One of my favorite scenes in Finding Nemo is when the seagulls all chime in “Mine. Mine. Mine!!”. It reminds me of toddlers fighting over a toy. I hold it, therefore it is mine. I want it, therefore it is mine. I saw it, therefore it is mine. I played with it yesterday, it is still mine.
There have been battles lately over credit on cake design and classes. Some of the battles have been public. Some private. In the end, some friendships have been strained or lost. Some business relationships have been severed. I have had a lot of decorators and teachers ask for a blog on this tricky subject. And I do think it is tricky. I don’t think there is a cut and dried answer that fits every situation. I am going to try to walk in to the minefield and hope that I will be able to walk out the other side. As with all my blogs, remember that this is just my opinion and experience. I am not saying I am right…only that I am explaining my thoughts on the subject.
If you design a cake and publish it on the world wide web, there is a possibility that you will find someone copy or reproduce your cake. We have all had customers bring in cakes from magazines or web pages asking us to make that cake for them. I have never heard Wendy Kromer, who designs many of the Martha Stewart cakes, freak out because decorators all over the country are doing her designs. Every week, someone brought me a picture from The Pink Cake Box to recreate. Again, I have never seen Anne Heap start complaining on Facebook that everyone is copying her expectant mom cake.
I think that if you put your cakes into the public forum, you should expect to be copied. If you don’t want anyone doing cakes like yours, have a photo album at your shop for your customers and make them come in to view your work. I think about the person that designed the first hamburger cake. Will we ever even know who that was?!! How many times have people done variations on that cake? Some subjects, especially food ones, seem to be done everywhere.
When I was a lawyer, we learned that one of the hardest things to prove was a non-event. In other words, to prove that you did not cheat. I remember working on cakes for the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show years ago. I would sketch a design, finish my cake, then get in my cake magazine from England only to see something very similar in the magazine! I worried everyone would think I copied my design, even though I had done my cake before I saw the magazine. How could I prove that? In the end, I just entered my cake and let people think whatever they were going to think.
A lot of artists say they just want credit if you copy or are inspired by their work. Fine. I think if we know who designed it, then we can do that. We need to remember that before Facebook, this wasn’t as large an issue. It was harder to go to hundreds of web pages to view photo galleries to see who has done cakes similar to yours. New etiquette rules seem to be called for in today’s digital age. If you are Facebook friends with the person who did the cake you copied or were inspired by, then please give credit to that person. If you are not Facebook friends, but know who did the cake, give the person credit.
At my shop, we had a line in our brochure that said we did not mind the customer bringing in a photo, but that we would adapt the cake to fit them…so that it was not a straight copy. Most of the time, we could talk the customer into putting a little of themselves or their personality into the cake.
If you copy PHOTOS from other decorators and put them on your Facebook or web page and act like you did those cakes, I believe that is stealing. You stole that photo. I had to fire an employee who set up a competing business with mine, while working for me, using pictures that I took with my camera of cakes done at my shop on her web page. She did not qualify for unemployment benefits because she had stolen from her employer. Cake designs might be tough to copyright and claim ownership on (this is outside my knowledge), but stealing your photograph is easier to prove. I saw one instance where the alleged thief had photoshopped a different color background to try to claim the photo as theirs. Craziness.
Why spend all that time taking photos from someone else instead of using that time to do your own piece? If people worked as hard at cake decorating as they do at building false profiles of their work, the world would be a much sweeter place.
If you take a class from someone, can you then teach that same subject? What if you attend a demo? Most teachers I know teach a class that was inspired by a cake they saw, demo they attended or class they took. Once again, there are no hard and fast rules, but I will share my approach. I am sure it is not perfect, but I can sleep at night.
First and foremost, no one owns the exclusive right to teach a certain technique or medium. I can think of at least three dozen gum paste teachers. Nearly all of them teach a peony. Who is copying whom? They each put their own spin on the creation of the flower. There are dozens of shoe classes out there now. No one has exclusive rights to teach royal icing work. Or sugar. Or sculptures. If you ask me not to teach on a certain subject that interests me, I will decline. This is a huge world and there is room for multiple teachers on the same techniques. Just like one bakery cannot do all the cakes, one teacher cannot teach all the classes. There is room for all of us. When I was asked to teach a shoe class, I contacted Wayne Steinkopf, since I had taken his class. He laughed and told me that he didn’t own the shoe class. It is true. While some teachers may be known for teaching certain things, they cannot keep anyone else from teaching that subject with their unique spin on the class.
If you take a demo from someone, you should not go teach that exact class. You should be INSPIRED by that demo to find your own variations. For example, I took a demo from the talented Dahlia Weinman at ICES one year. She did a demo on Zari Embroidery. I was fascinated by her approach and by all things Indian at the time. I started researching that field of embroidery. In doing so, I found a unique approach to that art form and designed a class based upon a cake entered at That Takes The Cake Show in Austin. If you have ever read my class description or handouts for the class, I tell everyone that Dahlia inspired the class. I made it my own, but paid homage to a very talented cake decorator.
Sometimes, decorators don’t teach a class anymore. Maybe they are too old to go on the road to teach it. Maybe they are bored silly by that class. Maybe they have passed away. Some things I teach stem from this category. I worry greatly about us losing the old techniques and instructions. I want the next generation to know about the amazing sugar artists who taught and inspired me. In each of these instances, I talk about the person who taught me…I want people to know these names…not just the techniques. I try to include those names in my class descriptions or handouts. Kathy Lange teaches Lambeth techniques, as taught to her by the late Betty Newman May. She tells every class about Betty, so that Betty’s legacy will live on. I think this is perfectly acceptable.
I know that many of my students use what I teach them to, in turn, teach people at culinary school, or teach teens, or teach senior citizens or whatever. I have not been bothered by this. They are good about telling people where they learned the techniques. I often see their students in my future classes because of their recommendations. In the end, I have to hope that my reputation as a teacher will speak for itself. I have not ever written anyone saying “That class is mine”. Someone has to teach the teachers.
I have heard of someone who took a class from a famous artist, then copied his entire handout and teaches the class exactly the same. This person did not change anything. This person teaches a total copy of the famous person’s class. I believe this to be wrong.
I heard of another person who attended a class with a dear friend of mine, surreptitiously video taped it, then went home and created a video tutorial for the technique -word for word matching my friend’s class. I believe this to be wrong.
I witnessed a Facebook battle after someone gave a free tutorial to a stranger. The stranger then designed a class based upon that tutorial. The cakes were virtually identical. The person who wanted to teach that class should have either asked permission to teach the class OR made the cake their own. There were numerous things the person could have changed to put their spin on the cake. I believe teaching an exact replica of someone’s tutorial is wrong.
I have seen people ask friends on Facebook to give them a copy of class notes from a certain class. Those notes belong to those who pay for them. If you give those notes out, it is the same as taking money from that teacher. I have a friend who thinks that the line should be based upon whether you paid for the notes. If you attended a demo, she feels it is ok to share. This really reminds me of the Napster controversy. People went online and shared their music library to everyone on the Internet. They thought no one was being hurt. But it turned out that it was harming the entire music industry, not just the wealthy musician. We must be careful to not put the cake industry into that situation. The teachers are just getting by financially and do it more for love than money. Please don’t give away their livelihood. If you continue to do so, one day the good teachers will all be unwilling or unable to continue teaching.
I think the real key to all of this is…don’t be fake. Don’t pretend to do cakes you didn’t do. Don’t teach an exact copy of someone else’s work; put your spin on it. Don’t give away someone’s livelihood. Follow the Golden Rule and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.