Without the express written permission of the artist, it is never okay to copy their work.
According to the US Copyright Office, there is no such number or percentage of change expected (often called the woefully inaccurate "change 10%" rule) before a work is considered original, so to copy in any capacity in which you are not granted permission, is to open yourself to possible legal recourse. While I've done extensive research, read the laws, contacted copyright professionals and experts, I encourage everyone to contact the copyright office themselves to clarify these legal guidelines.
I had debated this post for weeks. I had considered my words carefully. Too carefully, in fact, because while I was thinking about what to say, I was saying nothing at all, and becoming a victim of my own reactions to the infringement of my creative efforts.
I had once made a conscious decision not to police every incident of theft I experienced, else find myself devoting all my creative energy to protecting my creative rights, instead of actually creating. But this is not to say that copyright infringement hasn't left its scars despite my best intentions.
Or: "Don't worry about them. Consider it a challenge to improve your own work."
Or (and this is the most troubling of them all): "If you put it on the internet, you have to expect that someone will copy it." And while you may expect it, you do not ever have to accept it.
And it is not a compliment. It's an insult to the creative process, to the hours each artist dedicates to improving their skill, creating designs and combining the elements of design into cohesive work that represents their creative soul and spirit. It is an insult to enjoy the work enough to copy it but not enough to purchase it and support the artistic vision of those who created it.
I understand these are not the subjects many like to entertain, that there is this belief we should focus on the beauty and art of creation, even at the expense of moral and legal discussion. However, as a victim to infringement more than a dozen times in the last month alone, I am finding it a distraction too constant to ignore. I decided it was important to discuss the impact this theft, no matter how innocent the intent, is to the artist who experiences it.... how painful it is to throw yourself into work, into pushing the boundaries of your talents, and find those efforts disrespected.
So what is the message here?
Common courtesy. It takes 30 seconds to ask for permission, and even less time to respect the response you receive.