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BUSINESS: Copyright infringement – what to do if it happens to you!

Kathryn Sharman investigates the increasingly alarming issue of copyright infringement within the design community and what designers can do to protect themselves.

For a designer, it’s hard to imagine any better feeling than seeing your work in the public eye and gaining recognition. But the flip-side to this must be that there is probably no worse feeling than realising that your work has been copied and passed off by someone else as their own.

There’s often a very fine line between copying and ‘taking inspiration’ from another’s work and it’s this grey area that can prove so problematic for those parties involved. While copying is never defensible, it is harder to control the subconscious influence that we are all subject to. However, there seems to be a growing occurrence of more blatant copying, particularly in the field of illustration, where the copyright infringement is direct, obvious and in some cases undeniable.


Inspiration vs Copyright Infringement Illustration by Siobhian Carroll

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of this is that it often involves high profile, well-known companies and high street retailers; those who would be deemed most conscious of protecting their own reputation and public image as well as being most able to pay for design talent or copyright fees. But therein lies the crux of the matter. Many of these big names claim that they have legitimately bought the rights to the designs from the design agencies they have used in good faith, therefore placing the blame squarely at the foot of the design agencies, which have allegedly copied the artwork. Surely ignorance is no excuse and these large corporate firms have a responsibility to check thoroughly that designs are not infringing someone else's copyright?

Another reason for this pernicious and worrying trend is perhaps due to our unavoidable but wide-scale use of technology, the internet and social media, leading many in the creative industry to find themselves in a Catch 22 situation. Most designers now have a website and are compelled to display their work online in order to be fully accessible to potential customers, wherever they may be.

Designers are also encouraged to use social media platforms such as facebook, twitter and blogs to increase awareness of and garner interest in their products. And in many cases, designers’ work is sold or showcased through a myriad of online stores as part of the virtual marketplace we all use and enjoy. But the downside to this is that their portfolio is available to see worldwide, 24/7 by anyone with a computer and unfortunately the temptation to copy, even in its most obvious form, with no attempt at disguise, is too great for some.

Surface pattern designer Rachael Taylor of Rachael Taylor Designs experienced this last year when one of her designs was directly copied and used by another designer on stock image website Shutterstock.


Rachael Taylor

She first became aware of the copy when a member of the design community spotted it and luckily notified her quickly. Both Rachael and two other well known designers had also been copied. The nature of the copy was direct (as can be seen in the two images shown here) even though it was for sale on the copycat artist’s Shutterstock portfolio, which allowed many companies to license the artwork for a fee.


“I felt sick, outraged, upset and actually disgusted that some people would sink so low,” says Rachael of her reaction at the time. “I actually couldn't believe that there was no effort to even try to disguise the blatant copy. I didn’t know what to do at first so I actually vented my worries on twitter and received so much overwhelming support from fellow designers.”

The designer then contacted Shutterstock to rectify the problem as soon as possible, as she explains.

“My main concern was for Shutterstock to remove the design immediately. They never questioned the blatant copy ever and removed the copy instantly from their website. I am told the artist is now banned from the Shutterstock site but I still, to this day, don't know what companies used the design and have never been compensated.”

Rachael also spoke to a legal adviser at ACID (Anti Copying In Design) and a solicitor who specialises in copyright law. ACID is a membership organisation, which raises awareness and encourages respect for intellectual property within corporate social responsibility. The ACID logo is an internationally recognised symbol of deterrence and design protection, which helps to protect members from the damage inflicted by intellectual property infringement.

Designers such as Rachael, who have (or think they have) been copied can contact ACID for advice, even if they are not a member. They are also advised to contact the alleged copycat and ask them to remove the design as well as to consider seeking legal advice depending on the seriousness of the case.

“I'm now a member of ACID,” says Rachael and “I document all of my designs with them along with keeping my own records up to date. I license my artwork to large prestigious companies and retailers so therefore if people copy me they are very silly as it's not only myself they would have to deal with. I still post just as much work on the internet (all with a copyright watermark and the ACID logo) as this presence on the web generates new clients. Unfortunately there's always a risk with my portfolio being online but I'm more savvy as to the whole issue now and far more vigilant.”

It seems that, while there are some less than honest members of the design community, there is also a wealth of support from other areas of it as was Rachael’s experience when she posted on her own blog at the time. There are also other more organised flag-wavers for this issue, including blogs such as You Thought We Wouldn’t Notice, which document alleged copyright infringement and seek to name and shame. While these blogs don’t always deal with proven cases, they certainly help to act as some deterrent against copying. The best line of defence though, still seems to be self-protection.

How to protect your designs:

  • Join ACID and display its logo alongside your work
  • Display a watermark of your registered trade name across every design
  • Register your design with the IPO (Intellectual Property Office), particularly if it is a 3D product with a new or individual character
  • Stay vigilant and look out for others in your design community too
  • If you think you have been copied, ask the alleged copycat to remove the design
  • Seek legal advice, depending on the seriousness of the case

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