I am an intellectual property attorney in my spare time when I'm not designing or making jewelry. As such, I've spent a lot of time thinking about copyrighting jewelry designs. Of course, everyone has the copyright on their designs as soon as it is recorded in/on a tangible medium. You don't have to do anything and it automatically attaches. That sounds great but what does it really mean? Not much. If you want to be able to sue for infringement and collect damages, you have to register your copyright. That requires some paperwork and several hundred dollars.
If you do register your copyright, there is one way, and only one way, for others to infringe your copyright. That is by copying your design. If someone is selling the same exact design but you cannot prove that they saw your design and copied it, you won't be successful in proving infringement. That is how our copyright system works but what does it really mean for jewelry designers and makers?
It means that in addition to being ethically wrong, copying could be opening yourself up to paying substantial damages. Never a good thing.
So, how much copying is needed in order to infringe? I've heard a number of measurements. Some folks say that if the design is 10% - 30% different, you are safe. However, there really is no set measurement. If your design is 50% different, it could still infringe someone's copyright if the "look and feel" of the piece is the same. The best way to avoid infringing someones copyright is simply to not copy their work.
If you do find yourself making something that is based upon someone else's design, give them credit for it. Just say in your description that your piece was adapted from or based upon their design. Not only does this give them the credit for their design, it demonstrates to the jewelry community that you are respectful of others designs and you are not trying to take credit for something that you didn't create.
You might say that there are some aspects of jewelry design that are copied all the time. Techniques are learned, yes, even copied from others, but that won't infringe anyone's copyright. The idea of coiling wire or stringing beads cannot be copyrighted. Only specific examples of those techniques can be protected.
I'm frequently inspired by the work of others. However, I never copy their work. I take their design and convert it into one of my own. Looking at other's designs can set my mind to spinning with ideas of what I could do. Sometimes, it's as simple as that I hadn't previously thought about making a necklace out of that material or it's that I hadn't considered combining those two colors, etc. This isn't copying their design unless what you make looks just like what they made. Even though my design looks substantially different, I would still attribute the idea of combining those colors or using that material to them in my description. I would do that because they came up with the idea and it's the right thing to do.
I guess the bottom line is that it is OK to admire someone's work; it is OK to learn from someone's work; and, it is OK to allow that work to inspire you to create new and wonderful designs of your own. However, it is never OK to copy someone else's work or to take credit for their original designs,