Inspired or Stolen?
The online design community has been in an uproar this week (and rightly so) over the apparent thievery of Dan Cederholm’s logo design for his design studio, Simplebits. There are several opinions on the matter, and I felt compelled to share mine.
Was the Simplebits logo stolen, or was it pure coincidence that the company in question, LogoMaid, happened to have a logo very similar? This is the same question that software giant, Quark, was asked over a year ago about their new logo design. Not long after it was unveiled, the creative community uncovered a number of similar designs. The public reaction to Quark was similar to the reaction LogoMaid is receiving. Did Quark, or more specifically the agency that designed the logo, steal the idea from someone else?
I think this is a good spot to examine the business model of LogoMaid. LogoMaid offers pre-designed logos to businesses for a modest price. The selling point is that you can save a lot of money by getting a premade logo as opposed tousually spending more with a design studio or advertising agency to custom-design one for you. Their parent company, Vilords Media Network, operates another company with the same principle, Design Galaxy, but with the slant on web template design.
LogoWorks, another mass-produced logo manufacturer, has run into similar accusationsover the years of stealing ideas from established logos. Their mantra is to pay freelance designers a small fee to design company logos that they resell at modest prices as well. It begs the question, is it coincidence or theft? If theft, who’s to blame, the company itself or the actual designer?
Let’s face reality. The number of self-proclaimed graphic designers in the world are staggering. People will seek out other professional work to get inspired. Some will even go so far as to steal a design from another as a quick solution to a cheap buck. Companies like LogoWorks (and I assume LogoMaid) use a large number of designers to do their work. Can you honestly expect them to know if each and every design they buy is legitimately original?
Who to hold accountable
They say the true character of a person is shown when faced with diverse circumstances. With that in mind, let’s compare the responses between the Quark and LogoMaid situations:
Within six months after the logo contraversy, Quark unveiled a new logo. According to Glen Turpin, the company’s director of corporate communications:
“Quark listened to the feedback we received from the design community in relation to our re-branding initiative in September and decided to create a new logo that is both an evolution of our visual identity and a strong representation of the new Quark… Changing the mark to avoid any perception of similarity enables us to further define our unique identity.”
Compare that response to that of Paul Viluda of LogoMaid:
“The main shape according to our designer is a font symbol and you do not have the rights to claim ownership to freeware font symbols. Other than the actual shape, I see no relevance. Our logo was registered at c-site, the registration has been approved. According to c-site, we own the copyrights to that actual logo. We do not need to steal anyones ideas.”
“According to (Simplebits) website, you did the rebrand in December, correct? Please check the screenshot for RH Restyling (company from Holland) we did in October I believe. Hmm, I am just currious how it would be possible to “copy” your logo when your “rebranding” was done in mid December. You’ll find out the logo we sell at logomaid.com is one of the concepts the customer didn’t choose to use. We are strongly considering a lawsuit against simplebits not only because of the logo, but also the fact that you are harming our goodwill.”
Designer Nathan Smith, who has a similar issue with LogoMaid wrote that he received “a series of rude emails from Jan Kalvan and Peter Olexa of LogoMaid.” I don’t presume to know exactly what the people at LogoMaid are thinking or how they conduct their business, but the words and tone of their response in this matter casue me to be very suspicious of the legitimacy of the work they sell. Quark, in my opinion, had no intent of stealing someone’s logo design, and wanted to salvage their reputation and credibility with the very people they serve. This is evident by their willingness to redesign their logo without slinging mud at anyone else.
The reaction to companies like LogoMaid would have been completely different if their response was similar to Quark’s … apolgize for the coincidence and remove the logo under question. What would it have hurt them? Certainly removing a handful of questionable logos would not have hurt their bottom line and their “amazing collection of 3700 pre-designed logos” would it? To respond in such a defensive and threatening way questions their desire to be viewed as a legitimate design resource.
Unfortunately there isn’t a simple answer to design thievery. Regardless of how much the design community tries to regulate it, there will be people out there trying to profit off the hard work of others. I also, don’t think that lawsuits, as appealing as they seem, will solve the answer either. Copyright violations are difficult and extremely expensive to prosecute. The reason large corporations like Apple can do it effectively is because they have the resources to make it possible. Small studios and individuals like Simplebits, quite frankly, don’t have the time or resources to carry it through. And with the global nature of the internet, international enforcement of copyright is next to impossible. So what can we do?
I was asked last year about my thoughts on gas prices reaching $3.00 per gallon and what I felt should be done about it, especially when oil companies reported record billion-dollar profits. As much as I believe that the prices were the result of corporate greed, those prices were also being dictated by demand. As long as consumers would not change their driving habits (more fuel-efficient vehicles and public transportation), things would not change. Why should they? Consumers need to collectively bring the change against corporate injustice. Only then will companies truly listen.
I feel the same way about dealing with shady companies like LogoMaid. When businesses refuse to work with a company that has questionable ethics and practices, then they will either change or go out of business. Paul Viluda of LogoMaid said it himself:
“It’s about the market…if people wouldn’t be interested in our products, we wouldn’t provide it…as simple as that.”
This call is to all businesses out there that seem intrigued by companies like LogoMaid. Do your research. If they have a reputation of questionable business practices like this, avoid them. If you do buy stolen work, your company can be held liable as well if it would ever get to that point. Why would you want to risk your company’s reputation to something like that?
Great article, Chris. I’ve heard variations of this same discussion for over 20 years. Is it right for creatives to scan CA Annuals for “inspiration?” Is it stealing when someone knowingly co-opts a concept but they change the layout or tweak the headline? Is it really that bad to lift music from a composer’s demo CD if it’s only going to be used a few times on a local TV spot? I’ve personally faced these questions many times in my career; so has any creative who’s been around awhile. And while much of it’s covered under intellectual property and trademark law, as you say, smaller companies don’t have the resources to protect themselves from this kind of behavior. At the end of the day, I think it really does come down to one’s personal ethics.
Good article, the blog is nice addition to your site. I love the internet because I can find anything and everything out there, unfortunately so can everyone else. You want to post your work so people can see it and hire you, but that leaves you exposed to these kind of unethical situations as well. We haven’t found a way around it that makes us comfortable, we only use private sites and hidden links to share samples with our clients. Otherwise the Portfolio Creative Staffing website could become the greatest “inspiration” website our there, and that is not fair to our associates. It’s up to our associates if they want to post their work publicly, but we don’t. It’s an age-old issue, just made all the more accessible by the internet.
It may sound a little free-love-and-hug-a-tree, but to me how you do business has a lot to do with karma. If you work and behave in a professional and ethical manner, then the people you deal with will rise to your level. Every creative person (really every businessperson) seeks inspiration, how they use that inspiration is what separates them. See a great idea and think you can do it better or for less? That’s entrepreneurship at it’s finest. Steal something outright…I guess it just depends on what kind of reputation you are trying to build, but at the end of the day you have to face yourself in the mirror.
There’s always going to be “designers” that rip off ideas, whether its from the web or annuals. There’s not much that can be done about that. Most of them stay under the radar, but when they get exposed, it really hurts them.
The shocking thing about LogoMaid is that its a corporate mindset of at least using stolen ideas as their own. That at least seems to be the case from their initial reply. Although they’ve recently publicly recanted and removed the logos under question, its sad to see that wasn’t the response initially. i hope its a good lesson to them and anyone else that tries to make a profit from someone else’s hard work.
Kristen – thanks for the compliment on the site and blog. It was almost a year in the making and I’m glad the feedback has been positive.
So how do we distringuish between theft and inspiration? Did Steve Jobs steal an idea from the Beatles or did he appreciate the simplicity of a popular fruit? Was he even inspired by Apple Records? And what about Budweiser? Did they steal a foreign brand or pay hommage to the original? This topic centers around commercial arts but we have seen the same problem in other areas with music being the best example. Is rap an example of theft or reinvention?
Becareful how you answer. Artists develop their skills through imitation and build their craft through emulation. Few concpets are truly original.
You’re correct that this is an issue that can only be resolved by the public but the creative community has to determine where to draw the line. Trademark and copyright laws cut both ways. Strict laws and rigid enforcement makes it easy for big companies to steal ideas from smaller entities while lax enforcement allows for theft of intellectual property. We can police it in the open market but we have to know how.
Steve, I agree with you that there is a lot of grey area in distinguishing between inspiration and theft. You can’t throw a big blanket on every similar design and claim that they stole it, which is what some people in the design community do sometimes. You have to look at each instance case-by-case.
In this case of LogoMaid stealing Dan’s logo design, you have to look at a number of things that I pointed out in the post. First, look at how defensive and accusatory they responded. That’s usually, though not always, a common response by the guilty.
Secondly, you have to look if this is a one-time coincidence, or is there a pattern of questionable designs. Again, LogoMaid appears to fail this test as well, especially the supposed Apple ripoff. Look how quickly that logo vanished off the site when word that Apple aggressively goes after copyright violators. It does not paint a good picture of LogoMaid at all.
If you go back to the Flickr discussion where this all came to a head, you’ll see that LogoMaid does admit that their designer stole Dan’s design and apologizes for it. A nice gesture, but you wonder why that wasn’t their initial response. I personally think to see a company drag that mess out speaks volumes, and not in a good way, about how they do business.
For further reading on the stealing of designs, check out Nick Finck’s post on Digital Web. He offers some great links to other sites as well that discuss this issue.