I have been following a growing controversy on the blogwebs over the past week or so and want to share it with you too. Originally I saw this post on Inkygirl which was a response to this one at YouThoughtWeWouldntNotice.com which is dedicated to protecting artistic copyrights and intellectual property [kudos!]. That site apparently may have to start a new page just for the comment debate happening even as I blog.
To summarize: The cutesy icon for emo-girls known as Emily the Strange was “inspired by” the character Rosamond from the “Nate the Great” series of children books. Inspired is a kind euphemism for “ripped-off”…I happen to like both characters for their own quirky selves, but when they are compared the similarities are undeniable and plagiarism is the first word that comes to most minds. Or is it? There are a lot of Emily fans [and even some other artists disturbingly enough] defending their girl as being her own independent being. The CEO of the design group Cosmic Debris which distributes her image on everything from tee shirts to soda and is currently developing her own movie [?!] has written a response that in essence insults young women and artists [in my opinion]. The original artist Marc Simont, from the “Nate” books, has also responded and is getting legal advice. No word from the guy who started it all, a skateboard artist who made the controversial sticker in the first place then sold “his” character to Cosmic Debris.
There are several issues here, I think. First and foremost is the copyright infringement, natch. There is a fine line between theft and homage. As writers [and artists too], we understand that our creations are personal extensions of ourselves. I think we also understand that there is always the possibility that our Great Idea may already be out there in a different form. A lot of controversy surrounded that whole DaVinci Code phenomenon because the ideas he presented were NOT new, and in fact have existed in our culture about as long as the movable type printing press. He did however create a new story around the theories and presented it all in a readable, entertaining form which was accessible to billions. IOW: he wrote a quick-read fictional book that sold and other writers were somewhat miffed that theirs did not, even though their work presented similar info as fact. That is not plagiarism or theft, though he may have been inspired by other works he had read. His work still stands on its own.
So, perhaps Emily’s original artist was inspired by his favorite childhood book [his name is Nathan too…coincidence?] but when he added similar text and cats and clothes, he copied not honored his inspiration. The Emily character has expanded greatly since then, but she still has that skellie in her past which is marring her “original, independent” image. Instead of writing it off as “not my fault” the CEO of her empire should do the right thing and offer retribution.
Which leads me to my Second Problem here. Rosamond was created as an illustration for children’s literature. Some people may not think that qualifies as art, but i would venture to say that illustrators, book publishers and children do. I do not debate that graphic artists and designers are any less or more talented as artists. I have many close graphic artist friends and family and I laud their talent [I who used stick figures in my final project in my high school Art elective]. Still something nags at my creative spirit with this particular case. Emily’s claim to fame is that she is one of the biggest sellers at Hot Topic. She was specifically created for marketing. Obviously, in our culture, that is not a new thing. Just ask Santa Claus. In fact, the two cases are similar. The original artistic renditions of the jolly old elf [mostly in mid to late nineteenth century] were nothing like the image we all associate with the big guy. The roly-poly, red-and-white suited image most of us think of was created by an artist for Coca-Cola in the 1930s. That artist was of course inspired by Thomas Nast and Clement C. Moore, but he created his own version and it stuck. Much like our weird friend Emily.
So, maybe the calls for her to be ripped off the shelves are slightly unfair. According to her CEO, when he learned about the Rosamond character he “phased out” the controversial pix and then “worked with the creative team to further distinguish Emily and her universe.” It is true that the character has grown abundantly since then, but so have his coffers and I did not see a mention of contacting the original artists for permission or at least acknowledgment. No, they just tried to sweep it under the rug [or into the clearance bins] and wash their hands of the whole thing. Unfortunately, these things have a way of coming back to haunt us if we do not deal with them honestly in the first place. Now, Em has a comic book and upcoming film. Now, his little marketing doll is going to spread further than teenage tee shirts and bookbags. Now, this is a problem.
I can’t help finding statements like this one on darkhorse.com perversely ironic and disturbing:
Designers, including Jean-Paul Gaultier, Valentino, and Marc Jacobs, have paid tribute to her, but she doesn’t care! Emily wants you to be yourself, think for yourself, and DO IT YOURSELF. There’s nothing more boring to her than copying everyone else. Emily is the link to the Stranger in us all.
Because the main problem, as I see it, is that in their attempt to promote individuality and originality in adolescent girls they messed up big time. Now we can all see clearly through our long dark bangs that the real issue here is money. Emily is not original and frankly, not even that strange. She represents what is cool about individuals who have their own style, but in becoming a style icon she loses credibility. A businessman saw her image and thought he could make money from it and he did. He can make it sound cool by saying “that was and is my goal: to make the world feel more comfortable in its own skin.” But in the long run his primary goal was to sell product and exploit “the crew I was selling to”. The fact that it worked is inconsequential. Most of that “crew” would probably be insulted to think of themselves as just consumers [despite the fact that adolescent girls do seem to control the market] and I think also that many of them may even have some of their own artistic integrity available. Which, of course, is what is really the missing factor here.
I will probably follow this further. I think it struck me so greatly because I do like both characters, aside from the fact that plagiarism peeves me off. I hate to say it, but I have a feeling that the CEO will be the only winner in the story, though. Emily will survive, but she has lost a hint of cool. But perhaps, Nate and Rosamond will reap some of her glory. That would be great.