On Design Theft: Riffing on a sea urchin

This is a response to an article titled Drawing the Line on Design Theft from the Wolfie and the Sneak blog. I know this won’t be a popular sentiment among artists, but keep in mind I’m only exploring observations here and not drawing conclusions.


I’ve been thinking the past few years about this kind of thing [design theft] in graphic design — I may have mentioned so on the blog before — since that’s where I spend a lot of my hours. Every so often I hear about a startup’s design, almost always a logo, being contested by some existing business for infringement. One such incident, from three years ago or so, involved Red Hat’s Fedora Project and a startup who unwittingly incorporated the universal symbol for infinity in their brand new branding. Fedora also uses the infinity symbol.

Thing is, a lot of these cases aren’t blatant copying (the copying problem seems to be more prevalent in contest entries from what I’ve read). The aforementioned startup’s new identity was not copying Fedora’s icon.

There are only so many shapes that comprise simple designs, which is good logo design, and only so many different configurations for said shapes. I don’t know what the solution to these kinds of run-ins is. I’m just making observations at this point, although I will decry any overly eager litigious reactions, which are unfortunately almost inevitable in this country.

Now, looking at the Wolfie and the Sneak post, I’m wondering how often the same kind of entirely incidental copying — which isn’t the right word since its not intentional — happens in other realms of design for the same reason (I will note, however, that it’s pretty clear Cody Foster & Co, highlighted in the Wolfie and the Sneak’s post, is blatantly ripping things off.). The first example in the post reminds me immediately of a sea urchin, as it would do for a lot of people. Aren’t such observations from nature available to any creative person who wants to riff on them? It’s easy for me to see how two people, one on the East Coast and one on the West, were both inspired after observing an urchin to craft a clay candle holder that emulates the spines of said urchin. Should one be punished, so-to-speak, because they were the second person to have the idea? Even if they are, say, just a teenager when the first one finds such inspiration?

How many of these occurrences went unnoticed pre-internet? Or pre-telegraph? Or pre-printing press?

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About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

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