Something I've been thinking a lot about lately is the question of originality, legality, and authenticity around lettering famous quotes and words written by other people. If you're a fan of lettering and you've been around the Internet, like, at all, you know that hand-lettering quotes is very, very popular and common. I myself have already lettered others' quotes for my 365-day challenge, and it's only January! However, I'm doing this year-long personal project to not only build my lettering skills, but also develop my own voice and style as a designer. It's an important part of my goal of being an independent creative: making my own unique, authentic, and original content, and that includes copywriting. So, I felt a push and pull around the subject: to letter other people's words or not to?
I used to be adamantly against lettering quotes from others. Maybe it's something engrained in me from art school–that's stealing, plagiarism, using someone else's work, and it's wrong. I remember reading the words of designer Stefan Sagmeister in his book Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far about how boring and unoriginal it is. He is known for his wonderfully original design and art installations that are unconventional and unlike anything else out there. I took his words to heart and vowed to stay clear of using other’s words.
But you know what? Copywriting content is hard. Copywriting unique, original, make-yourself-stand-out-on-the-internet content? That's damn hard. I'm a designer! Not a copywriter. So, I found myself lettering famous quotes and other's words, because, heck, everyone else is doing it! Quotes are inspirational and, let’s face it, super shareable and popular.
I started to feel icky about it. I wanted clarity on what is "technically" okay to do and what isn't, and also what other designers had to say on the matter. I found this super helpful article written by Emily McDowell way back in 2013. On the technicality of what you can legally use in your work, she says "if you're not selling your work, you can almost always go ahead and use any quote […] you want, under what's known as the Fair Use Rule. " She also points out that a lot, A LOT of people go ahead and sell stuff with other people's words on them all the time anyways. That's why you see stuff all over Etsy with Oprah quotes, movie quotes, and song lyrics. How do people get away with this, you ask? Well let's face it: Oprah and other rich, famous people have better things to do than scour the internet for others who use their words for profit. However, as Emily puts it: "It is really not cool to profit from someone else's intellectual property without their permission, even if you can technically get away with it. If you're an artist, you'd be pretty pissed if another artist put your hand-lettering on their work and sold it without your permission–and with good reason! It's just a really unethical thing to do."
Word, Emily. That's the ick factor I was talking about!
But.... I'm still lettering other's words and quotes for my 365-day project. Why? Well, I'm not selling these for profit, so I’m not breaking any law (even one I would most likely get away with!). If I ever do decide to sell my work, I will not be using my letterings of others' quotes for my products. As Emily puts it: it's just super uncool, dudes! On the other hand, there are 365 days in a year, which means I'm making 365 letterings. That's a lot of content, folks! And quotes are an excellent source of inspiration. Finally, I have a full-time job and life outside of my creative endeavors. I need to give myself a break every once in a while and maybe, like, not try to do it all. I'm not gonna beat myself up for lettering a quote of someone else that I find inspirational. For these reasons, I will still be occasionally lettering the quotes of others (always citing them and crediting the author appropriately of course!).
And I'll be blogging and writing more as well. I have a good foundation of writing skills, but I am definitely a bit rusty. I think, like every other creative endeavor, it just takes a lot of patience and time to get good at it. So, I'll work on it, in addition to my lettering. I can do it all, but maybe not all at once....Wait, is that how that quote goes? Uhh, let me look this up...*does a quick Google* Ah, found it! "You can have it all. Just not all at once." - Oprah Winfrey. Thanks, Oprah.
Blogger's note: Upon further internet diving on the subject, I found yet another super duper helpful article from Emily McDowell on her blog here. It really goes to show just how sticky plagiarism and using the words or even similar ideas as others can be! It is up to us as artists to fairly recognize and honor when we're using others' work, even when it's unintentional.