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Bama's Favorite Toy Ever by angel_shark (Creative Commons)I usually try to avoid conflict, so I've been tempted to let the latest version of this whole ownership debate pass by without comment. But since I keep pestering my husband with discussions about it & composing blog post drafts in my head, I figured I might as well say what I'm thinking. If you're already sick of the whole thing, you have my permission to skip this post and come back tomorrow for something a little less heavy.

I'm talking generally about the ideas, not specifically about the latest issue -- but if you don't know which debate I'm talking about, you can get the gist of it from these posts:
  • Lisa started the conversation. Though the ensuing comments get a little negative at times, there are some interesting points -- I especially liked Jeanne Rhea's comments about utility patents (which protect truly unique techniques) and about her policy for others' teaching her techniques.
  • Kim Cavender shares her perspective as a teacher. Lotsa comments on this one, too. I especially enjoyed Maureen Carlson's (towards the bottom).
  • Lisa updated the discussion with links to several other online opinions.

Exclusive Rights to Subject Matters

First, I want to touch on something that -- even though it's not a key part of the issue -- keeps getting mentioned: subject matter. Ianavak mentioned peas in a pod, Molly mentioned roses, and I've noticed it referenced in several comments. Some people take the whole "ownership" idea to an extreme and think particular artists have exclusive rights to a particular subject matter.


Just because someone else is making polymer clay peas in a pod, for example, doesn't mean you shouldn't. Do it your own way, sure. Express your own style, of course. But don't avoid making the same item out of fear that it'll look like you're copying. If all painters had avoided painting the Virgin Mary because it'd already been done, think how much smaller our art history textbooks would be! And that argument goes even more so for natural things -- like pea pods or roses -- where we're all copying the Original Creator anyway. There's plenty of room for all of us to examine the same subjects in our own voices.

Techniques, Classes, & What People Really Pay For

Now onto the crux of the argument: spilling the beans about techniques being taught in classes. I've noticed that the advertising for guild conventions & the like tends to focus on WHO is coming to teach (Maureen Carlson, Christi Friesen, etc.) instead of WHAT technique they're teaching.

It's my opinion that the workshop-going public signs up (or doesn't sign up) for a particular workshop based on the reputation of the teacher (things they've heard about the teacher & works they've seen by the teacher) as much as -- or more than -- they sign up to learn the particular technique that's being taught that day. When big-name clayers are concerned about the leaking of techniques hurting their livelihood, they're not recognizing what people are actually paying for.

It's not the technique.

It's the name. It's the one-on-one interaction with a respected expert. It's the trial-and-error in-depth knowledge that allows that teacher to explain why this particular method works best. It's the whole package. And that value-added package can't be matched by someone leaking a technique.

Some of you may be familiar with SXSW Interactive. It's held in Austin every year, and consists of a week of sessions with industry experts about computers, technology, & the internet. For several years now, they've recorded the sessions and made the podcasts freely available to everyone on their website. But even though all of that information is freely available, the conference keeps growing.

Last year, Kathy Sierra's SXSW keynote address asked the attendees why they paid money and went to the hassle of travelling there if they could get the information for free. Her answer? That people wanted the face-to-face connection. They wanted to be in the same room, be part of something, network with others, and share ideas.

I think that applies even more so to a hands-on workshop environment. My most recent guild meeting was a perfect example of the joy that can come from learning a new technique in the company of other creative people. I could have stayed home and learned about the technique online, but that wouldn't have filled my creative well like the guild meeting did.

To me, it seems like the teachers' attitude of secrecy about what's discussed in a workshop may hurt them in the long run. I know I'm pretty well convinced that I don't want to take any workshops. (And it's not because I was secretly planning to come home & write up step-by-step tutorials based on them, either!) I'm not interested in the idea that I'd have to separate that technique in my mind as something I shouldn't build on -- or if I do, that I need to designate all future derivatives as "inspired by" that person and be careful not to share any proprietary information with others. The creative side of my mind doesn't work that way. To me, creativity is about random connections. I don't want to frustrate my creative mind by telling it there are some things it can use freely, and some things it has to compartmentalize. I only want to feed my mind things it's free to use and build on. This is the same reason I avoid reading blogs by folks who've demonstrated they're overly protective of their ideas -- I don't want to see a photo or read something that gets caught in my subconscious mind & results in a nasty debate down the line. I prefer to keep company with more sharing folk. And I think from that standpoint, the teachers who are arguing that their techniques need to be protected should consider whether they might be scaring off potential students.

Reverse Engineering

The other thing I have a problem with is the idea that if you "reverse engineer" something, it's wrong to share your technique. I agree that you should give credit for inspiration where it's due, but I don't agree that the "inspirer" should have exclusive rights to any process that could result in similar results. There are so many ways to achieve similar results. The way I end up doing something may be completely different than the way another person did it. My process may be better, or it may be worse. Regardless, if we arrived at the same place independently, it makes sense that each of us has just as much right to do whatever we want with our own process. (Not to mention the fact that if I can "reverse engineer" something just by looking at it, it's probably not a complicated enough process to be "owned" anyway.)

What I'm Doing (& What I Hope You'll Do Too)

The healthiest thing I've seen during this debate is Barbara's rules, which were actually posted during a previous outcry about the same basic issue. I think it's an excellent exercise for each of us to go through: think about the issues, define our thoughts about what we believe & why, and record our own rules (privately or publicly) so we can make sure we're always following our own standards. Everyone's rules won't match -- and as Barbara mentions, one person's rules may change over time. But perhaps as long as we all base them in a spirit of mutual respect and honesty, we can find ways to work through our differences when these issues arise.

I'm working on my rules... I hope you'll do the same.


Hi Angela,
Very much enjoyed reading your post as I do most of your postings. Your outlook on the whole issue is right on! Pretty much sums up all the key issues. Well said and down to earth. Thank you for taking the time and posting this!

I agree with Tina. Your comments are right on!

As a student, I am very concerned now that I may be perceived to cross over the line with my enthusiasm to display a small portion of my attempt at interpretation. And it is enthusiasm derived from the passion and joy that is transferred from the teacher to the student.

As someone in the business world who is very new to clay, I was also dismayed to see the lost marketing and PR opportunities.

As someone who is just starting to take classes, who finally has disposable income, I heartily agree that I don't take the class to learn a specific technique. It is about the experience of the teacher, the mistakes, the triumphs, the joys, the tips, the passion, the enthusiasm, etc. It makes watching the teacher's dvd or books so much more interesting. I can pick up a technique through reverse engineering, but that is not what I am paying to learn. This whole thing has made me leary.

In my opinion, this community is wonderful and the teachers need to give themselves more credit for the reasons we take classes. Students need to follow Barbara's rules.

Both Lisa's and Kim's blogs are good. It is unfortunate what happened to Kim. The copy of her materials was completely wrong. And I guess that is where I am different, I wouldn't do that. But, I am still concerned and now even nervous to ever post a picture of what I am working on.

The other concern I have is, would I even want to get more active in this community?

Again, thank you for your post.

Thanks for your comments, Tina & Beth.

I totally agree with you, Beth, that Kim's case was unfortunate. Based on what she said, it sounds like someone didn't keep their word -- whether it was the student (who didn't tell others the photos shouldn't be shared), or the one who actually posted those photos to the message board. To me, that seems like intentional disrespect. And unfortunately, I don't know that there's any answer to that. There's no way to prevent dishonest people from coming to a class. If one's whole business model is based on keeping these techniques under wraps, then one dishonest person can bring them down very quickly. Course, as I mentioned before, I don't think the *technique* is (or should be) the selling point. And I also think that what dishonest people do is somewhat irrelevant to this discussion (since they tend to do what they want anyway) -- it's about what well-intentioned folks do.

From a well-intentioned potential class-taker's standpoint, I would hope these teachers are making their privacy requests known to everyone before anyone pays any money. If I'm going to pay to take a class (and some of these classes can be quite expensive), I want to know ahead of time what limitations the teacher has. I think a write-up with very explicit DOs and DON'Ts would be appropriate and would help avoid future angry discussions stemming from mis-communication. Granted, it might keep some people from taking the class. But at least the expectations would have been clearly communicated from the beginning.

I understand your concern about getting more active in the community. I've wondered that, too. But I think there's plenty of room for all types in this community. We may have to agree to disagree on some things. And we may need to work extra hard to clearly communicate with each other... but I don't think disagreements should keep any of us from continuing on our own creative journeys!

Thank you so much for your post. I too have been debating whether to say something about this issue (I too was using my husband as a sounding board!) and have tried on several occasions to write it on my blog but kept getting bogged down. You have said it so succinctly, they are your words but exactly my feelings on it all and I'd like to mention this post so that others can see this perspective.

Thanks, Mel -- of course you're welcome to mention the post. And aren't hubbies who'll listen to craft talk wonderful?! :-)

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