She’s Kind of Sketchy

A friend wrote me the other day to see if I would tackle a problem she encountered. A difficult customer tried to place an order for an elaborate cake, but only wanted to spend $50 (sound familiar, anyone?). My friend politely indicated that she was unable to make a cake to her specifications for that budget. A little time went on and the customer contacted her again. This time the customer gave my friend a sketch from another bakery and said “she wants $150 for this cake, can’t you make it for less?”.

My friend looked, and the customer had given her a custom drawn sketch for a two tier cake with 3 fondant figure and other embellishments. The designer had signed the sketch and put a copyright on it. My friend made a copy, then sent the customer away without accepting an order. My friend contacted the creator of the sketch and informed her that the customer was “shopping” the sketch to try to find a cheaper price. In the end, the two bakeries both refused to work for this customer.

So, what is the takeaway from this episode? Does putting copyright on your sketch keep others from “stealing” the design? What if the decorator says she was “inspired” by the sketch, but “made it her own?”. Where is the line? This is a fuzzy area and you need to consult with someone who specializes in copyright law for a real answer. While I used to practice law, that is completely out of my specialty area.

How do you protect yourself without hiring an attorney? I have a few good stories to share. When I first opened my bakery, I would give out sketches of designs to my brides after the consultation. I didn’t charge for the sketch. I thought it showed what a great person I was to hand them a custom designed sketch. When someone didn’t book with my bakery, I never even wondered about that sketch again. How naive.

One day I got a call to help out a local competitor whose boyfriend had overdosed and died. Another decorator and I jumped in to do her cakes. When I got one of the wedding files I looked at it only to find one of my sketches. Yep, I had designed the cake. She booked the cake doing my design exactly and, in the end, I was the one creating the cake in my sketch.

I felt so betrayed that day. The thing was, I was doubly betrayed. I was betrayed by the bride who shopped my sketch and I was betrayed by a competitor who knew she did not design the cake. That day, I changed my policy. No one received a copy of my sketches unless they had paid a deposit to reserve their date with me. No more free design work.

The next betrayal came following a meeting about a grooms cake. A decorator called up and said that she was doing the cake for that groom and would I mind moving my display of it into my front showroom window so she could come by to look at it and study it. Ummmm, no!

The uber talented Debbie Goard says that there are cake designers and cake decorators and that there are miles of difference between the two. I think there are artists who see creations in everything and are constantly designing original cakes. I think there are technicians who excel at the mechanics of cake decorating, but are not blessed with either the confidence or skills to take a blank sheet of paper and custom design a cake from scratch.

My friend Maxine Boyington used to say that she was excellent at recreating designs. She swore that she could not decorate a cake without taking elements from other cakes to come up with the design. After a while, I started to believe her and saw that she liked to brainstorm with me because I could see designs in my head without first seeing them somewhere else. Does this make her a cake thief if every design is inspired by someone else’s work? I honestly do not think so. She was always quick to tell us what inspired this design or that.

I think decorators become sketchy when they lead their customers to believe that they are artists or designers when they are actually just excellent fabricators. They can be amazing cake decorators; they are just not designers. The only time a line is crossed for me is when someone knowingly uses another person’s work product. If I design it for a customer, you should not under cut my price and do my design for that customer. In law school they told us that our rights extended to the tips of our fingers, but not to the tip of the next person’s nose. That meant that the exercise of my right cannot directly infringe on your right.

I caution us all as decorators and designers to remember to give credit for the inspiration for our designs, to not help customers rip off artists by doing their sketched or photographed designs (without permission) and to uphold the integrity of the sugar arts in our behavior with our competitors. In the end it comes down to the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you.

10 thoughts on “She’s Kind of Sketchy

  1. Very good article!! I’ve been told a number of different things on the subject of copyright and totally agree that your statement is quite valid! “Do unto others…”

  2. What is your advice when it comes to designing a cake for a bride and groom that come to you with nothing in mind for their cake? They haven’t brought you any inspiration, have no theme or flowers chosen, etc. I enjoy designing cakes, but usually need something to go off of…

    • I hate brides like that! They have no idea what they want, but don’t really like what you suggest! Just smile and nod!

      • That is my pet peeve – people who dont know what they want – they tell u they want something spectacular and different and then reject every idea you present.

  3. Thanks! I have been on both sides of that situation of being copied & undercut on pricing or being asked to do so. It’s not a good feeling on either side.

  4. Great article! Thankfulky, I sketch so badly anyone trying to copy a cake would end up either something like Dr Seuss on a drug trip!

    I think ort of the issue is that we have so many new outlets to see fabulous cakes. Brides (and others) see a cake and really don’t think about the fact that this is an individual work of art, not a pattern.

    The “normal” cakes people see are cookie cutter, so to speak. The expectation is copy, not original.

  5. Awesome article. I learned this the hard way. I was making chocolate covered apples for a customer. She paid a deposit. I made her three samples. She took these samples, tore them apart saying how far apart we were on ideas and that she could not continue with me. I kept the deposit. A friend of mine went to the wedding reception, the girl had had another bakery (literally two streets up for me ) make my exact apples. Needless to say, from that day on, I will Jo longer have any sort of sample or sketch leave with my client.

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