Let’s Talk

When I first posted my Minted challenge favorites last week, I had no idea that the resulting conversation would take the course it did. That post generated the most comments we’ve ever had on any given entry, which made it pretty clear that people want to talk. So this seemed like the perfect time for us to start the Let’s Talk series—something I’ve been planning to start for quite awhile—to continue the conversation.

Before I throw in my two cents, let me get this out of the way—I am in no way an expert on copyright or plagiarism. I have my own opinions, but I definitely have more questions than answers, which is why I’m especially curious to hear what you all have to say.

These days, with most artists having multiple online homes, it’s become easier and easier for those who don’t have ideas of their own to steal from others. Clearly a huge problem. And it’s a topic that artists are definitely concerned about, as blogs like You Thought We Wouldn’t Notice have cropped up to document this very thing.

But at the same time, it seems to me that we’ve also become hypersensitive to potential copyright infringements. I’ve been seeing more and more comments that go something like, “This looks like this…” with a link to some other piece of artwork they think the posted work has been stolen from. Granted they may be right, but what if they’re not?

When it happens on this blog it puts me in a strange position. I do my best to post work that is original. But since we are bombarded with with thousands of images every day (from places like this very blog), it’s virtually impossible—from a timing standpoint as well as a purely informational standpoint—to trace every single piece of work’s history. It also puts the artist in a position where they’re forced to defend themselves (if they even see the accusation) in a very public forum.

Most recently I’ve seen this in regards to The Social Network movie poster. Half of the comments on the various blogs where it’s been featured link to pieces of work that look somewhat similar (see below). And most of the time I sort of see their point. The examples are other layouts—book covers, posters, whatever—that also feature a tight crop of a face underneath white typography.

Mind you, I’m part of the camp that thinks the Social Network poster is smart, well-designed and eye-catching. Maybe white type on top of a photo isn’t the most original idea. But is it that impossible to think that another designer arrived at the solution to layer white type over a headshot without consciously ripping off another piece of work? And don’t the other elements on the page—the Facebook bar etc.—add originality to the design solution?

This is just one example. But I find that the same type of questions keep coming up.

Blatantly stealing someone else’s work is always wrong. Being inspired by those you admire is not, and I think this is where the line gets blurry. When it’s not obvious, how can you take a piece of work at face value and know whether the artist came to that conclusion entirely on their own, whether they outright stole another artist’s work, or whether they were subconsciously influenced by the work after seeing it online?

So how do we prevent people from stealing our work and the work of others without being so quick to assume the worst? And where do we draw the line on a piece that is inspired by versus a rip-off? What do you all think?


  1. Yay for this topic, I had been pondering something similar recently and wondered if anyone felt the same way. I wholeheartedly agree that designers and creative people in general should all remain alert to cases of plagiarism and occurrences of work/ideas being stolen – after all, for many, our incomes depend on being able to market an original product at it’s intended price, instead of having another artist claim our intellectual property (and perhaps the proceeds) as their own. We had this conversation a lot at University, where did “appropriation” end and blatant copying begin?

    That being said, perhaps some are jumping the gun just a bit because we are all so aware of it now and so quick to assume the worst in others. I had a sleepless night a few months ago after receiving a rather vicious email from an anonymous visitor to my site accusing me of plagiarizing another designer’s work. I quickly jumped online, mortified that I could have done such a thing by accident, I was literally shaking and I typed in their URL. It turned out both my work and the work of the other artist featured my country’s Coat of Arms – nothing else was common between the two pieces – they weren’t even the same type of product, and as I assume the visitor was not from Australia, they wouldn’t have know that this particular design element appears so commonly here. But they were very quick to let me know and think the worst of me, and to be honest, it really stuck with me as an awful awful feeling.

    I am in no way defending plagiarism. And on one hand, having the design community so aware is awesome for everyone who has been informed that a copy of their work exists, by a vigilant visitor or friend, as this would possibly go unnoticed otherwise – the internet is a big place! On the other hand, it might be an idea to not assume that every copycat is one that is aware of what they are doing and is brazenly doing it anyway – some may not understand intellectual property and why they can’t do what they are doing, and some may have simply made an honest mistake and a similar artwork has happened by accident…

    PS. I really really like the “The Social Network” poster!

  2. I’ve been accused of copyright infringement (wrongly) before – when I’d never even seen the original work, and it was highly unlikely I would have seen it. It’s a really sucky position to be in. Be careful who you charge with such an accusation, because this particular person is burning bridges left and right with other designers by accusing them incorrectly…

    As a designer, copyright is obviously important to me. The internet’s opened up a can of worms though – we see so much stuff on a daily basis that everyone is ready to pounce at a moment’s notice, forgetting that the creator probably hasn’t seen [x piece] on [x blog/site] because he or she in all likelihood doesn’t cosumme the SAME EXACT information that you do.

    Where we as designers ARE exposed to the same thing (or similar) our derivative work is likely to be very similar. Who gets blamed for copying then? Whoever rushes out the derivative piece first gets the okay while the other gets slandered? It’s not uncommon for two designers to be inspired by the same piece or come to the same design solution – I mean, how many of us are there? – but personal attacks on similarities are completely uncalled for… and unfortunately, are all too common because of the anonymity of the Internet.

  3. The Facebook Poster example is current and does a good job of demonstrating how muddy these waters are, but might miss the main point of the argument.

    To me, this example in no way shows a design being stolen. Is there a motif that is being duplicated or referenced? Certainly.

    My concern, and this is something that has come up multiple times in my circle of design friends, is that people truly don’t understand what a copy is… that the plagiarism is not at all nefarious.

    Here’s a real example (names and details changed): Sam has designed an amazing wedding invitation that has an incredible illustration of a dog that he drew. This invitation makes the blog rounds, as they often do, and his decently-sized photographs are posted on his site, on the printer’s site, and on a various news sites.

    Charlie sees one of these photos, a top-down shot of the invitation, and drags it into his inspiration folder. He just got engaged, and they were talking about making their own invites. Charlie and his fiance met at the dog park.

    Six months go by. It’s time to make the invites, and Charlie opens up his inspiration folder. By now, he’s forgotten where all of these images came from, never knew the designer’s name in the first place, and is not himself a designer… he works at a bank. But he does have Adobe Illustrator. Who doesn’t nowadays?

    This dog illustration is so cute! He places it in Illustrator and traces it, uses it in his personal project.

    Charlie has just straight up ripped off a working designer. Sam, the original illustrator, makes invitations for a living. Has Charlie directly stolen money from Sam? Not really… it’s unlikely that Charlie would have paid Sam for his work. But has he stolen work from him? Definitely. Charlie will now be asked about this adorable doggy on his invite, and he’ll tell everyone that he drew it… because he did, kinda. He’ll post his work up on his blog. So will his photographer. So will the cake designer, who Charlie asked to replicate the dog image on their wedding cake. Now, the copy is out in the world, actively infringing on Sam’s work.

    What is Sam to do? It’s one thing when a company steals your design for their product, their Web site, their brochures. When a single person steals your work for their small personal project… can the designer take any action? The harm is already done. Charlie has nothing to offer Sam. Sam can have the stolen work removed from the Web through a lot of hassle and wasted time.

    The problem is that many people do not understand that work posted on the Web is copyrighted. It’s an overall ignorance of what it means to “emulate” work they’ve seen is the biggest issue in my world. It’s hard to explain to these people that what they have done is wrong, and ultimately, there is no resolution.

    I think that most real designers and artists understand what it means to be inspired versus what a copy is. I would submit that the creative professionals who do not understand this are actually not designers at all, but charlatans who have expensive cameras, software, and other tools of the trade but no real understanding of the meaning of design.

  4. Thank you, Courtney, for bringing this issue up for conversation!

    As someone who has been accused of plagiarism publicly and also had a trademark infringed upon, I’ve seen the issue from both sides… But what really ruffles my feathers is the lack of professionalism within the design community itself to be quick to point fingers, demonize someone as a plagiarist, and convict them in the court of public opinion — often times without the author of the work ever knowing about it. I think it paralyzes the industry rather than helps. Now whenever I see a statement like, “This looks like this…” in a public forum without any further argument or criticism, I am more likely to question the intent and motive of the commenter rather than if a design has been copied. Just because something appears to be plagiarized doesn’t necessarily mean that it is! I personally err on the side of caution and stay away from passing judgment…

    But let’s be frank, as much as we can try to prevent someone from stealing others work, no amount of shaming or pointing fingers will ever stop people from outright stealing entirely. That’s why there are laws and actions in place that you can take to protect your work once you believe it has been infringed upon. Even though it’s a hassle, it’s one of those unpleasant parts of doing business. And where do we draw the line on a piece that is inspired by versus a rip-off? Because of the complexities surrounding every case, in my opinion, convicting some one of plagiarism is for the court of law not the court of public opinion to decide.

    @ JW – I think you showcase a very cut and dry but good example of plagiarism for personal use. But I think this also brings to light another topic for conversation on paying for content. Besides not remembering where he got the design from, why doesn’t Charlie feel compelled to buy an invite with a dog design on it from another designer? Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? I am being a devil’s advocate because I think this is a major issue facing primarily newspapers and magazines today as a result of the internet. When people are so used to getting content and designs for free, why would they see the need to pay for it in the first place?

  5. From Anonymous: “Besides not remem ber ing where he got the design from, why doesn’t Charlie feel com pelled to buy an invite with a dog design on it from another designer? ”

    I’ll go one further… if Charlie had just ASKED Sam if he could use it, I bet you Sam would have said yes and happily given Charlie his blessing.

    You bring up the idea of paying for content – I think that is the topic that is at the heart of the Internet Matter, if you look at it from any angle. It’s definitely tied in some way to plagiarism (Google Images being the most convenient source for photography theft out there), and it’s just as complex.

  6. Certainly heated discussions here. :)

    I think design programs in school need to do a better job at this point in educating their students about plagiarism, and I’m starting to think that’s a major root of it. You see too many of the same themes floating around, especially in fresh out-of-school portfolios. That said, this trendy mass-influenced work may be good, but it’s not going to stand apart from the crowd of portfolios like a true original work will. If kids in school are allowed to borrow this or that look under the premise of “every idea has been had before” (which I both disagree with, and heard more than a multitude of times in school), we end up with an overwhelming community of the same design, which only serves to dull original work.

    I think a design revolution needs to come on. Grass-roots maybe. Something that gets people doing projects that they are passionate about, that gets them brainstorming and pulling from their own personal life experiences and knowledge.

    Apologies if the writing is poor, it’s original though ;)

  7. I’ve had people blatantly rip off my stuff before, and even sell it, so I know the anger and heartbreak of being ripped off.

    That said, nobody owns a style. They did not copy the font or the image, it’s not them passing off someone else’s work as theirs… at worst, they aped a style, and I’m sorry, but that’s how the very foundations of art and design work. Everybody apes everybody else til they (hopefully) find their own voice.

    It doesn’t even matter if they deliberately chose to copy the style. It’s just a style. It can’t be owned, morally or legally.

  8. I think that this is likely a problem that has always existed, but we weren’t much aware of it.

    I mean that now with all these design aggregation websites, there’s tons of opportunity to save all kinds of inspirational images to your own inspiration folder, and to SEE derivative works of that same material. In the past, it was by no means likely that everyone you knew was also seeing the same inspirational images every day and if a designer made something that crossed the line into plagiarism, they weren’t as likely to get caught.

    But I also think that people have become hyper-sensitive to perceived plagiarism. I don’t think the movie poster above is plagiarism even though it’s definitely inspired by one or more previous works. Can NO ONE ever put white type over a close-cropped face ever again?

    There was some chatter about a cardinal in the comments on the previous post that may or may not have been inspired by Charley Harper. I wouldn’t call it a rip-off, though it was almost certainly inspired-by.

    Sometimes I wonder if people aren’t just a little smug and self-satisfied that they recognize the source of inspiration. I wonder if they don’t feel like they’re giving themselves a pat on the back by calling out the similarities. It’s a certain species of Concern Troll. To those folks, I would suggest trying the alternate phrasing: “Ooh, cute cardinal! I like the little Charley Harper touch he gives to the piece!” See? We all get that you recognize Charley Harper and you must be an elevated and well-traveled human being, but without so much negativity.

    Ahem. Of course, there are occasional total rip-offs. I think these can be recognized best by considering a designer’s/artist’s full body of work. Do all the pieces sort of have a look or feel and is this piece consistent with that voice? Then maybe the inspiration just went a little too far, but was an honest misstep. Or, does the person’s work fall all over the spectrum, none of it giving you the sense that the same person designed it all? Is this the ONLY geometric design in the bunch? Is this the only bird they’ve ever done? Does each piece in their portfolio have a look of having been copied from some other distinctive source, or are their other potential rip-offs in their work? AND coincidentally was there a cardinal on this months page in the Charley Harper wall calendar? Well, at a minimum we can say we don’t have the most creative person on our hands, if that’s the case.

    And just my two cents, as one who’s been ripped-off: If someone asks me if they can use something of mine in a personal project – like invitations – I’ve always said yes. But when I’ve found my work copied and pasted into commercial work, I’ve gone on a very quiet warpath to the offending parties.

  9. Great new section, love it. I think that inspiration is always ok when is recognize that way, but stealing is a crime, a aesthetically one. I’m an architect so the inspiration is a way of design, if not the only way. I’ve been working on my master’s thesis about studying archtypes and how to “extract” the main idea of them to use it later on similar project, not by copyng the form, textures, layouts, colours or so but the spirit, the porpuse of the building, the core sort of speak. In the case you choose I belive it might be a trend, or even an evolutions of the main idea, but I don’t see a totally rip off. Keep coming this kind of topics.

  10. This is a great, great post on such a difficult topic. Thus far, I am in agreement with everything that has been said. I wrote a response to a similar question on another blog awhile back and wish I could go back and find it so I could plagiarize my own response. Okay, okay, bad humor. I apologize in advance because I’m about to get long-winded.

    I had a sticky situation occur awhile ago with a product I wanted to feature on the packaging blog I serve as a writer/editor for. I contacted the company and they were very excited and sent me some photographs. While I was prepping the photos to go up I got another email from them saying that they believed that their designs had been plagiarized by a smaller company whose packaging we’d posted a year earlier and wanted those photos taken down! I was troubled by the situation and had some discussion with the editor-in-chief and also did some heavy duty research about the two companies, both of which debuted the same year, making a definitive timeline impossible. The editor-in-chief and I agreed that the style, which was a vintage apothecary look, was the same but the designs weren’t. I brought that back to the larger company along with samples of the other 500 or so other companies using the same style (don’t get me wrong, I love the style!) and my reasoning about why we were standing behind the original design and that was that. The vintage apothecary minimalistic style is so ubiquitous right now and so dang simple that it’s hardly surprising that someone uses one the same couple of fonts and rule lines.

    As a designer and blogger for my own inspirational blog and for a packaging blog, I spend a lot of time soaking up work. I figure it is inevitable that I’m somehow influenced. I also embrace a lot of various styles in my work, depending on the project, so I’m going to address Ballookey Klugeypop’s comment about style: “Or, does the person’s work fall all over the spec­trum, none of it giv­ing you the sense that the same per­son designed it all?”

    I’ve heard strong arguments for having a style and for not having a style. On the one hand, having a style makes you into a distinguishable brand. On the other hand, it can limit you. With design work I prefer to suit the style to the project and remain versatile, which means I take into account the client, the audience and the intent of the work. For instance, I just completed a Bachelorette invitation where the setting is a weekend in the mountains. After talking with the client, I created a fun, vintage-y cartoon-y, almost cheesy illustration and we all loved it. If you stick those invites next to the ultra sleek, minimal tone-on-tone black foil stamped invitations I just finished for a California bride, I look bipolar. If you then put both of them next to the collages I create for my greeting cards I become a complete schizophrenic. For me, that’s what works. I do not want to be hampered by being known as the designer that does only vintage-style logos or the painter that only paints parking lots.

  11. Ballookey is absolutely right when she says “Sometimes I won­der if peo­ple aren’t just a lit­tle smug and self-satisfied that they rec­og­nize the source of inspi­ra­tion. I won­der if they don’t feel like they’re giv­ing them­selves a pat on the back by call­ing out the sim­i­lar­i­ties.” Great point!

  12. I spent several years working at a well known apparel industry company as a textile designer. I cannot count the number of times I heard the words “change it enough so we don’t get sued” to my co-workers. Frankly, I think big design industries are often not about “design” at all, but rather sales. It was disheartening to be a creative person in this environment.

    On the other hand, as an independent designer, I am well aware that we are all surrounded by the same influences. These cannot help but result in similar looking designs sometimes. If you look at history, so many important discoveries and inventions were made simultaneously because their time was ripe. While I obviously feel strongly about blatant copyright infringement, I know that it is impossible to be truly original.

  13. I think that this is very much like the fashion industry.

    the good side is that it will force designers to become even more talented/distinctive to create things that are not easily copied. and if it is copied, everyone knows where the inspiration came from.

  14. @Bon, I can’t imagine that anyone would argue that something put into the world at this point is devoid of external influence, but designs can certainly be created that do not imitate styles and trends. But that’s not really the crux of the matter. The line between imitation and plagiarism is thin but existent.

    @Rachel Wiles, I would submit that while the style of your work might vary, it can still be discernibly yours. I too am the type of designer that does not work in similar motifs for every project, but I have a process and inclination that I’d like to think can be picked up on. But when you see a selection of work from a “designer” that truly seems to have no connection to other pieces… not in the way fonts are treated and utilized, or in the way negative space is used, or in their seeming understanding (or lack thereof) in color theory, it puts the origin of their designs into question .

  15. I agree that nobody owns a style or an idea. But your twist on an idea is still your twist and because everyone is just a bit different you will see this in the work.

    I’m a fledgling artist and I know that it would hurt if someone does it to my work. This is why I am apprehensive about putting my designs up on my blog.

    As an artist it is difficult though because I’ve had bosses come to me all excited because they saw a style on a website that they would loooooove to use and often it’s a losing battle to talk to them about ethics et al.

  16. Both “The Social Network” poster and “The Man Who Fell From Earth” were designed by the same person, Neil Kellerhouse. So I doubt he infringed on his own work.

    However, the “American Psycho” cover was done by the Lloyd Ziff Design Group in 1991.

    Just giving credit where credit’s due.

  17. I know this topic is mad old, not sure how i even got here. But yea, a whole article and 17 rants about plagiarism and no one knew that Kellerhouse did 2 of the posters your comparing? bleh.

  18. Hi Steve, If you read the comments above, you’ll see that it was in fact pointed out. A lot of the outrage I was seeing at the time used to the posters I included as examples. I should have done better research to begin with about who was behind what design, but either way I think the points I was trying to discuss still make sense.

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