Teach Your Students Well. Teach Them Not to Steal.

This semester I am teaching Web Design and the Internet to a group of 15 energetic college students. As always, a portion of my course focuses on design responsibility, copyright, and the ethics and morals of borrowing content, ideas, and/or images.

As a designer it is exciting for me to know that my work can bee seen around the globe. However, the same technology that makes it possible for someone in Germany to “like” my recent design and for a colleague in South Carolina to offer real time advice on a logo concept, has given the world easy access to my designs, images, and ideas.  This access makes idea theft and concept copycats a growing trend.

The famous saying impersonation is the sincerest form of flattery my be true in the social scene but it is morally wrong (and in some cases illegal) in the world of graphic design. In today’s landscape of do-it-yourself publishing, instant communications, and mobile/social media it is all to easy for someone to steal someone’s artwork and use it without permission—or in a recent shock wave to the design world, modify an existing design— and pass it off as their original concept and sell it over the internet. In August (2011), designer Bill Gardner posted an article on RockPaperInk that shone a very bright spotlight on this issue and the realities of good design being pirated, repackaged, and sold on the web.

According to Gardner, logogarden.com—the online logo company boasting “do-it-yourself logos for entrepreneurs” and it’s founder John Williams—have stolen well-known trademarks designed by Gardner’s firm, slightly changed them and is now making them available to consumers for as little as $79.00.  Gardner claims that he found over 200 of his company’s identities available at logogarden.com and was even able to identify logos that were the original work of fellow designers and firms. Even one of the world’s most recognizable animal logos—World Wildlife Foundation’s panda—had a doppleganger available for purchase from logogarden.com.

In response to Gardner’s claim,  The AIGA (the nation’s oldest and largest organization dedicated to supporting the design profession with over 22,000 members in the U.S.),  issued an AIGA Action Alert, advising all organization members to “Check LogoGarden for identity work stolen from you.”

A website promoting access to “do-it-yourself logos for entrepreneurs” starting at $79 has copied logos and other images created by designers and displayed them as LogoGarden founder John Williams’s own work for sale, without the original designers’ permission…Williams has made slight modifications to many of the images, presumably in an attempt to avoid claims that he infringed on the original designers’ copyright rights, although these modifications are not enough to avoid liability for infringement of the creator’s rights in the underlying works. It may actually increase Williams’s liability by demonstrating his willful copyright infringement.

As an educator, I use real world examples of good design and bad design in our pedagogy. I expose my students to massive amounts of visual stimulation to jump start their creative processes. But in doing so, I am faced with the challenge of teaching them how to be inspired by, versus copying. How to let good design inform their decisions not

Each year my students ask for permission to use or “Photoshop” images and designs they find on the internet in their assignments. And each year I say “Not with out permission.” Yes one could argue that since it is for an educational assignment, no harm no foul. If it is just for class no one will care.

However, these students are sometimes weeks away from graduation and becoming productive members of our field, stewards of the profession; and it is my responsibility to instill in them a moral obligation to preserve the integrity of the industry.

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