Don’t steal art

Taking someone else’s design and passing it off as your own is the quickest way to lose a paid gig. If all signs point to a designer plagiarizing — no matter how talented or well-known he or she appears — I make a note not to hire that person, ever. I do this for two reasons:

  1. I don’t want to work with a thief. Without even knowing it, you’ve ruined any possibility of us ever collaborating. Copying is lazy and unprofessional; I’ve already learned all I need to know about your work ethic.
  2. I don’t want to be responsible for the legal ramifications or social backlash when it inevitably comes out that you’re a thief. The design community is notoriously full of whistle-blowers; respect your peers enough to know you’ll get caught.

Two types of thieves

I’m not afraid of mistakenly working with a known plagiarizer — those people are usually easy to spot — but occasionally, I’ll come across a portfolio that’s more deceptive. At first, it shows lots of promise, and I’ll consider hiring its owner for an editorial project. Then, almost suddenly, I’ll recognize a design that looks too… familiar. A few minutes later, I’m scrolling through Dribbble or Instagram, trying to remember where I’ve seen this before. When I finally find the source, it hits me: this is someone else’s work.

There are two kinds of theft: accidental and intentional. The former concerns me a great deal, because the culprits usually fail to see what they’re doing wrong. Accidental thieves are convinced that borrowing is distinctly different from stealing. They believe that (if caught) other designers — including their victims — will overlook the “homage” and appreciate their fandom. Often times these guys and girls can be corrected and will eventually develop their own styles — still inspired, but fundamentally unique. But when left to draw their own conclusions about the ethics of imitation, accidental thieves may evolve into intentional thieves.

In my opinion, the distinction between accidental and intentional theft is fairly clear-cut; but for better or worse, designers are lightning-quick to point out when someone has poached another’s work. So what about the guys and girls who don’t even realize they’re stealing? Misunderstanding intellectual property ownership or forgetting to deviate from one’s source of inspiration should be forgivable offenses (ripping off someone else’s hard work, denying guilt and going on the offensive should not). It’s on the rest of the design community to privately and gently correct the accident-prone and ignorant.

How do we stop theft?

Although theft is not exclusive to a specific group, I think new designers are the guiltiest. My guess is they spend so much time learning how to use the applications that they aren’t sure what to make. It’s so much easier to just trace over what already looks good and tweak a few elements — call it “pseudo-artistic license” or “unfair use.” There’s some merit to this, because tracing and dissecting beautiful designs are surefire ways to master Illustrator, Photoshop, etc.; however, understanding how other artists use tools to accomplish what you love so much about their work will not make you a better designer. It’s the understanding of why they use these tools in the first place that will make you a better designer. It’s perfectly fine to keep those “stolen” AI and PS files in a folder on your hard drive so you can remember how to warp that font or round those corners, but don’t you dare share it. Bury that stuff deep, and remember: it’s not really yours.

Not all designers can plead ignorance, though. Plenty of thieves are seasoned pros who have become addicted to receiving likes and shares online. I think every designer goes through a phase of self-consciousness, where validation (from strangers, no less) discourages originality. The easiest way to break each other out of this phase is to hold fellow designers accountable by privately pointing out what makes these designs derivative. Allowing trends to influence subject matter is good practice, but allowing them to influence style is a slippery slope. By emphasizing what we like about one another’s original work, designers can improve the quality of design we find online, while simultaneously preventing continued theft.

My guess is that most art stealers aren’t doing it on purpose. There’s nothing new under the sun, after all (just check your favorite logo design book). So let’s help the guys and girls who don’t realize what they’re doing and continue to reject those who blatantly steal from other artists. Encourage designers (especially novices) to study trends or consistency in the work of others as a learning exercise — the use of color, how specific tools work, how to apply textures — but discourage them from claiming it as their own. Touting someone else’s work as your own will get you blacklisted, so let’s look out for each other and take ownership of what we create.

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