I have a college degree in communication design which basically means I've studied and have had an interest in the visual arts for most of my life. And for as long as I can remember, whenever the students were supposed to do any creative work there was always someone talking about how wrong it was to copy and how much better it was to be creative and original. On the surface there is nothing wrong with that idea except for one small detail: in order to have the technique and experience required to create your own work you first need to study and indeed copy other people's work as part of the learning process. It doesn't mean you should simply profit from your copies and go no further. It just means it's part of the process. But unfortunately, not a lot of people will tell you this, preferring instead to make you believe that creativity is something that you either have or you don't have but it can't be taught.
Personally I think that's bullshit. You can learn anything you decide to learn if you take the time to practice and have the necessary drive to succeed. A large part of any art form is technique. And sure, some people have the 'inspiration' to take that technique and make something wonderful and some people simply become skilled but not artists in the true sense of the word. But when you look at it like that, not everyone can become a top surgeon, lawyer or plumber either, no matter how much you study. It doesn't mean they can't learn the basics though.
People have certain areas of vocation or preference that lead them into certain paths, but when it comes to art a lot of people stop before they even try because there's so much mysticism about artistic ability. There's talk of 'muses' and 'divine inspiration' which, in my opinion, takes a lot away from all the hard work the artists actually go through.
Sure, when you come up with a certain design, song, whatever, it's hard to explain how it came to you. It can be something you dreamt, it can come to you in a flash when you look at something or it can be something you were working on for ages but only comes together when you finally figure out the missing piece. And so, because we don't really know how our brain works, the words used to describe the process always fail to do it properly and end up sounding religious or new-agey.
But I digress. What I meant to talk about is the controversy regarding copies of other people's work. I started off by stating that in order to learn a certain craft or artistic technique you need to copy. Usually there is someone who's work you admire and you try and see if you can draw, paint, sculpt, play, write, whatever, just like them. Drawing is certainly a good example of this. Some of the best illustrators working today were kids who started off trying to copy their favorite comics and learned to draw in the process. They have also, in time, developed their own styles very often because there were certain things they could not copy exactly or could never quite figure out how to do and they had to come up with a solution that worked for them. This is where the copy becomes something else and where creativity finally comes into play. But until you go through the copy process for a long time this need to change and adapt the technique to your own needs and ideas doesn't even signify. To try and start off by doing something completely original the first time round generally results in disappointing work and is one of the frustrations that lead many people to give up before they had time to develop their craft properly.
If you don't believe me brush up on your art history. Historically speaking, artists would start off as apprentices to a master who would teach them to draw or whatever like he did. The apprentices would copy the master's style sometimes to a point where it would be difficult to tell exactly who had done the work.
Later we have artistic movements where the style of each artist is different but they have common elements and the artists influence each other (think cubism, impressionism, etc).
Today it's very difficult to come up with something new. Every time some artistic 'innovation' is talked about, if you look at it from a realistic point of view you are forced to admit that it consists on taking elements from the past and mixing them up in a different way. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that except that these days, in certain areas, it can become very difficult to say for sure when someone is copying someone else.
In this scenario we would need to limit the term of copy to something along the lines of a forgery - a piece that is identical to the original. There's certainly lots of that about in today's markets, from fake designer clothes and bags to bootleg CDs and DVDs. There's also people drawing Snoopy, Hello Kitty, etc which are recognizable and copyrighted characters without permission and that is a clear copy and copyright violation - actually I was recently asked to make Fimo pins shaped as the heads of Noddy or Bob the Builder and refused because it would be copyright infringement but I'm not sure the person who asked for the pins even thought about that.
I have recently found a curious case, however: having a small child I became reacquainted with certain cartoon characters like Musti the cat and then Miffy the bunny. I couldn't help but notice how similar the two characters were, to the point where I thought they must surely be drawn by the same person. They're not. Not only that but after doing a quick search on the internet I could find hardly any mention linking the two and none noticing the similarities between them. If such a thing is possible and not even questioned, then how is anyone able to claim that someone else's work is based on their own?
When you talk about a field like jewelry in which certain ergonomic rules apply and give you limited parameters in which to conduct your work, this question of originality becomes very difficult indeed. Unless someone uses the exact same design with the exact same signature beads and so on, it's probably very difficult to claim ownership of the design. I guess it must be easier if you are an established jewelry designer with a particular style to say that someone else is copying you. But even then, what is the difference between copy and following someone else's style in a legitimate way?
The bottom line is that people are afraid that someone will come along, steal their designs and make a lot of money selling them while the original designer gets nothing. They probably don't mind if they inspire someone else, but everyone needs to make a living and unfortunately you always have to watch your back and try to get ahead of the competition, especially people who prefer to copy exactly what is already done rather than have to think about how to make a certain technique or piece their own.
This fear leads to the necessity of placing warnings everywhere you show your work and reduces the will to share experience and knowledge that would benefit people who have a sincere wish to learn and to develop their own skills and creativity. The things people write on some websites for example - usually warnings about copyright or something to that effect - sometimes make them come across as arrogant or stupid (because if you put up your pictures, tutorials or other information online and then tell people they can't print it or share it with anyone else it makes you look naive at the very least).
I suppose you just have to take the good with the bad. If you want people to see your work you have to accept that some are going to buy it, some are going to be inspired by it and some are going to try and duplicate it exactly. All anyone can do is be happy about the first two and hope the last are few and far between or maybe consider it flattering that your work is interesting enough to steal.