Vermont Arts Council

Finding a Solution — the Vermont Way

Inspiration has always been at the core of creativity and the creation of both fine art and commercial art. As artists we inspire other artists to create. We constantly reference and learn from our mentors, fellow artists, and history. We grow by watching and sometimes even imitating, be that borrowing a technique or referencing a specific artist’s style or period of art. The end goal for any artist is to assimilate what’s inspired you and turn it into something new and unique — something that is ownable in it’s own right. But what happens when an artist feels that another artist may have referenced their work too closely? How do you broach the subject? How do you work toward a resolution in what is historically a very grey area? Two Vermont artists found themselves in this type of situation. Instead of creating conflict they worked together to create a solution that enriched each party and the arts community. Here’s what happened …

In March of 2015 Sabra Field received an email from a collector that included a frame from a video advertisement. The collector asked if she had made the illustration.

She hadn’t made the illustration, though she recognized several elements of her style. After thanking the collector for bringing this to her attention she reached out to the executive director of The Vermont Arts Council and to Vermont Life magazine, who also saw the similarity.

People familiar with Sabra’s art did see similarities to this image by Place Creative.

A little web surfing by Sabra’s son, advisor, and intellectual property executor, Paul Johnson, connected them to Place Creative Company, the small Burlington-based design firm who had created the television spot. Once aware of Sabra’s concern the team at Place wanted to find a solution. By their gracious admission, the illustration had unintentionally come too close to Sabra’s signature depiction of a winter evening in Vermont, and her landscape genre. They were deeply concerned and wished to make things right in her eyes. But, what to do? The standard solution is to be defensive and “lawyer up” but lawyers had been of little help in the early stages of their dialog and needlessly escalated the situation without offering any solutions the two sides felt good about. Could this be handled in a new way? Could conflict be avoided and a win-win solution be agreed upon? Since both parties cared deeply about Vermont and its arts community they wondered what a “Vermont Solution” might be?  Could this become a teachable moment, which could benefit the entire art community at a time when reproduction permission, copyright protection, payment for fair use, and a host of other artist’s issues are in flux?

While seemingly old fashioned, simple, face-to-face communication is almost always the best place to start. Sabra, Paul, and the Place partners decided to meet up and talk in person. Sitting down together in a well-lit conference room in a handsome old repurposed factory building in downtown Burlington, Sabra Field and Place quickly found common ground and solutions. Both parties agreed that proving infringement was too grey of an area and beyond their expertise. Having a long, drawn out debate would yield no true benefit for either side. Place hadn’t wished any malice or intentional infringement so in the true spirit of cooperation the particulars were addressed and resolved. Sabra agreed that she would advise the agency’s client that she had not and would not allege any infringement. Out of respect Place would take measures to assure the ad not run again with the illustration in question. In turn Place would also help to make good by covering expenses and donating to the cause of education around this issue.

Having set these matters aside, the door opened for more creative solutions and ways to turn the situation into a learning experience. The piece you’re now reading and its simple insights are a direct result of that problem solving. To further the dialog, Steve Crafts — one of the Partners at Place — extended the opportunity to present their shared experience as a case study in his design course at Champlain College. Another creative solution was a stipend to the Vermont Lawyer Incubator Pilot Project that resulted in Cristina Mansfield’s document, Resources for Visual Artists.

In the end, Sabra and the team at Place Creative Company became friends and collaborators. They hope their experience will encourage others to make good use of Vermont talent to further the interests of the state while acknowledging and compensating authorship of Vermont’s many original visual styles. Both parties walked away with deeper insight and respect for the issues at hand. For Sabra it’s critical to be vigilant in protecting the integrity of her work and she hopes this story will reassure the many collectors and patrons who have commissioned her talent over the years that unauthorized appropriation of her style will be addressed in a way that yields resolution in a respectful, fair and enriching manner.

If you’re a fine artist and or a commercial artist and find yourself in a similar situation we hope you can take away some insights from what we’ve learned. Copyright your work and be vigilant, but if you find yourself approaching conflict consider taking the high road and look for creative solutions that build bridges. Resolution around these types of situations is rarely a black and white issue. There is almost always a grey area that is open to interpretation. Be willing to communicate on a personal level that is respectful of both parties. When we collaborate and resolve conflict “the Vermont way” we can all be proud and learn something in the process.

— Place Creative and Sabra Field