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When Do Logos Become Plagiarism?

written by: •edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 10/23/2011

To make a living in today's digital world, designers are increasingly forced to put their work out into the digital market -- exposing their designs which are then there for the world to see... and sometimes be copied. Plagiarism is nothing new when it comes to designs and it isn't going away.

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    Whether it's over a questionable issue of having a font colored orange to spell out "fire" or the accusation of a more complex design being copied, it's one of the crosses that designers have to bear. Plagiarism of logos is a tricky area as due to their very nature, logos are limited in their design scope -- surely it's just a matter of time before two people somewhere have the same idea at the same time? And the Internet doesn't make things any easier.

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    Poison in the Apple Bite?

    applestevejobslogo There's always some copyright issue or another going on where Apple is concerned, but recently it's not been Apple itself that has been in the limelight. A British designer and a design student from Hong Kong have apparently come up with very similar tributes to Steve Jobs in the form of a tweaked Apple logo. As you can see from Jonathan Mak's design here, the bite mark in this amended logo is the silhouette of Steve Jobs. A pretty neat idea and a fitting tribute, you might think.

    But British designer Chris Thornley (known online as Raid71) already had this idea that he posted on the Internet in May. Mr Thornley's has the colors the opposite way around and his tribute was to Steve Jobs as an inspirational man who was fighting cancer, still working and still thinking positively about the future.

    (Image: Jonathan Mak)

    For whatever reason though, it was Jonathan Mak's design that went viral. Even though he had the idea in August when Steve Jobs stepped down from being Apple's CEO, it got picked up after his death in October and hundreds of thousands of us saw the design. Then the trouble started for these two designers.

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    A Danger of the Digital Age

    So were these just two artists who had a similar idea around the same time? It is easy to be a little skeptical in hindsight, when you read posts from Mr. Mak that say, "Posting designs like this one makes me paranoid, because I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not original. I enjoyed the process regardless, but please let me know if somebody else beat me to the idea!"

    This was posted on his blog upon revealing his design and has been used as his argument that he sought feedback to make sure it wasn't a stolen idea. As Mr. Thornley clearly had the idea first and it was out there on the Internet for all to see, you can see why some might question Jonathan Mak's innocence. I personally think that it's possible Jonathan Mak had already seen the design from sometime before and forgotten about it, or he had glanced at it on his way to doing something else and it was almost subliminal, hence his statement.

    Neither party has made, or has sought to make, any money personally from their designs at all, so the media circus surrounding them seems more than a little unfair. After all, it wasn't such an outrageous design that couldn't have been put together by plenty of other artists should they have wished to. Mr. Mak himself states, "My paranoia stemmed from the apparent simplicity of the concept. The visual connection between Steve’s profile and the logo seemed too obvious to not have been picked up on yet."

    Of course this kind of thing isn't anything new, in logo design particularly there have always been these problems, but before the Internet it would have taken months to discover, now it can be discovered within hours. Mr. Thornley sees the Internet as a double-edged sword for designers, "You need to use the Internet in order to promote yourself, but in order to do this you are making yourself vulnerable to these situations."

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    Is it Really Plagiarism?

    Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) There's a difference between copying something and someone else having the same idea at around the same time. When you are talking topical subject matter, it's almost bound to happen. How many people inhabit the world? How many know who Steve Jobs was? It's almost a surprise that not more people came up with this idea.

    There have been cases in the past where comedians have accused each other of stealing their jokes, whereas it's just that with a current subject matter it's almost bound to happen that two (or more) people would come up with the same idea. Indeed, this problem even dates back to Newton and Leibniz with the invention of Calculus. Is it plagiarism or just an natural evolution of an idea? It's usually just the next logical next step rather than any particular idea being "copied."

    So how do you decide who owns the idea for a logo? Upon first thinking about the Steve Jobs in Apple Bite logo, I thought that actually either of these parties would do well to get it copyrighted as surely it really belongs to Apple. But then when you take that thinking further, it's pretty amazing that a company can copyright the logo of what is essentially the image of a fruit anyway.

    It's a really fine line, when it comes to logo design and copyright. In fact Apple's original logo was that of Newton under the apple tree, but it was changed in 1976 to the rainbow apple, and then again in 1998 to the monochrome logo we know today. I wonder if Newton was a litigious type?

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    What do you think? The Apple logo with Steve Jobs caused quite a stir just because of the subject matter, but it's an ongoing problem for designers. Is the Internet good for designers or is it too risky putting your designs out there? When is plagiarism just two people having a similar idea? Let us know your thoughts.

    If you'd like to compare the two Apple/Steve Jobs designs then please visit Mr. Thornley's Raid71 Emporium to see his version. All funds raised from selling his designs go Royal Manchester's Cancer Charity.