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The Line Between Copyright and Inspiration

In the creative world, the saying often heard is “good artists borrow, and great artists steal“ accredited to Pablo Picasso. Although the saying is arbitrary, it is without argument that artistic ideas are constantly reoccurring. I often hear there is nothing new in the creative world only recycled ideas. In retrospect, styles of art and visual communications surface, manifest, and die, only to be resurrected later on in a new format.

The human brain only has a certain capacity of perspective. Although some minds are more creative than others, the likeliness of a person creating something absolutely never done before is highly nonexistent. In the world of design, it is common for designers to do renditions of other works or styles they like. The line between original work and copyrighted infringement is very gray and negotiable.

Copyright infringement consists of many parts including the reproduction of copies of other’s work, creating derivative works, and commercial exploitation. Then again, every judge has a different perspective of derivative. Personally, a rule of thumb I have always used is, copyright is when someone uses a substantial part of your work for their own monetary or beneficial gain. However, I always find myself second-guessing the black and white of substantial.

An example of substantial use of copyrighted material would be to take a person’s design and change the color. Certainly, such a basic and quick modification would scream copyright infringement. On the other hand, if a designer took a person’s copyrighted design, dissected it in entirely until it was unrecognizable from the original piece, copyright infringement would be less likely.

A very high profile example of copyright infringement controversy would be the Associated Press Photographer Mannie Garcia verse Sheperd Fairey. Fairey created the infamous Obama Hope Poster, which shows Obama in a digital illustration. To every Adobe User out there, it is super evident that Fairey took the AP Photographer’s image, threw a layer overtop of it, and started to copy the lines of the photograph. Fairey’s argument consisted of a claim that his work didn’t devalue Garcia’s original photograph due to his work being an entirely different medium. Although resolved privately, many continue to argue if Fairey did enough modifications to the photograph to justify his infringement of Garcia’s copyright. I absolutely believe Fairey was guilty of copyright infringement. He could have easily not been guilty if he had reached out to the photographer asking to buy the image or credit the photographer in his work.

I believe adaptations of copyrighted material are just a part of the game in the communications world. Styles and themes will continue to push forward going in and out of style not slowing for any one. The best thing for a designer to do is to keep up and stay educated.

The important aspect and general moral decency is that designers should try not to copy a work but be inspired by it instead.

If a person is blatant in their work stealing ways, it will catch up to them either in the form of a lawsuit that proves infringement or the whispers amongst peers.

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