“Nothing is original” is a rubbish adage. There’s originality all around us, inspiring others and adding to our rich histories together. The age of reblogging and retweeting—hell, the internet—has made it astonishingly easy to discover, know, and appreciate that originality. It has also made it astonishingly easy for that originality to be knocked off.
Recently, a handful of well-known and respected queer artists and designers found their creations had either been not-so-loosely appropriated or blatantly knocked off by big name queer brands. This sort of thing is not unfamiliar when it comes to fast fashion brands copping ideas from high-end designer runways, nor is it unfamiliar when it comes to brands knocking off small independent designers. Media outlets pick up on the news and, within time, the brand usually takes the items off the market without so much as a “sorry.” With the queer community being relatively marginalized, news of its designers and artists falling prey to similar incidents often gets overlooked. But the community keeps up and, as we’ve seen in the past, rallies together to put the offending brands on blast. After all, getting ripped off by a largely heteronormative label is in itself terrible, but getting ripped off by a fellow queer brand is a whole new ball game of disrespect.
Hey Rooney’s design on the left; Knock off on the right
“In most cases, what these brands have done is legal,” says Rooney, the New York City-based illustrator behind Hey Rooney, whose cheeky “Masc 4 Masc” design found its way onto some apparel made by a prominent gay company—altered slightly, of course, but the influence was clear. “When it involves LGBTQIA-focused brands, it adds an element of betrayal.”
For Zachary White, the L.A.-based designer behind 3rd Class, activism can be about “simply making someone in our community smile or laugh.” He just so happens to do that through satiric slogans printed on a variety of clothing and accessories. The same brand that tipped its hat a little too close to Rooney’s also produced a shirt that closely resembles a shirt of White’s. Of course, his print and the brand’s similarities could be coincidental, but, as White tells me, “there is only so much looking to the side you can do before you really say, ‘Why do these two pieces look so, so similar?’” Inspiration is cute, copying isn’t, and the line between being “very inspired” is a thin and blurry one.
3rd Class Clothing’s design on the left; Knock off design on the right
Adam J. Kurtz had a “particularly weird” experience with his art being knocked off. “A popular YouTube personality made a ‘DIY tutorial video,’ where she showed her four million subscribers how to make their own accessories by going to my website, pulling up my Bottled Up FEELINGS art, and tracing over it onto plastic,” he says. “Watching her professional-grade video was a total mind-fuck because it was just so deliberate.” Luckily for Kurtz, whose ADAMJK brand has exploded into prints, pins, books, and more, the YouTuber deleted the video and apologized (after he contacted her management directly, of course). He adds how this specific instance cut deep because the YouTuber happened to also be a young, queer independent creative. “She totally gets what it’s like to build a really personal career out of what you love,” he says.
And that, right there, is where the problem lies. The queer community’s creatives are out here hustling, designing pieces that capture its spirit in fun and unique ways. Seeing a bigwig brand use those fun and unique ways for their own profit, without permission, and selling it as their own is a neg to the community that has helped it become what it is today. Instead of them saying, “We like this and would love to work together on something,” someone on a creative team thumbing through Instagram or Tumblr presents the idea as their own, as if they believe the designers and their followers they’re allegedly stealing from won’t notice.
“You feel really hopeless even though you know you’re the one in the right,” Stevie from GAYPINguys.com tells me. “The brand will usually win because they have big money and big lawyers. It almost feels hopeless to fight.” Stevie’s jock strap pin design recently somehow found its way onto a mug by, again, the aforementioned big name brand. It has since been taken off the site, but it still happened. The power big name brands have over independent designers is, as Stevie mentions, startling. The key to protecting your ideas is, of course, the law.
GAYPINguys.com’s design on the left; Knock off design on the right
Unfortunately, not many creatives are aware of what they can do to protect their work. Almost all of the designers I spoke with for this story weren’t aware of the legality of intellectual property before their intellectual property was ripped off. “When you create something,” Kurtz explains, “you immediately hold a copyright. However, for legal purposes, you have a lot more rights if you file that copyright.” Intellectual property laws exist to “give an incentive for people to develop creative works that benefit society, by ensuring they can profit from their works without fear of misappropriation by others,” writes HG.org, a leading government and law resource. Those looking to protect their work can apply for patents (inventions meant to go to market), trademarks (symbols, names, and slogans used to identify goods and brands), and copyrights (artistic and intellectual creations, excluding ideas themselves). Registering for one can, thankfully, be done online. (Here, too!) It then becomes a matter of actually doing it and putting the money behind it—something most independent designers simply don’t have the funds to do.
It falls on the bigger brands with the money to do so, to support and highlight these designers, especially their queer peers. “A brand that rips off the work of independent artists is a brand that doesn’t care about independent artists,” Kurtz says. Indeed. Designers need the internet to get their work out there, which ultimately puts the onus on others to respect their work. Queer work has immense value and deserves all the recognition it gets. Holding big name queer brands accountable is a way of protecting the community. “The good thing is,” Stevie tells me, ”[these brands] don’t have the creative energy to make more unique designs. You do. Just keep making.”