Design Piracy: An Increasing Issue For Designers

With the year-on-year rise of Internet usage and growing popularity of social sharing sites, many designers continue to live in fear of having their designs copied.

There has been a growing ‘anti Pinterest’ movement, where designers and bloggers feel that the terms of use put in place by Pinterest give the site ownership over anything that users pin – whether they use the site themselves, or if their own work or product is pinned by someone else. Legal repercussions are also up to the user – if the image owner decides to sue for misuse of their work, the user would have to pay for their own defence, as well as Pinterest’s costs.

Just recently, Rachael Taylor found herself in the middle of a design piracy scandal when she discovered that one of her signature designs had been ‘ripped-off’ by Marks & Spencer. Supposedly, the high street retailer had purchased the products ‘in good faith’ from a direct supplier, and have since pulled the products in question from the shelves, but this doesn’t seem to be the end of what may be a lengthy battle for Ms Taylor and those who find themselves in a similar position.

M & S’ shirt left, Rachael’s design right.

The illustrator Gemma Correll has repeatedly had her designs copied and faced issues where she could do almost nothing about it due to sketchy copyright laws that cover China and most of Asia. She has also had issues where her design had been altered by companies such as Gap and suppliers of Topshop and Urban Outfitters.

Back in 2009, artist Lauren Nassef was alerted by a follower of her blog that a graduate student from Falmouth University had not only ripped-off her illustrations, but won an award with and made money from the stolen designs. Atlanta-based artist Tori LaConsay experienced issues with H&M, who copied the ‘You Look Nice Today’ sign which she had painted as a love letter to her neighbourhood, and put the design on a variety of products including t-shirts, door mats, pillowcases and guest towels. H&M later apologised to LaConsay, and donated $3,000 plus all remaining ‘You Look Nice Today’ products to a number charitable organisations.

The website You Thought We Wouldn’t Notice describes itself as “a blog where users have taken notice to a blatant rip-off of a creative work and shared it with us”, and features hundreds of examples where the original designer has been ripped-off in one way or another.

Larger companies have also experienced copyright issues. Earlier in 2012, a number of beauty bloggers received cease and desist orders from the nail varnish companyCiaté. They stated that they had protected the phrase ‘caviar manicure’, therefore bloggers were forced to change the phrases they used to describe the effect they had created with non-Ciaté product.

The question for designers is: how can I protect my own designs? Not everyone is a legal specialist, and it is a minefield out there with a great range of jargon to understand. In the USA, designers have more rights over their work due to bills being issued with regards to design protection, particularly in fashion. However, some believe that independent fashion designers will be harmed due to that fact that they do not have the funds available to challenge big businesses, nor do they have the influence or power to do this.

Within the UK, the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act gives the creators of some types of media rights to control how they are used and distributed, including music, books, software and video. However, illustrative designs are not fully-covered by this, and although many assume that the sui generis that is design right would cover them (either by the Registered Design Act 1949 or as an unregistered design), this only protects the shape of a three dimensional design, subsisting if the design is recorded on paper or an article has been made according to said design.

The ‘Commission it, Don’t Copy It’ campaign was launched by Anti-Copywriting in Design in April this year and has already gained support from Selfridges and John Lewis. After a campaign to protect designer’s copyright, initiated by Elle Deco editor Michelle Ogundehin, the UK government announced changes to bring rights of designers into line with the rest of the creative industry. This move was welcomed by The Design Council and it is hoped that the work the Intellectual Property Office is doing will allow the UK design sector to see a revival.

Natalie writes for Solopress, a leading print services company.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *