Would-be thieves of this era would probably benefit from branding the relatively new adage “Hell hath no fury like a designer scorned” on their monitors. The web might be for anyone, but that doesn’t mean the content of the web is suddenly free from copyright — and the watchful gaze of said content’s creator — and everything is free for the taking. But that’s the trouble with having something impressive and innovative – other people want to be just like you! It works in real life without a hitch (I’m doubting Graceland ever sues Elvis impersonators) — but the Web is the Wild West of real life. And designers on the web definitely have guns to go around.
Stage #1: Denial (Of course!)
As referenced in Airbag Industry’s chronicle of Falkner Winery’s design theft, of COURSE designs are public property. Let’s say, if I wanted a new look for my site, I have permission to take Google’s logo and colors, correct? If you say yes, go hide now. Theft is theft. In real life, it’s punishable by jail time and fines. On the Internet, people get incensed and then go about documenting your folly and getting suitable recognition from it. This is in addition to people laughing at you, naturally, and being made fun of — Internet style — is about the same as having a whale fall on you. Love hurts.
Let’s play a game of fill in the blank. If a design is obviously not your own, you __________? The idea would be to e-mail the creator and ask for permission — which may or may not be given, seeing as people don’t really share babies (Oh, Billy’s your son? He’s mine too! How amazing!) or indulge that thought. The second, and much better option, would be to create your own designs. Generally, anything you create on your own not only has more personal value but also brings more to the “Table”. Besides that, it’s easy. I’ve seen things made in Paint and the oldest possible version of Frontpage (with rocks and twigs and little flies for cursors, no doubt) that can be genuinely appealing because — and yes, this is cheesy — it’s unique. It’s new. It’s innovative. It’s fresh. And most of all, it’s all yours.
Stage #2: Not me! HIM!
The prevailing theory on the Internet, among clients, is that if anything happens with the website, it’s automatically the designer’s fault. Using the same sad story of Falkner Wineries, one has to understand that the client didn’t necessarily put a stop to the theft. And it was a gradual process, I’m sure, in which the client probably saw an image of the finished design several times. We have to assume that the client that doesn’t notice such blatant thievery is some primordial species of shellfish, or understands the process and wants it to continue. And then, the client transfers the weight of the warfare to the designer when they are equally responsible. The designer eventually did make some sort of amends by … turning the logo about 30 degrees and changing a few colors. The design is changed completely now, right? Everyone can go home happy! The fact that this was considered a solution by the designer is somewhat pathetic.
If you, as a designer, are ever in a position where your client wants a design that’s “just like this thing” or “SUPER-DUPER-MIRROR-CLONE-CONTRAPTION of this!”, just say no. As a designer, you have to be able to exercise your own creativity; else, you’re not exactly a designer, are you? You’re just a monkey with a glue stick. It could be a logo, a website, a quotation, a layout; it’s still theft. While it looks bad on a small level, it looks even more ridiculous on a larger level. Don’t put your client or yourself in jeopardy of the wrath of the INTARWEBZ because revenge is swift, and the effects are lasting. So make a stand. Be inspired, but don’t hit Ctrl-C. Learn from other designs, but don’t “borrow” them. In a day and age where seven year olds can publish content on the Internet, don’t make yourself look bad by taking what’s already there. It’s too easy to steal a design; it’s also too easy to love a design. There shouldn’t be any insecurity about sharing content on the Web. The line starts here, gentlemen. No cuts.
Stage #3: Mine has a copyright logo on it!
The idea of copyright is a bit faulty. Anything that comes into existence has its own copyright the instant it is created. Yes, anything. Doodles, writing, sketches, any demonstrations of how humans actually have brains, and are not filled with Jell-O. Copyright feeds off of chronology. If someone created something first, they can have said creation under their name. Let’s not say copyrights are meaningless; it’s just a weak argument if someone says that simply placing the copyright logo on something means it is automatically protected. Under that assumption, these Post-It Notes I have across my computer are protected under federal law, so thieves beware!
The problem at this stage is, intellectual content is hard to protect at any stage. Lawsuits for this sort of thing go on all the time. Our generation is placing more emphasis on truth, in literature, design, and everyday life, probably in retaliation to the variety of cover-ups that have taken place on a global level in the past few years. When it comes down to looking good (at someone else’s expense) or looking a bit threadbare on your own, pick the latter. There’s more room for growth in the expanse of one’s own creativity than there is when following the orbit of someone else. Don’t believe me? Try it yourself. Using Google’s branding, try to come up with something new. Now, how many people will confuse your design with Google itself? The answer is a ridiculously large number I’m not even capable of typing without messing up. When you copy a design, you put yourself at risk of being forgotten. Copyright strikes with a vengeance — the content that is up first is the content that wins. Everyone else gets trampled in the dust. So instead of this depressing theft-talk, let’s turn to…
Branding your creativity
Find things that sync with you. Listen to music that suits your creativity and expand that into your designs. Look for colors that inspire you, shapes that bring you to your knees (Cookie Monster silhouettes, anyone?), and inspirations from the windows of the Internet. You see, inspiration doesn’t fall back on copyright. It falls back on what you want and like; an amalgam of what’s cool to you, and eventually, what’s cool for the rest of us. If you have enough pride in your own work to put it on the Internet, like Gary Brolsma, do it. No one is going to judge what’s “worthy” of the Internet or not. After all, it’s all good in the hood.