Wowww, this is a HOT TOPIC on my Instagram most days. It seems like everyone and their mother has dealt with someone copying them - or doing something similarly shady.
Full disclosure: I myself was accused of copying another polymer clay artist last year. It was absolutely devastating - my husband thought I had broken an arm because I walked into our bedroom sobbing.
Why do I tell you this? Because transparency is something that can be hard to find online.
In the polymer clay community, there is a lot of secrecy. Most makers (from what I have seen!) do not like to share their methods or practices. If they do share, it is usually behind a paywall (Patreon, etc). I don't think there is anything wrong with this, especially when there are vasts amounts of knowledge available online!
Full disclosure: I am not a teacher, so when I am asked how I do things I refer people to the College of Google and YouTube University.
Copying vs Inspiration
There are MANY schools of thoughts around what is copying and what is taking inspiration from seeing something pop up on your feed and storing it in your mind for a few days. I loved this post from Vanseo Design outlining copying and taking inspiration. Note: this is tailored to web design, but the framework is applicable across mediums.
In summation, copying is normal in the beginning as you are learning a craft - you are learning the ins and outs of your medium, and often copying a work (like painting "The Birth of Venus" in your own style) can help master different mechanics of your art.
You run into issues with copying when you make the same thing as someone else and then pass it off as your own - that is NOT cool! I like what the post I linked above said - copying can help you find YOUR own voice.
How do I know if I am copying or not?
This is a tough one. Only YOU know in your heart whether you saw someone's cauldron mug and deliberately copied the glazing, design, and shape to make your own. We are constantly being inundated by media - other people in your niche selling a similar item, etc. It is extremely difficult to "be the first" to do anything these days!
From personal experience, I have seen people in my niche take a reel I posted and then shared the exact same reel but with their products. I have also had people suddenly start selling things eerily similar to my own products. Is this them copying me? Maybe. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and as long as they are not copying my exact designs I don't think it is worth reaching out about it.
So where do we find inspiration?! It depends on the person!
I like to look at textures in plants, gemstones, and clothing. The weave of a fabric. The faceted rainbows found in a moonstone. The blue and green swirls of the ocean.
Then I take these to my little studio and see what happens. Yes, sometimes I see other people also releasing similar things (floral designs in spring, oceanic styles in the summer, cardigans with cute gingerbread figures at Christmas).
In the polymer clay world, there is a LOT of crossover in the cutters and transfer papers that people use. That is OK! I can use the same clay cutter as another person and still create a completely different earring design.
What YOU said
I asked what everyone thought of copycats on my IG stories a few weeks ago and had some great responses.
Everyone who replied to my story seemed to agree on one basic thing: directly remaking something was copying (ie: same combination of shapes, patterns, etc.) whereas using a similar clay cutter but with different designs or vibes was inspiration.
One fellow maker brought up another aspect of copying - deliberately taking the same photos (using same props, lighting, angles). While we can all take inspiration from how other small business light and design their product photography, deliberately doing the EXACT same thing is not OK.
Bottom line: don't panic!
I know, I know. Easier said than done. If you are remaining honest to yourself about where you are drawing inspiration and not seeking out other makers for ideas to recreate...you are fine.
This is a very personal issue, and how you view inspiration or copying might vary from me. After my experience last year, I have been extra cautious about what I do, which has stifled my creativity in some ways (asking myself "Wait, did someone else do a rainbow like this? What if so and so thinks I copied them because they also did a faux gemstone design?" is a hindrance to creation!).
If you are struggling with this issue and want to talk to someone about it, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I have reached out to many friends to seek advice in this area!