What is the line between inspiration and plagiarism?

On October 16th, news broke that the counsel behind Onia and WeWoreWhat (WWW) filed suit against The Great Eros. On behalf of WWW’s founder, Danielle Bernstein, the lawsuit aims to to thwart allegations that WeWorewhat committed “copyright infringement and engag[ed] in unfair competition via its use of the WWW Silhouettes Design,” Eros strongly believes that WWW’s Silhouettes Design is substantially similar to that of Eros’ tissue paper design and listed more than a dozen identical features including measurements, line weights and strokes.

Danielle Bernstein is the founder of blog and brand WeWoreWhat and a fashion influencer with 2.5 million followers. She has launched multiple fashion lines and was even placed on Forbes’ 30 under 30 list in 2017. The first collection of her namesake brand featured exclusively at Macy’s, sold $1 million in the first 2 hours, and $2 million after 24 hours. Bernstein even published a book that was placed on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

On the other hand, The Great Eros is a Brooklyn-based lingerie brand and small business opened in 2016. The designs of co-founder and Creative Director, Christina Viviani, have been featured in WWD, NY Times, Vogue, and Elle among others. The shop’s Instagram account has about 55K followers.

WWW claims the designs, used for its swimsuit collection, were “inspired by the generally ubiquitous concept of silhouette drawings of the human form.” Bernstein explained that she had never seen Eros’ tissue paper and had never purchased or been gifted anything from the store, but Eros has revealed evidence of a gifting request from Bernstein after a 2018 visit to the Eros showroom as well as a web order from an Onia founder. Counsel for The Great Eros describes, “This misguided charade is nothing more than yet another nasty attempt by Danielle Bernstein to intimidate and silence independent creatives and small business owners.”

On October 2nd, fans all over the globe tuned into Amazon to watch the second annual Savage x Fenty fashion show. Jam-packed with celebrity cameos and performances, the fashion show has become a must-watch event, whether or not you care about or wear lingerie. As we all know, Savage x Fenty’s founder, Rihanna is not only an international pop star but also a fashion icon and respected businesswoman. In 2014, Rihanna was presented with the Fashion Icon lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). In 2019, Forbes listed Rihanna as the world’s wealthiest female musician with an estimated net worth of $600 million. She was also listed among Forbes’ Top 100 Most Powerful Women of 2019.

So it was a little disappointing to hear that Rihanna may or may not have stolen ideas for one of the art installations used in the famous show from artist, designer, and daughter of Lauryn Hill, Selah Marley. In May 2019, Marley produced an installation titled ‘A Primordial Place’. Marley addressed the similarities on Instagram where she reflected, “As a young, independent, female black artist, I genuinely feel robbed. I’m not signed to any label. I don’t have any investors. I just have myself & the people who support me.” Rihanna and her team has yet to comment.

What is the line between plagiarism and inspiration? In school, we’re taught to credit any and all external references, or else… The possibility of a poor grade, and in some cases, public humiliation, intimidate most students and remind them to include the good ole MLA citation for each essay assignment. But once you’re in the real world, are people held to the same level of accountability?

The copyright law supposedly exists to protect “original works of authorship,” but in practice, it only protects expression, not the idea itself. More than often, the level of copyright protection afforded to the copyright holder is quite low. So even if someone “copies” another artist’s idea, it could be merely passed off as “being inspired.”

A small business or independent artist against a larger or more well known entity is like David versus Goliath, in the battle of expression and often their careers. Bernstein claims she is not seeking financial gain from her lawsuit against The Great Eros and is “simply asking the courts to confirm that we did not infringe on an alleged copyright.” Reality is, whether or not Bernstein wins, The Great Eros, and any other smaller party in a similar situation, is most likely to end up with the less favorable outcome. Depending on the company’s finances (and their ego), it becomes only a matter of time before the smaller party needs to accept defeat if they want to keep their business afloat.

Back to Selah. Just launched in 2018, Savage x Fenty has an estimated annual revenue of $150 million. Now, how much would Rihanna have given up if she offered compensation, or simply, some credit to Selah, if she indeed was “inspired” by ‘A Primordial Place’?

As much as I would like to give a call to Rihanna myself, it’s ultimately up to us as consumers to be aware of examples of exploitation and to advocate for those that are due the credit. If 2020 has proven anything, it’s that there is power in numbers. With enough comments, tweets, and posts, celebrities, influencers and companies are forced to address their scandals and controversies. With enough support, the David’s can grow to become Goliath, and to try to win a fair fight.

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