Bonnie Siegler | Dear Bonnie

Perplexed in Providence

Dear Bonnie,
Where do you draw the line between inspiration and plagiarism in graphic design? I feel like the line can be so thin, and it gets blurrier every day.

Even as a student, I have seen many different kinds of plagiarism—ranging from fairly overt copying, to instances where designers are "inspired by" another person's form or concept. Those cases can get a bit more confusing, and I find that ambiguity frustrating. 

So, when does being merely influenced by someone else's work turn into actual infringement? What would you consider a healthy mindset when approaching this issue?

Perplexed in Providence

Dear P.,

I love that you referred to the blurry lines of the issue, since the most talked about plagiarism case of the moment revolves around the song "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams. It has been found to have committed copyright infringement on Marvin Gaye’s song “Got to Give it Up,” and now the copyright law itself is being questioned and a re-examination is being called for. From a legal standpoint, things seem to just be getting blurrier.

That said, I have never had trouble distinguishing inspiration from plagiarism. And I have never had trouble distinguishing whether or not something I do looks too much like something else, from a legal standpoint or otherwise. When I do notice a similarity, I simply start over. I am inspired by a wide variety of elements in our culture, but I use images or ideas as a springboard, not as the solution itself. Where would the fun be in that?

Everyone is inspired by everyone who came before them. And everyone “steals” in one way or another. Even Picasso (maybe) famously said "good artists borrow, great artists steal.” Movements and trends in every area of art are based on similarities between disparate works. It’s what you do with them that matters. And, to me, “stealing” can be as simple as appropriating a color from a poster or a new typeface in a book. 

Officially speaking, the rule of thumb is that if there is more than thirty percent overlap between two solutions/works, it can and may be considered plagiarism. Sometimes, it can be okay to use more than thirty percent if that “inspiration” is acknowledged and the work is an honest homage to the original artist. For example, imagine if Pharell and Robin had acknowledged Marvin Gaye by recognizing his influence, perhaps even in the title of the song. No one would have thought less of the work, and in fact, people may have respected the song even more for its open acknowledgment of Gaye's influence.

It may also be sort of true that there is nothing new under the sun and accidents will happen. Someone may produce something remarkably close to another piece of work without even realizing it. However, if/when you do notice that a friend or a colleague’s work is a copy, you should definitely point out the error of their ways, giving them the benefit of the doubt that it was unintentional. 

Ignorance is a more difficult excuse to get away with living in the age of Google image search, as we do. Take advantage of the reverse image search and drop a logo or poster or anything into it to see what their vast database deems visually similar. Hopefully, there will be nothing to give you pause and you can feel good about your originality. Of course this isn't a foolproof method, but it's a good place to start.

But really here's the thing: the “designer” who steals is not a designer at all. They may get away with appropriating an idea once or twice, but they will not have a career. I would feel sorry for them and focus on your own work.

And regarding your original question: when does being merely influenced by someone else's work turn into actual infringement? It's like the Supreme Court said when considering how to define pornography: you'll know it when you see it.

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