by Sharon Wee

Do you remember when you were younger and your parents used to make you do something you thought was just so unfair and you swore that when you had kids of your own you would never do that to them?
I had one of those moments this week where I had to question something I swore I would not do to anyone else.
To help you understand better, let me give you some background. Many years ago when I first started cake decorating, I was trading under a different business name. I had just built the website, printed business cards, registered the business and advertising when I got an official lawyer letter from a large well known business. Without going into too much detail and breaking any legal agreements, the letter basically informed me that I was breaching their trademark by using certain words and even though they were not based in my country, they asked me to cease trading or they can would lay claim to any profits I made while trading with that business name.
Do you know what it felt like as a small player in the industry receiving an officially worded letter from someone like that?
Firstly it was terrifying and secondly it was extremely dejecting. I had just spent all this time working out my business branding only to have someone come along and tell me to change everything or else. I was nothing to them and they specialised in something else completely yet they didn’t want me to have even the tiniest thing similar to them, stating that their customers (although in a whole different country) could get ‘confused’.
I was not the only one they went after, many other small businesses like me were slapped with lawyer letters like mine and I was faced with two choices. Fight them in court and spend thousands of dollars I did not have or to just let it go and change everything. It was at this point that I questioned if I had enough courage to continue in this industry. After all, when you are by yourself, you are really by yourself. I no longer had the walls of a multinational company around me. It was just me.
After that incident passed I swore to myself that if I ever became successful/ recognized for my work, I would NEVER EVER do that to anybody. I would never be petty and chase them down for replicating my designs, style or branding. Maybe I was naive to believe that I could just keep to myself and move upwards and onwards and that I should not spend the time constantly looking behind me. After all, if they are capable of doing the work themselves then why should I stand in their way? Aren’t we all in the same shoes more or less? We are all people running a small business/ hobby trying to make our way in this world. Trying to earn a living and provide for our families – and if we are lucky, have some leftover to enjoy life a little.
Those that know me think I am mad for being so ‘relaxed’ about this. I have had people replicate my work, other teachers teach my exact design to their students, students come to class and announce that they are teaching the same class shortly after and even students who go as far as to contact my students and try to poach them claiming that they can teach the same thing so they don’t need to come to my classes and then secretly contact me asking me where I get my supplies and how I do certain elements on my cake.
When I find out about all this, I am shocked at first of course. But then I pretty much just brush it off and laugh. Oh well, what can I do? If I spend all my time chasing these people down and picking fights, I will have no time left to make cool cakes. So I leave it. Sometimes other people are nice enough to stick up for me and say something, and although it’s not necessary I do appreciate it.
This week, it all changed.
I really don’t want to go into too much detail because I want to move past this. But my good friend Sheryl from Buns inThe Oven Cupcakery and dozen others online bravely stood up for the situation and I believe I owe everyone some sort of explanation. If you want to read about what happened, you can visit this link. I am not going to rehash everything but basically a student came to my class and then offered to teach the exact class back in her country prior to my own class debuting in that country.
I want to point out that things are settled now and I would like to believe the best in that student who may not have realised initially what they were doing. But my initial feeling of disappointment came from the perspective of the students and hosts who were looking forward to the launch of this particular class in their country. And so imagine what it would feel like if someone else knowingly came along and launched your own exact class design before you? Intentional or not, it still hurt.
There is a debate going on as to what is allowed and what is not when you attend a class. Some argue that if I did not want people to copy my design/classes then I should not teach or post my photos online. While others claim that it is an outright breach of copyright. If I did not teach or post photos online, I would not earn a living. 99% of students I meet all do the right thing and it seems unfair that I hold back information or put strict rules in place for the 1%.
And I know that some people will also stand up and say that no idea is original and that we all copy from somewhere. If I am being honest here, I believe in that a little bit too. After all when I first started I copied elements of cake designs because that was how I learned. Through that I tried to develop my own personal style and although my style is not 100% unique (there will always be someone out there that inspired me or that has similar tastes), I was too inexperienced to design my own stuff so I did borrow here and there. Therefore, I do feel somewhat hypocritical standing here on my high horse demanding that people don’t do the same to me.
But at the end of the day my gripe with this incident boils down to the fact that the duplicated class was being taught prior to mine in that particular country. It’s almost like someone reading the Harry Potter books and yelling out ‘Dumbledore dies!’ before you get to that part and get to relish it yourself.
So I’ve decided to take a stand and voice what I think. After this is done no one else can claim they did not know better. After all, when I kept quiet before, how were they supposed to know what I felt right? So here it is – When I teach I want the best for my students. I try and give them the most comprehensive notes and also provide a range of templates and calculations all of which take days to draw up and experiment. I want them to succeed and I truly wish them the best and encourage them to create something from what they have learned in class. What I do not want is for them to teach the exact same thing.
So here and now I am going back on something I swore I’d never do – this is my official stance. I do not want students to teach the exact same design they come to class to learn. If they wish to sell the exact same cake as an order I really don’t have a problem with that. But to teach, that’s a no. Change the animal, change the shape, change the theme. It’s really not that hard to come up with something unique to your own style based on the learning outcomes you have taken from the class. I could not care less if the design in question was a standard design (e.g. A round cake with stripes and a rose) but that is not what I am referring to in this post. I am referring to designs that I have put together myself. Not elements of it (like stripes or dots) but the whole design put together that reflects my style.
Of course, if anyone choses to disregard this and teach the class anyways, there is really nothing I can do about it. The above is not a legal statement but more of a polite request (much like asking for no cheese on your salad). I won’t chase after them but just know that the cake community is a small one and every one eventually knows everything and word spreads fast. So choose to keep or burn your bridges, it’s up to you.
Let me be clear. This is how I earn a living and if that is taken away from me then I have nothing else. And I am also aware that others are in my same shoes so I am not going to stand in the way of them earning a living. At the end of the day I can always go back to a corporate job, but that is another story 🙂
Disclaimer – I am not claiming that my work is superior or that the person in question is not talented in their own way. A lot of analogies I have given above are just examples to make a point. I always try and consider everything from everyone’s point of view, so please extend me the same courtesy 🙂

Some of Sharon's favourite tools

9 Comments on The Grey Area…

  1. Jenny Gibson
    May 21, 2013 at 10:54 pm (4 years ago)

    Dumbledore Dies?!!!!!!!!!

    Reply
  2. Trina Thomson
    May 21, 2013 at 11:07 pm (4 years ago)

    Well said Sharon. It’s true, there is no sense in getting yourself crazy when people emulate you.. better to rise up and lead the way than follow the pack. But its frustrating when someone is literally jeopardizing your ability to make a living from your own work. I am glad the situation settled itself. Your work is gorgeous, unique and full of love. x

    Reply
  3. amandapennycakes.com
    May 21, 2013 at 11:24 pm (4 years ago)

    Great post – clear and very fair.
    I was gutted not to be able to attend your class in London, but on principle I wouldn’t attend a copycat class of your design.
    Keep doing what you do best and come back and teach in London soon!

    Best wishes,
    Amanda

    Reply
  4. Jeanette
    May 21, 2013 at 11:43 pm (4 years ago)

    Well done Sharon, I absolutely agree with you. I also really appreciate the fact that your Craftsy tutorial is a design that is original to that tutorial. I would never condone someone else teaching another decorators class, or even making an exact copy for a client without tweaking the design alot. In my case, i spent a long time deciding whether to spend $600 on a particular class (not one of yours) only to be told during the class that it was being filmed as a tutorial for one of the new online websites. Knowing that it would soon be available for $29.95 made me really cross.

    Reply
  5. Rebello
    May 22, 2013 at 12:28 am (4 years ago)

    Hi Sharon

    I never usually bother with leaving comments, but I felt I needed to.

    I have always admired you and I am doing a class with you soon in Melbourne. But I admire and repect you even more after this post.

    You have a heart of gold and it real shows through in this post. Such a dignified way to tell us your views. Keep up your good work.

    See you soon and I wish you all the success there is in the world.

    xx
    Cheryl

    Reply
  6. Rebello
    May 22, 2013 at 12:28 am (4 years ago)

    Hi Sharon

    I never usually bother with leaving comments, but I felt I needed to.

    I have always admired you and I am doing a class with you soon in Melbourne. But I admire and repect you even more after this post.

    You have a heart of gold and it real shows through in this post. Such a dignified way to tell us your views. Keep up your good work.

    See you soon and I wish you all the success there is in the world.

    xx
    Cheryl

    Reply
  7. Ally
    May 22, 2013 at 7:41 am (4 years ago)

    Good on you 😀

    Reply
  8. Mama Rhu
    May 22, 2013 at 8:02 am (4 years ago)

    Very very well put Sharon, I am also a teacher and slowly becoming recognised and invited to teach away from home ground. I have had students at my own classes comments on possibly teaching others that particular class and I am dumbfounded. Like you I believe in helping develop skills and confidence, but this is my lively-hood too, it’s not a hobby, I don’t have another source of income. But more than anything it is the time and effort put into creating something original to teach.
    I would like to say that on the subject of originality, I spent a year at college doing art and design, a large part of the marks for each project was based on research for the work, so looking at other artists, what we liked, didn’t like about elements of their work, it was a journey towards producing our own work, so yes, you could see elements of others work, but you made it your own. That doesn’t then become available for others to plagiarise !!!
    Rhu Strand

    Reply
  9. Leana
    May 22, 2013 at 2:53 pm (4 years ago)

    Sorry this has happen to you. I have taken classes and the instructors have said you want to teach come up with your own design, do not steal mine. I love your work and hope the other cake decorator got the message. All the best.

    Reply

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