7 Absurd Myths about Plagiarism in Design to Forget Right Now

Don’t you just hate it when you see your work replicated somewhere else?

Or, maybe it flatters you that someone used your design as inspiration to create a new masterpiece?

The problem of plagiarism in design isn’t new and still disputable: while some experts insist on its absolute existence though admit it’s too hard to define, others believe there is no such a phenomenon as plagiarism when it comes to visual design. They call borrowed works of others a learning tool or an inspiration source, claiming that it’s okay to “steal” ideas. In other words, you are not a thief unless you steal the concept.

We’ve all been there:

We look at others’ works, study the details and add their design methods to personal toolboxes. We see great designs, remember them and promise to use the ideas during another project of ours. We reuse or redesign own ideas, even if considered them trashy before. Does it mean we are plagiarists?

OK, here goes a quick test for you.

Is it plagiarism?

Is it plagiarism?

And this one?

Is it plagiarism?

What about this?

Is it plagiarism?

When it comes to logo design, everything is not so evident. Here we speak about using the same themes rather than copying logos from competitors. In case with Ferrari and Porsche (see the first pic), both represent themselves with fast animals because they are a mental shortcut of speed, grace and luxury. Both brands choose this theme because they try to send the same message to the same kinds of people.

It has nothing to do with plagiarism: designers apply one idea in different ways to put their stamp on it and communicate their message with its help.

As for other two, are you sure logos are the same in both cases? Do you know who owns those ideas? How can you prove they had been copied, even if they look similar?

Such-like controversial arguments are what gives birth to many myths about plagiarism in design.

But first things first:

What Is Plagiarism?

In plain English, plagiarism refers to stealing someone’s work and representing it as your own without attribution.

Evident, isn’t it? We all were students, no matter in school, college or university, so we all were familiar with the phenomenon of plagiarism in academia. When it came to writing essays or any other types of academic papers, educators taught proper citing, quoting and paraphrasing to us and used specific software – PlagiarismCheck, Grammarly, Copyscape and others.

But when it comes to design, you can’t simply put a logo, a web page or a visual to software to check it for duplications and see the percentage of its “originality.” Rare tools can prove that two designs are exactly the same, though you might visually see opulent similarity of lines, colors, shifts or any other elements in them; and that is why it’s hard to define the line between plagiarism and influence in design.

To draw a fine line between creativity and theft, to avoid controversial issues in your works and distinguish the difference between copying and inspiration, it’s time for us to forget all absurd myths about plagiarism in design.

Absurd Myths About Plagiarism in Design

The most common ones are as follows:

Myth #1: No Original Ideas Are Left, So We Have To Plagiarize

False.

This myth lives because some designers take originality in the wrong spirit: they believe we can’t even consider others’ works to produce something original. Thanks to this myth, you can still meet the questions on Quora such as “If I copy an idea from Pinterest, is it design plagiarism?”

In reality, we modern designers are where we are today because of experts who came before us. We borrow the knowledge of predecessors, examine their concepts and ideas, think on how we could implement their experience in own works… In other words, as designer Cameron Moll wrote in his article at Site Point, we “copy the inspiration, not the outcome.”

Copy the inspiration, not the outcome.

Myth #2: No One Will Know If I Plagiarize From Obscure Sources

It’s evident, but many designers still fall into this trap and believe (okay, read: want to believe) this myth when they have a lack of inspiration and deadlines near at hand. Laziness, poor planning and a big number of projects to complete by the end of a week make it tempting to go and “steal” some concepts or design ideas from another source. Especially if you’ve found some obscure source that expresses your thoughts and meets your vision.

As far as you understand, the day will come when you are caught red-handed. You will lose reputation and trust, a professional community won’t consider you an expert anymore, and that kind of desperation will follow you throughout your career.

So, no matter what kind of resource you use to catch a muse – don’t forget to give credit. It’s a positive habit for every designer to develop in order to keep out of troubles.

Myth #3: I Have Permission From Creators, So It’s Not Plagiarism

It’s not that simple.

When a creator of the original piece gives you permission to use their work (or its parts), big chances are you’ll be safe from accusations of plagiarism, copyright infringement and intellectual property theft.

Yet, you need to make sure that a design creator and copyright holders are not different people. Otherwise, it may appear that Jack allows you to use his design but it’s Jim who holds the power to dispose. So it turns out that you steal from Jim.

Certainly, this myth doesn’t concern design pieces under creative commons and public domain license: it’s not a plagiarism to use them if they are properly attributed. Six different types of creative commons licenses exist, and designers should be careful when attributing derived work: thus, if you take a picture protected by the CA license but don’t license it under the same terms – it means you steal.

Myth #4: Technology Prevents Plagiarism Today

False.

First, the definition of “originality” itself is quite washy in design. For instance, if you see a design of a pink and green Pepsi can but it doesn’t say “Pepsi” and has a bit different curves – see the picture of Korean Air above – it won’t be considered plagiarism in most cases. Even if it actually is.

And second, computers can only do what they’re designed to do; and sly plagiarists are able to avoid detection by slight editing the forms, shifts, lines, etc. So it happens that technology has even made it easier to plagiarize: it finds duplications, determines the original sources and, therefore, helps would-be plagiarists find ghost designers willing to work on the side for cash.

Let’s take websites like Logo Thief by way of example:

Aimed at showcasing the plagiarism in logo design, they name and shame companies that steal the designs of others. Comparing copies and originals, they bring in a verdict that most cases simply plagiarize logos with one click. It’s well and fine, but how such technologies help to prevent plagiarism? What they do is give us a list of dishonest “specialists” who are ready to create designs for such-like dishonest clients.

Plagiarism in Design

Myth #5: My Plagiarism Doesn’t Hurt Anyone

Oops…

Only newbie or naive designers might still believe this myth. With so much time, energy, knowledge, and money invested into creating their work, original authors would consider its plagiarism nothing but a kind of stealing from their house. Especially if plagiarists use stolen design in unreliable ways.

As Ananda Spadt from Meredith says, “design is problem solving and every problem is different.” Which means that design solution should be different, too. If someone simply copies design from others, skipping the problem solving process, that’s where plagiarism happens. In other words, you are welcome to get inspired by design from others but you should repurpose it to meet your client’s needs.

Myth #6: Plagiarism Isn’t About Design But Academia

There’s a myth that everyone plagiarizes but only a few disciplines such as academia, medicine and journalism consider it a problem. Yes, some fields adapt to plagiarism instances better than others, but no one would be happy to see their words or ideas stolen, wouldn’t they? And it doesn’t matter where they work.

So even if it’s not that easy for industry governing bodies to define plagiarism in design, your colleagues and professional community will notice it for sure. Such cases cause mistrust, lead to negative consequences for the brand, destroy careers and reputation and end with toxic relations within the field.

Myth #7: I Am Not a Plagiarist If I Didn’t Know About The First Work Existed

Yes, you are. What you’ve done is called unintentional plagiarism and it’s as much harmful as any other form of theft. What is more, proving that you didn’t know about the original design existence is even harder than creating something that will be considered original.

The same goes for self-plagiarism.

Let’s say you’ve designed a cool (original!) logo for some brand. That’s great! It was so cool that you decide to use the same concept for logos of two other clients of yours. Yes, you are a creator of that concept but it appears that you steal from yourself and, therefore, lose the ability of critical thinking, weaken your professional community and give up your reputation of a creative designer.

How to Avoid Plagiarism

It’s what creativity process looks for most designers:

what creativity process looks for most designers

In design, it’s OK to see a trend and make it work in your way. For instance, most web designers use a concept of flat design that have distinct characteristics making many sites look quite similar; but when they add own touch – like a cherry on top of a yummy cake – they avoid creating a carbon copy.

Once you’ve finished a design build, go back to the inspiration source and compare it to your work. Is it easy to find duplications with the naked eye? Then, maybe it’s time to change the concept. Every time when it doubt, give credit. It’s what designer David Darnes calls “the difference between utilizing resources and plagiarizing resources.”

It’s simple:

“Using open source packages is a good thing – I’m nit asking you to reinvent the wheel, just tell us what wheels you used,” David says.

What To Do If Your Design Was Plagiarized

What To Do If Your Design Was Plagiarized

It’s challenging to define design plagiarism in the eyes of the law, even when copyright infringement seems evident. What you can do if you see someone represent your design as their own:

  1. Contact the offender.
  2. Explain the situation.
  3. Attach the copy of originals for them to see what’s the problem.
  4. Tell what you would like them to do next: give you credit, compensate for the copied material, or remove it immediately.

If such a letter isn’t enough, you might need to consider legal options that vary depending on the place of your residence. But first, send a Cease and Desist letter to the offender: it’s a formal request for them to stop copying from you. You might also want to write a copyright complaint to Google: they will remove a stolen content if it relates to their polity.

The only must: you should be able to prove your authorship.

In a Nutshell…

Difficult to define, plagiarism in design has been grown around by many myths and controversies. We savvy designers need to know and debunk them for strengthening our professional community and creating original works, able to inspire fellows and motivate them to design masterpieces.

Each time when designing, ask yourself: “Who am I? What am I creating? How did I come up with this idea? Am I sure none of my work’s parts looks like a copy from others?”

It’s your turn now:

Whose side of design plagiarism dispute are you on? Do you believe it exists or it’s just flattery? Did anyone steal your designs, and what were your steps to prevent plagiarism, if so?

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