Sarah DeVries
The chair that Mexican culture officials believe uses indigenous designs from Mexico. The chair that Mexican culture officials believe uses indigenous designs from Mexico.

The nature of art and intellectual property is both sticky and slippery

What exactly constitutes copying is subject to all kinds of interpretation

I’ve never been particularly fashionable. I tend to wear the same “uniform” every day: jeans with a short sleeve shirt and sandals if it’s warm, the same with a sweater on top and boots if it’s cold.

The colors are usually demure with lots of dark teals, navies and purples, and if anything about my outfit stands out it’s usually a three-seasons-too-late scarf or purse. It’s important to me that my clothes fit well, but beyond that I’ve never had the economic status or the wherewithal to seek out specific brands or chase after the latest trends.

You won’t catch me in Crocs — I have standards, after all — but for the most part, the fashion industry feels like a different world to me. While I won’t say that brilliant advertising doesn’t affect me, it falls fairly low on the list of things that occupy my mind.

All that said, I felt a tinge of guilt when I read the article about Louis Vuitton selling Otomí-print upholstered chairs for US $18,000. While fashion isn’t normally on my radar, interior design is, and I pride myself on my ability to “steal looks” on the cheap with the fervor of tweens practicing the makeup techniques of their favorite celebrities from YouTube tutorials.

Beautiful design and practical, pretty organization are passions of mine, and my favorite look is what you might call “folkloric chic:” bright and bold colors, natural-colored wood, lots of plants and quirky figurines and absolutely no, under any circumstances, “daylight” lightbulbs (trust me, people, just stay away from them: they make everything look grey and depressing).

In my backyard, I’ve painted several giant murals on the available wall space, which is an excellent way to get a dramatic change when you have a low decorating budget (give me unlimited paint, baskets and custom shelves, and I’ll redo your whole house!). Some were free-handed, but the biggest and prettiest ones were saved from Pinterest and then projected and traced on the walls.

I feel self-conscious enough about having “stolen” the work that I quickly tell people where it’s from and how I did it when they comment on it, but since I’m not selling it, I suppose there’s no real reason to make a point of it not being “mine.”

I’ve entertained the fantasy of making a business of painting murals, but as my own artistic creativity and talent hit a wall when it comes to the actual drawing of patterns and designs, I’ve hesitated: the ethics of charging people for copying others’ designs on to their walls just does not meet my standards of integrity. It feels like a dishonest way to make money.

The nature of art and intellectual property is both sticky and slippery. What’s the difference between copying something and simply being inspired by it? I know that I copied two of the murals that are on my wall, because I traced them exactly from a projection. The Quetzalcoatl I free-handed on another part was inspired by several images I found online (before you get too impressed about that one, keep in mind that several people have mistakenly called it a “Chinese dragon”).

Should original artists and creators be flattered that their work is admired and deemed worthy of mass production, or irritated that it’s being copied and then sold? If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, how should indigenous artists feel about their designs being used by others to make more money than they could even dream of?

My guess is they feel about as impressed as you or I would if we sold an original creation — one whose design and techniques had been passed down for generations, no less — and then saw virtually the same thing mass-produced and sold at a marked-up price by someone who had the means to put the needed infrastructure in place for a sophisticated global market.

Alejandro Frausto, Mexico’s culture secretary, did the right thing by writing to Louis Vuitton to defend the rights of the people who create the authentic designs that were used, and asking for concrete ways for them to be both credited and compensated.

As of this writing, the company responded saying they were looking to collaborate with the artisans of Tenango de Voria in Hidalgo where such designs originate, although they did not list the specific ways they would do so. For such a large and wealthy company, surely they could spare the funds to make a point of practicing fairness and goodwill, though I wonder if they worry about the “slippery slope” of giving credit, intellectually and monetarily.

Much like public indecency laws, what exactly constitutes copying is subject to all kinds of interpretation, and surely they’re wary of setting precedents that will be hard to back out of later. This is the route Carolina Herrera seemed to take when she claimed that the criticized Mexican-patterned clothing she sold was simply “inspired” by Mexico.

As a friend who works in the fashion industry here told me, appropriation in fashion might not be ethical, but it is (apparently) perfectly legal. In my somewhat unrefined view of the philosophy of art, I certainly think there is something to be said about inspiration — art isn’t created in a vacuum. It sure does get ethically ambiguous, though, when money for other versions of it comes into the equation.

In the case of the Louis Vuitton chair, the Otomí pattern is very clearly copied in style and color, not simply “inspired.” For most of us it’s a moot point anyway, as I don’t imagine many people have 18k sitting around to spend on a chair.

The work is beautiful, and I have several pieces in my own home, bought from artisans in places I’ve visited. I dream of lampshades and blankets of the same designs, and mentally set aside money for their future purchase.

I’ve seen cheap Chinese-made printed versions on Amazon, but have resisted the urge to get the “look” without paying the artists who created it. Let’s all resist that urge, shall we?

Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.

Reader forum