Mine. Mine. MINE!!!

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.


33 thoughts on “Mine. Mine. MINE!!!

  1. I subscribed to your blog not too long ago and I am totally hooked. It is so inspringing. I met you at the the open house at Nick’s when you did the demo on the Zari technique. I have not had a chance to use the technique yet but when I do I will let my client know that I learn it from you just like you said in this blog. I never leave a reply to a blog or write a comment. This is a first just because you are a great instructor.

  2. Thanks.. that is how I feel also. Every day someone brings me a picture off the web, I just suggest differences based on their theme, or to improve on the original design, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, as they say. Can’t wait to see you in England. You are a wealth of info. want to hear all about your trips and the people you’ve met. Facebook is no enough….

  3. Excellent article! I’m not sure where I sit with this kind of stuff, its never happened to me but I don’t think I’d be too annoyed. Although if it happens, I might have something different to say.

    There are some famous decorators over here who do classes for professional decorators, and then are up in arms when someone *shock horror* uses their technique on a cake. Then wth are you teaching us for?

    What I don’t like is frankly inexperience people selling PDF ‘tutorials’ for something that can be found free on the youtube/blogs. I feel they are exploiting other noobs when they learnt it for free! But thats a rant for another day…

  4. Hi Ruth, I was pointed in the direction of your blog as this topic is so relevent to me at the moment. I wondered if it would be ok to link your article to my FB page? I’m intending to do a summary on the ettiquette of teaching myself but you’ve explained it so well also that I think your input would be invaluable too.

  5. What a brilliant post. I absolutely concur. I had my photos stolen and the perp put her own watermark on them – wrong! I’ve had cakes I’ve done, replicated by others – nice! I’ve replicated (with changes) others cakes – be polite and ask and I’ve never had anyone say ‘no! You can’t replicate MY cake’ once again – brilliant post x

  6. Ruth, thanks for this. It is something I experienced just recently when asked to teach a class for my local ICES DOS. I contacted the sugar artist to ask her permission to use her tecnique and recipe. I used my own design, but still was uncomfortable using someone else’s technique that I saw in a demo. I felt it was the right thing to do. I’m so glad I did it that way. I couldn’t get over the idea that I was stealing an idea, otherwise.

  7. I totally agree with the whole article! I would like to add… ICES Caring, Everybody Sharing. Sharing is one thing but stealing is another. Sharing is what it’s all about & we have to teach the next generation!!

    • I agree with the sharing part. It’s difficult for ICES chapters in some areas to pay the cost for the higher priced classes so sharing what we learned is the only way to pass on the learning. I struggle with where to draw the line between sharing and teaching, because we do sometimes get a nominal fee for DOS to cover our expenses and our time.

  8. I totaly know about the employee stealing your photos to start their own business. Had a neice of mine do that to me. She wanted to LEARN how to decorate cakes, Then after several months she left. A couple of months later I find her web site with pics of MY cakes ( which I contacted the sight provider and had it shut down. Then she was using the same pics in her resume to get a job in California (where she had moved), talk about pissed. but it came back to bite her in the butt 🙂

  9. Once again you have nailed it! You are my Inspiration. Whenever I second guess myself or my confidence is a lil low your words of encouragement ring in my head.(“don’t give up, keep learning. You have what it takes.”) Its been almost 2 yrs since I have started and I can see improvement in my work. I am hooked so many cakes I want to make and techniques I want to learn. Thanks for being there for all of us.

  10. Bravo! This also applies to the teaching notes of University professors and to the work of others who publish results of research funded by the US government. Take the informaiton and give your spin on it. Both you and others will gain from it.

  11. Good article! I think one shouldn’t forget that this issue goes beyond national border and therefore different legal situation would apply.

    As Picasso said: Bad artists copy. Good artists steal
    Also Steve Jobs quotes on that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CW0DUg63lqU

    I think stealing good ideas, being inspired by othes is a very human attidude and the discussions exists since mankind. But it is also a great motor to improve things.
    I wouldn’t want to go back to a Walkman over my iPhone…

  12. Very powerful words, but so true though. When I see a picture of some people’s work and then a sudden transformation to something totally different, I often wonder but now I know.

  13. Thank you for the article. I try to always make my designs my own, but you have to have some inspiration. Your customs almost always want something changed. I wish you would do a article on copyright items and how it’s also stealing! Thank you for your time in writing these article. I have gotten a lot out of them.

  14. A true story: I delivered a wedding cake that was ordered by a woman as a gift to the couple. She thanked me and ushered me out quickly. I thought nothing of it. The next day at a community party of local food industry people someone told me they had tasted a wonderful cake at a reception that was done by a woman a lot of them knew, “..and it was as good as what you make.” I always like to hear about good work so I asked what it was. It sounded familiar so I asked where this reception was. I said “Oh really? I delivered that cake yesterday.” and proceeded to describe it. So the woman who claimed to have made the cake was ‘outed’ within 24 hours – to the whole food community. Sweet justice.
    Thanks for tackling this thorny topic.

  15. Ruth,
    A very well written article, and a serious problem in our little world.
    I myself enjoy sharing my ideas and techiques I have learned and developed with others, and I try my best to give credit where it is due. I am a product of the love and sharring of so many artists. I am thankful to each of them every day.
    With the internet no decorator is an island these days, and we inspire each other even if we haven’t met.but outright copies are rude and laziness.
    I think it is a shame that some people who are teaching do not come up with their own ideas, and it is the student who suffers because a teacher who adopts a class without experience is not able to tell them why their piece is not behaving the way described by the teacher, or what to do if they get it home (sometimes to a different climate) what it will do there, and how to correct it.

  16. Gee, you know your long winded when even a blog cuts you off…
    so I hope we all can remember to think of others and how it feel to have their hard work used without credit, or permission, and use your imagination, and make each cake, class, or sugar art you do have your personal touch.
    Thank you so much for your time.

  17. Thank you for this!! It’s really a good post! and so true! I have had many customers ask me to copy a cake, and i always try to put my own spin on it, (there are those very few cakes that are just so simple, plain with a few ruffles down the side, that the only thing you can do is change the ruffle to be on the other side of the cake!) It is also really difficult then to find out who that cake was done by.
    I completely agree with speciality cakes. They are a show of the cake decorator’s character, as much as the client’s character. If somebody copies it completely, it’s like stealing a little piece of that person and claiming it as their own. I’m definitely posting this to my facebook page for everyone to see! xxx

  18. Great article Ruth! And very timely with the recent decision around the ongoing copyright issue with Apple vs Samsung.

    Thanks for writing this and for taking a strong point of view on an always fun topic 🙂 I haven’t come across an article like yours that so clearly walks through the issues and takes such a pragmatic view.

    I, like many of the commenters here, am in agreement with you in regards to your position on cake designs. We follow a similar approach at our bakery. We even have a cookie cutter email we send when people ask us if they can use our designs. It basically says that while we realize people will use our cakes as inspiration we ask that they appropriately credit us when using a significant set of design elements from our cakes. We encourage designers to try to add their own twist on the cake to make it their own. The great thing is that the cake community largely is respectful of this.

    Theft of actual photos has been an ongoing issue for us, but largely one that self-polices itself and really again that is because of the supportive cake community. Invariably if one of our photos appears in someone’s marketing collateral, we are typically alerted by another designer in the community who came across it and is already helping fight the battle with us.

    As an aside, probably one of the most egregious uses of our photos was from a bakery in South America who managed to use a photo of our cake as a decal on their delivery van! Here’s a photo:

    5 years ago acts like this used to drive us crazy. But over time we’ve realized that the cake communities support largely polices these acts of theft and what’s important for us to is focus on ensuring we continue to innovate and deliver the best experience to our customers 🙂



  19. I think this is an awesome post. I would like to share this link on fb if I may. I think in all the arts plagiarism is frowned upon. However, I believe in the world of cake, that the word “inspired” is simply the convenient substitute. Everyone is “inspired”…it was simply never copied…and certainly the “inspired” person seldom adds their own creative tweak to somebody else’s thinking. It bores me, it is insulting to the artist whose cake was copied, and furthermore, I personally am never flattered by someone wanting to be me. A great take from you on a highly emotive subject. Thanks. Terry. http://www.cakesandcookies.co.za

  20. Great Blog subject Ruth. You know I have been following you for a while and I think this particular one is so good. I remember one time Southern Living ran a contest to submit an original dessert recipes to them. I worked on a number of different things and came up with my banana pudding cheese cake. It was a banana flavored New York style cake with a vanilla wafer and butter crust. It had a chocolate ganache edging around the top edge of the cake that oozed down the sides. On top of the ganache I made a banana foster type topping and drooled that around the edge. And of course you can’t forget about the freshly made whipped cream. I interviewed a lot of bakers and food suppliers that I had contact with on a regular basis and they said they had never heard of or seen a banana cheese cake such as this. Can you imagine my horror when I bought the next edition of Southern Living and saw a similar version of my cheese cake in their magazine. Of course I had knowledge of cheese cakes and chocolate, etc. but not in those combinations. Although I was embarrassed over this entire thing – I still submitted my entry and didn’t win but like you mentioned, who came up with the idea first. Evidently we probably came up with the idea around the same time – they just beat me to the punch. When people ask me for my recipes that I have created for their catering events – I have no problem giving them the recipe as someone else may have already done it at a different level.

    Of course, like you mentioned, taking actual photos that belong to someone else or replicating a demo or class that you have attended using the actual handouts with no change in the format is so wrong that you had better watch out for Karma, it will definitely get you. Long and short of this reply is pass on your knowledge but pass it on in your own words, your own handouts, your own twists and give credit to that person that you learned it from.

    Thank You Ruth for always getting the Blog out there. I know you are very busy but it is great reading and appreciated.

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