Why imitation is not a form of flattery?

anti copying in design copycats copyright design inspiration ideas intellectual property small business owners trademark

Are you a small business creating beautiful things, and mainly selling online? Then it is inevitable that you will one day look at the computer and see one of your designs staring back at you, only not from your own shop but someone else's under someone else's name. We all remember that feeling of horror, and anguish, and anger.

However, 80% of the business owners that I spoke to didn't know what to do next. Often they would justify that it was just an idea and it is ok for someone else to run with it. Or, that the 'copycat' has changed the colour or the font or the placement, and so it is perfectly ok for them to do so. Then there are other people who would say that an idea is meant to be copied, that it is a free society, or that imitation is the best form of flattery. This is not true. It is a free world, but ideas are intellectual property and hence not owned by everyone, particularly not an idea that is the basis for someone's livelihood, which in case of small businesses, it often is. In this case, imitation is certainly, absolutely, never the best (or any other!) form of flattery. It is not flattery. It is just not ok.

You might have also come across these:

1. It was on Instagram/twitter/facebook anyway: Well, we live in the world of social media. Small businesses, in particular, have to advertise and promote their designs and products and have to do so via social media. Just because it has been posted online for everyone to see, does not mean that it is public property. Absolutely not. The copyright remains with the designer at all times. You cannot use the photo without credit to the original designer either. 

2. I bought the design and so I can do whatever I wish with it: No. Buying someone's design or product does not transfer copyright. It does not allow you to resell it for profit, or to make copies of it, or to be inspired by it, and create a similar product of yours. 

3. I only made one/few as a gift and not to sell: This is also taking livelihood from the original designer or small business owner. The design is not yours, so even if you are not selling it, you cannot use it to create your own gifts or products. 

4. It is too expensive and I can make it cheaper: This does not allow you to use the original design as it is not yours. If you use the design in any way, you should have a license for it, which means paying the original designer for it. 

5. It is not the same design as I changed the font/colour/orientation/size/material (etc.): No, that does not mean that it is ok. You cannot alter the design a little and consider it to be a new idea. The original idea has value, it is worth something and it is the result of sweats, tears, various sleepless nights or many years of training and learning (probably not as dramatic in some case, but nevertheless!) so do not just take it to be your own. 

6. I saw it on pinterest and used it only for inspiration: We all get inspired by things around us. Definitely. That is what the world is there for. But use these as just a stepping stone to find your own inspiration and idea, rather than remodelling the existing one in some way. In fact, rather than being inspired by existing designs, why not take a walk around the neighbourhood, or in the countryside, and be inspired by the sights, sounds, smells, textures there around you. There is so much to be inspired by in your own life and the world around you. If we cannot find out own inspiration, we do not innovate. Innovation is the key to progress, and to finding solutions. I will write a separate blog post about finding inspiration and creating ideas and solutions but in the meantime, think about what really motivates you, keep a sketch book and do not spend that much time on pinterest!! Remember to use your creativity to create something original. 

Why is there such little awareness of copyright and intellectual property right issues amongst the general public? It really concerns me as I see more and more of these cases everyday. It is demoralising and upsetting for the designers and small business owners. Why do so many people do it and get away with it? I suppose it is not easy to prove which design came first, in some cases, and also small businesses are in uniquely precarious position as they do not have the huge financial resources to start legal proceedings, and go to court. 

Here are a few things that you can do, as a designer to protect your rights:

1. Copyright your designs and trademark your logo: In a previous post here, I briefly touched on IPO and registering your trademark. There isn't much information on this or clarity as to what you can protect and what not, but you can copyright some of your design, looks, and packaging here. 

2. Be aware of your rights: Ideas have worth and value. They belong to you as a designer as your intellectual property. If you wouldn't allow just anyone to come and take your physical property away without your permission, you should not allow anyone to use your intellectual property without your permission. Read the IP and copyright law here

3. Become a member of ACID: Anti-copying in Design is a non-profit organisation and set up to protect the IP rights of designers and creatives. Have a look at their website, and join it if you can.You can get free consultation with IP lawyers and also register your designs with their database that will stamp your design with a creation date and also goes some way towards protecting you from copycats. Also, displaying the ACID logo on your website and social media can deter people who might be tempted to be 'inspired' by your designs.

4. Send a cease and desist letter: If you find another business copying your ideas or designs in some way or another, and you do not have access to huge financial resources or a large legal team, then the first step is to send them a cease and desist letter. You can find templates of these online. This is a letter asking someone to cease their illegal activity, and desist from doing it again. 

Often just being aware of when you created a design and keeping a record of it can help. Putting a copyright notice on your website and stating in your listings that purchase of a design does not transfer copyright will go some way towards stopping people from borrowing when they shouldn't. Use © [Your own name/brand name], [year that the design was created] to emphasise that you are aware of your IP rights. 

So, in summary, being aware of your rights as a designer and a creative entrepreneur, and knowing and believing that ideas have value and you are justified in fighting for protection of your intellectual property is the first step. There has to be more awareness of these issues, and more widespread discussion and clarity about IP rights for small businesses. The government has to do more to put more rigorous, and more targeted and specific laws in place to protect small creative businesses. 

If you want to build a sustainable brand, do remember that “Strong brands are not built through shortcuts and copycats” Bernard Kelvin Clive

Would you like a downloadable checklist and a cease and desist letter template? Then sign up to my newsletter here (no, we do not spam!) Receive regular updates on my blog and store, and get 15% off on your very first order. 

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  • Gill M on

    From skimming through this article it seems to me that you use ‘idea’ and ‘design’ interchangeably and I think, though I may wrong, that ‘ideas’ and ‘designs’ are two different entities as far as copyright is concerned. It is my understanding that a design is copyrighted automatically on ,for the want of a better phrase, presentation to the public. An idea, however, is a vague concept and cannot, to my knowledge, be copyrighted.

  • Pragya Agarwal on

    Sorry to hear this, Megan. That is awful, and must have been so gutting. I am glad though that this has helped. We really need to raise awareness of these issues amongst all the creatives and small businesses. Stay strong! x

  • Megan on

    This is a great post, having my designs copied contributed to the closure of my previous business. I wish I had found this post back then when I was too afraid to do anything about it! Thankfully nowadays I am a lot stronger! Megan x

  • Pragya Agarwal on

    Thank you, Katie. Pleased that you found it useful and informative! x

  • Katie Carr on

    Great blog as its not too long, gets to the point and gives a solution. Thank you x


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