  11. Just so we’re straight, I’m familiar with the ilk at youthoughtwewouldntotice and I think it’s partially responsible for the decline of western civilization.

    I’ve seen at least a bakers dozen artist’s go on misguided rants like this on their blogs, but I don’t care about them enough to tell them how silly it makes them look.

    Lawyers are not interested in bottom lines, they are interested in not having lawsuits brought against their clients, and it is in Threadless’s best interest to abide by copyright law (i.e. they DO care if Cate’s work was lifted)because there are organizations like St. Louis Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts all over the country that are more than happy to take up legitimate cases of copyright infringement for poor, independent illustrators.

    Now that I have you resorting to bully/victim stereotypes and vague moral innuendo, my work here is done.
    Hug and Kisses.

  12. I think people being afraid to speak up and voice concerns about our rights is at greater fault for the decline of western civilization then people exclaiming similarities or copycats.

    This rant is not misguided or inappropriate. It’s important that people stand up for themselves if they feel wronged in some way.

    I use the word bullying loosley, meaning more accurately a disregard for any effort to get to the proverbial bottom of it.

    What if the design was actually copied. Is it not worth fighting for? There is a line of communication between threadless, the threadless artist, and cate that hasn’t been opened or allowed. That is a scary and sad thing.

    Really?! American companies care about the law!? That’s new to me. What makes threadless, cranky yellow or anyone any different? We should all be willing to take the time to figure out these problems as they arise.

    Unfortunately a blanket legal term is the easiest, quickest, and most cost effective solution to finalize this squirmish and continue selling the shirt. That’s simple and almost obvious from a business perspective.


  13. P.s. A victim wouldn’t discuss it or publicly air it. No victims here. There is a great power in our voices. It’s just that everyone is yelling so that power is somehow lost. 😉

  14. I agree, people should never be afraid to speak their mind, but at times they do so without checking facts or referencing reality…vis-a-vis Fox News. See, I consider the point of view you are purporting in this article as bizarro Fox News for artists. You created a confrontation, skewed the perspective to your favor, and are encouraging further dissent on false pretenses. You know that legally you don’t have a foot to stand on and neither does anybody else who claims infringement on the incorrect assumption that concepts are protected, yet you are inciting a riot by highlighting the lack of empathy for your beliefs in this mythical grey area you have conjured. You are a media outlet to artists and have a responsibility to invoke at least some basic principles of truthful journalism. Do you think it was healthy for the country to have that huge debate about the mosque in NYC? Do you agree that the arguments against it are completely baseless? It was a big, orchestrated waste of time, not an important discussion. The mosque has every legal right to be built there, but someone decided to “stand up” and claim moral authority over the situation. Instead of it being a blip on the media radar, it was elevated to a point of contention in an already divided population. THAT is scary and sad. You and Fox News have the freedom to create propaganda, but I have the freedom to disseminate it with facts in hand.

    There is a procedure for legitimate infringement that you are not privileged to because this is not infringement. All this talk about “lines of communication” and “taking time” and “getting to the bottom of it” is non sequitur. Understandably, Threadless does not want lawyers and staff to be wasting time gently deliberating with artists on a topic which has clear legal precedent.

    So, I ask, ye who is persistent in conviction, are you taking a stand that concepts be protected under copyright? Would you consider yourself an advocate for changing the law? If so, count me as your lingering opposition. I would consider you an enemy of creative expression, which I feel is worth fighting for.

    Wolk, I will break you.

  15. Up to now, I’ve been waiting in the sidelines, just reading people’s opinions on the matter, but I’d like to pop my head in to clarify a few things.

    First, I’m not demanding that Threadless take down the shirt or anything of that nature. I understand that would be difficult to do at this point, since so many people have already purchased it. I also understand that they are within their rights to sell the shirt. I just contacted them to make them aware of my opinion on the matter. They have their own opinion, which is their right.

    The only reason I am even aware of this issue is that multiple people contacted me to let me know about the shirt’s similarities to my design. This means that people looked at the shirt, realized they’d seen a very similar design before, remembered that the design they’d seen before was mine, and contacted me about it. At first I was a bit upset, but then I realized how amazing it is that 1. people were familiar enough with my work to make the connection and 2. people were kind enough to let me know about this situation, even if I did not have a legal case. That puts a big smile on my face, for sure.

    I would also like to point out something else. Autumn mentioned that both artists “have both found successful outlets to profit from them”. That’s untrue. I have not found a profitable way to use my design. That may be no one’s fault but my own, since I am very new to pattern design and the intricacies of the various businesses that utilize it, but I am allowed to be frustrated about it. Whether Brandon Todd copied me or not, he figured out more quickly than I how to make good money from the design. Of course, I’m simply taking this as a lesson about the art business.

    I am not advocating a change in copyright laws (although I respect the opinions of people who would). This is just a sticky situation that I found to be emotional for me, since I am so personally connected to my art. I don’t deny that Brandon Todd could have come up with this idea on his own.

    The only action I have taken is to contact Threadless to make them aware of my stance. If they feel (legally or ethically) that they should continue selling the shirt, that’s fine. I have done my best to remain professional and courteous and understanding in the matter, and I don’t believe I have engaged in any “nonsense.” When Cranky Yellow asked me if they could post about the matter here, I just thought it would be an interesting way to open up dialog, which it has. 🙂

  16. Cate, you are behaving so well. I like the fact that you point out that, well schucks Brandon Todd found an outlet before you. lol You are being such an adult about all this. plus this conversation is so healthy.

  17. Eric, I saw that, too. How crazy! As an aside, as well, anyone in St. Louis should definitely check that place out. It’s one of the things I miss about my hometown.

    Jake, I couldn’t agree more that it’s a very healthy conversation. Whether we agree or not, I think it’s important to let these opinions out in the open. It’s the only means to progress.

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