Billie Holiday Hates Copycats

The word "copy" or "copycat" comes up a lot in conversations between artists. There's always one more story, one more sad example of some hardworking artist who has spent months, years, maybe a whole career, creating a one-of-a-kind, unique, piece of work only to find out that somebody has copied it and is trying to sell it as their own.

Maybe it's a cool, hip graphic on a t-shirt from your local indie artist at the neighborhood farmer's market that is suddenly being sold at Target. Maybe it's an amazing design for a line of dishware that a local potter has spent years developing that suddenly shows up in some trendy home store. But usually it's less dramatic - the awesome new garden art glass piece that you found at a show last season is now being made by 3 new people this year, but in different colors.


The artist who first thought it up sets up their display at a show, only to find that their competition and arch nemesis is now making their exact same design and selling it themselves. It's infuriating, illegal, copyright infringement, and just plain rude. Nobody likes a copycat. And yet it happens all the time.

I've experienced it myself. Another newbie soap maker who overheard me say to a customer what my best selling scent was, then showed up at the next show with a new soap of their own, exactly the same scent combination as mine. Or another woman just starting out decided that my little cardboard pieces tied with ribbon was such a cute look that she decided to package her soap bars the exact same way, and was just one booth down from me at the next show. 

When I just started out in business, I bought into the fear and the drama - scared that anybody who even came close to copying me was going to ruin my business, I would lose money, life was over. And then I realized that nobody really CAN copy me. I'm always doing the next thing, following my own drummer, making new stuff every season, putting my own twist on it all. And honestly, there are only so many combinations of soap that smell good together, and maybe we are all just tweaking the originals - you know, that whole "there are no new things under the sun" theory of life. Who knows? What I do know is that I can't worry about that. I just need to focus on my own thing and keep on trucking'. I can only be myself. And yet we are all inspired by the culture and trends that we see all around us, so similarities are going to happen too. It's inevitable.

Billie Holiday was a true original and she had a clear message about copying. One of my favorite quotes was "if you copy, it means you're working without any real feeling." And she's right - people who copy someone else's work don't have any ideas of their own, or don't trust their own ideas enough to follow them. They think that they can piggyback on somebody else's success or creativity, going the easy route. It's empty, passionless, desperate and can only work for a short while. Then they have to copy something else, because life keeps on moving and changing and evolving, often at the speed of light. 

Real creativity takes heart and guts and commitment. And continues to evolve with the person doing the creating. It doesn't stand still. For myself only, I'm not worried about copycats. I don't pay any attention any more when I hear somebody say "oh I saw some soaps last week at (blank) market that look exactly like yours" I just think "great minds think alike" and let it go. Of course, if my t-shirt showed up at Target I would call a lawyer. Some things obviously need to be protected and legalities need to be followed. That kind of copying really sucks and needs to be stopped.

And if you're somebody who is thinking of copying, or making something you've seen somebody else make and try to profit off it because it's easy and looks like a sure winner? Don't do it. Take the time to come up with something of your own. Copiers are obvious to everyone, and if you're not the original, you look like an idiot. Integrity still means something. Putting your own heart into making something shows. What do you want to live with? Guilt, deception, squick-iness, or a sense of pride, accomplishment and deep satisfaction?  And in the end, as Billie said so well, "if I'm going to sing like someone else, then I don't need to sing at all." Truly, what's the point?