On Creative Theft

When I was 19, I was commissioned to create a poster for a student union election. Now, I was 19 and my skills weren’t what they are. Neither was desktop publishing technology. Still, my poster told a story, included characters, and was my work.

The student politician ghosted me, without paying. I assumed they thought my work was bad and amateurish, and felt too ashamed to say anything. I felt like I had deserved it.

A few weeks later I saw the posters go up.

They were my exact posters but re-drawn by an artist friend of the student politician. I got no money or credit, while the student politician’s friend got money and credit and future commissions.

Back then, it felt like proof that my art was worthless. That I was worthless. It was part of the reason I abandoned art for several years.

^*^

A while back, some readers alerted me to a work that included many pages seemingly cut and pasted, with a little chop and tuck, from my own work, the Ultraviolet Grasslands.

The "generic encounters" on page 112 of Unconquered could almost serve as a muddled-up index for the encounters I wrote in the UVG.

Turns out, this whole project, which included mutual acquaintances (for example, the editor), took place without my knowledge. Perhaps the “author” suspected I would object to 30 pages crudely cribbing-together the encounter and event tables from my book.

More than outraged, I felt hurt.

^*^

Today, through luck, and some effort, someone stealing my work doesn’t have the impact it did when I was nineteen.

Still, I am just a small writer of fictions (to twist a turn from one of my favorite authors, Zedeck Siew), and to get justice, I face a hard calculation. Though I am protected by copyright, the costs of legal action are easily greater than the payoff. Even if I raise my voice in the public forum, the battle will be exhausting.

Whatever course I could choose, the fact remains: my words were stolen.

^*^

Creative theft is especially evil when the target is someone starting their professional journey. Whether young (as I was), starting later (as I did, after my hiatus), or struggling to find success over long years (as many do, often unfairly).

Creative work, after all, isn’t just wage labor. It uses your personal and emotional core to create a gift to your (potential) audience. Art speaks to us, art is the artist’s voice.

When your work is chopped up, repackaged, and sold as the thieves’ own work, the damage cuts your soul not just your bank account.

There should be a better way to protect your work, pursue legal channels, and learn about copyright law generally.

The broader solution, beyond any one case, is for all of us to promote, encourage and celebrate artists and writers, designers and all the people whose creativity inspires us. I know this from my experience and heart.

One of the simplest ways to do this is to credit creators.

When a book inspires us, we name the author and the title.

When we quote a passage, we share its origin.

When we post a work of art, we say who made it.

When we loved a game, we share links to it.

It’s so, so simple.

We don’t have to be perfect about it. We can make mistakes. All we need is to make a good-faith effort to give credit and recognize other good-faith efforts.

^*^

And for those just starting out (or farther along), who are inspired by someone else’s work and want to build on it?

Just ask! Nine times out of ten*, they’ll be delighted.

Take care.

—Luka


P.S. – *Please be patient when you contact me about building on my works though. It just takes time to get back to you.

7 replies on “On Creative Theft”

I hear you!
My challenge is from my magpie like collecting of shiny things on G+, tables, descriptions for later reading and consideration etc. Years later I look at these things as I use them and wonder who made them.
However, to just copy and paste whole pages into a new publication…

I know that feeling – I also worry about that. I collect ideas, concepts, they marinate … and sometimes (often) I forget where they come from. In those situations, I think the grateful thing is to try and be humble (that I don’t know the genesis of all my ideas) and add clarifications when I find out where I got them from.
But yeah, it’s a different beast.

Maybe this will help shine a light on the fact that so many in the current wave of ____ “designers” and “creatives” in the hobby simply aren’t capable of creating anything new or of value. Instead of developing unique and innovative concepts or games, they just use other people’s work and then pat themselves on the back for their “design” acumen and “genius” and move on to the next exercise in plagiarism. The OGL, various open licenses, etc. encourage this sort of thing, which is why 99% of what’s out there seems to be derivative D&D or Powered by the Apocalypse-based drivel. It used to be that creating modules for RPGs was the domain of enthusiastic 12-year-olds, and anyone could do it (you’re basically just laying a few of your own ideas over someone else’s template, like a five-year-old tracing a comic book character because they don’t actually know how to draw). Now people do it and they call themselves game designers and win awards. They’re just tweaking the work of people way more talented than they are to have their egos stroked. TTRPG design has become a cesspool populated by attention-seeking narcissists.

We-e-ell. I wouldn’t want to go that far and cast that many stones, but it’s generally true that the proliferation and accessibility of design tools, crowdfunding, and easy on-demand printing has made it easier than ever before to create stuff: art, books, music, and so forth. I think this is a good thing: more people in more places have the ability to create and share more things.

Now, does the structure of social media, with its requirement for self-promotion, increase the visibility of more … ahem … attention-seeking creatives? Yes. But it also makes it possible for people who would otherwise get completely overlooked to be seen and build careers. For example, I’m a Slovenian author and artist making a living with what I do – before this current creative golden age, I would have had no chance.

The gates have fallen, the keepers have left. We see more dross, but we can also find more gold …

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