So when is a copy right?

There is little scope for originality in design, as almost everything has been done already. So don’t be ashamed of honest appropriation.

Few subjects vex the modern designer more than copying. The yelp of pain when a designer thinks they’ve been ‘ripped-off’ is a common sound. So, too, is the bat-squeak of anguish when a good idea is killed off at birth, because a designer has inadvertently created something that ‘looks like something else’. Designers are obsessed with originality. But how justified is this in a world where everything has, seemingly, been done? How do you distinguish between copying and appropriation; between respectful homage and infringement of copyright? And does originality matter in commercially-driven design where, as far as most clients are concerned, the result is the only thing that matters?

Originality is important because honesty is important, and plagiarism for commercial or personal gain is dishonesty. But in graphic design the water gets muddied quickly. If a graphic designer includes a photo of a succulent plate of food on the packaging of a ready-meal – just like every other ready-meal – is this plagiarism, or someone following an acceptable commercial convention? When Peter Saville ‘lifts’ Müller-Brockmann for a New Order record cover, and makes no secret of it, is this brazen theft or inspired appropriation? Has Milton Glaser’s 1976 IKNY logo passed into communal ownership, or should Glaser feel aggrieved when it’s adapted by a Boy Scout troop advertising a fund-raiser?

The problem exists in all areas of creative endeavour: art, films, writing, music and advertising. Look at record reviews of new bands: today’s music critics often confine themselves to merely listing a band’s influences (‘… early Beatles mixed with post-Punk Gang of Four angst’). Take advertising: Honda UK’s recent award-winning Cog commercial was said to copy key elements of a film made in 1987 by artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss. And in art, Turner Prize nominee Glenn Brown accurately replicates, on a vast scale, science-fiction book covers by illustrators Chris Foss and Anthony Roberts.

Designers’ obsession with originality features regularly in the pages of the design press. Designers write, usually good-humouredly, but you suspect through gritted teeth, to expose instances where they feel their work has been copied (intentionally or not), or to assert that they ‘got there first’. A recent letter (DW 8 July) pointed out the similarity between two pieces of printed work that showed a fork spearing, in one case a map of Australia, and in the other a scrap of biblical text. In both examples, this facile visual pun appears to do the job for which it was intended. But did the writer really think that his was the first time this idea has been used in print?

This is not to say that plagiarism doesn’t exist, but real bare-faced theft is rare and is invariably recognised and dismissed as such. It is unlikely, for example, that a piece of blatant copying would ever win a design award: a vigilant judge would chuck it out. And as designers, we are obliged, partly by morality, and partly by law, not to take the work of others for our own gain. But digital technology has given designers the ability to work in new ways. We can grab images in seconds; we have manipulation tools that allow existing forms to be distorted and reformulated unrecognisably. Technology has opened up new, unimagined possibilities, and with it has come the need to evolve a new critical vocabulary to accommodate these changes: shouting ‘rip-off’ is no longer good enough. Narrow definitions of what constitutes originality need to be re-examined. In our image-laden world, originality is nigh on impossible. Perhaps it always has been. Creative people today are synthesists. Some are good at it, others less so; while others are forced into formulaic responses by clients terrified of doing anything new.

Every great movement or school in design has its roots in previous movements or schools. Even revolutionary eruptions like Punk and Psychedelia can be traced back to, in the case of Punk, Situationism, and in the case of Psychedelia, Art Nouveau. Yet despite revealing their historical antecedents, both movements are utterly distinct. The great designer Derek Birdsall said in an interview: ‘If a design works, there is every reason, whether it is your own or someone else’s, to use it again.’ Birdsall’s work is as fresh and distinctive as any in graphic design. As Pablo Picasso demonstrated when he used African masks in his work, it is acceptable to borrow from others so long as we make something new out of it. It is also vital that we acknowledge our sources. Copyists never own up to it. That’s the difference.

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