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Plagiarism in the design industry

The three kinds of plagiarism, how to protect yourself and what to look out for in the design industry.


In our modern society every person is sure to have met some kind of plagiarism. It exists in all fields of life and no one can be protected against it.

The most common definition of the term Plagiarism is the following:  

"Plagiarism is presenting someone’s work as your own or an illegal publication of another person's work under your own name."

Unfortunately, today the line between the original works and the fake is so blurred that disputes do not always solve the conflicts; they consist of limitless reasons and arguments without accurate evidence on both sides.

My original image.

The three kinds of plagiarism:

1) Aggressive plagiarism is a deliberate fraud in art which includes the appropriation of authorship, monetization of other people's works in other people’s favour without notifying the author. Most often, the causes are unprofessionalism, laziness and dishonesty. It is often quite obvious at once and such “clever” people can be found rather quickly.

Example of Aggressive Plagiarism. The image was found on a website of interior design. They displayed their logo and claimed it as their project.
Example of aggressive copying. A mixture of aggressive plagiarism and copying by adding elements.

2) Copying is making an exact copy of what was created earlier, without claiming to be authentic. Simple copying in the field of graphic design is rather acceptable at the stage of learning or gaining skills and is rarely harmful for the authors of original works. In this case, it is very important for the author of the copy not to forget mentioning the author of the original work, and even better to obtain official permission for copying, if it is possible. Sometimes, the author of the original work can actually benefit from such copies becoming unexpectedly famous in certain artistic circles. By the way, if you want to advertise your works, this method can sometimes really bring you fame and higher ratings.

Example of copying. This image was stolen from my profile on "Behance" with slight changes made. 
Example of aggressive copying by adding the lamp and the company name.
Example of aggressive copying. 

3) Superficial or smoothed plagiarism is processing of the source material and presenting it as an independent object of art. It is the very kind of plagiarism that creates a huge amount of unresolved disputes, as there are lots of stylistic devices, different trends and fashionable methods that generally cannot be limited. Thus we can assume that the design with minor modifications can already be considered original.

Example for superficial or smoothed plagiarism. A fellow designer asked me to use my work for his portfolio. He changed the colors and the style. That was fine by me, however sometime this is not the case. 

Generally, you should take into account that from a legal point of view, copying or taking objects whose authorship has not been established as a basis of your work is not considered illegal. And also any copyright ceases to be valid 70 years after the death of the author (of course we are talking about patented art objects). By the way, registration of a trademark is also a kind of patent.

Everything that does not refer to the previously listed methods of legal defense refers exclusively to the moral side of the issue.

Of course, it does not mean that if your art work does not have any legal proof, you do not have the opportunity to argue and seek justice. Many plagiarism disputes are becoming easier to resolve with the help of professional discussions, social networks, professional communities, open applications with the provision of evidence of their authorship, especially if someone has raised money on it.

It might seem that these are not very effective methods, but they should not be underestimated, as a long hype in the media and social networks can very quickly destroy the name and reputation of a dishonest designer, which are so difficult to get these days.

In addition, you should not be ashamed to clamor and panic. If it is important to you, then be sure that you will find like-minded people and support, and perhaps there will be even more people who could have suffered from the villain and they will also support you.

Taking into account all these facts, there we have a question: “Why hasn’t a certain social institution that could analyze and make decisions about plagiarism been created yet?” The answer is that it is economically impossible to create such committees where experts will be equally knowledgeable in all areas of art and who will be able to put forward well-grounded arguments in the same way, etc. There will simply be an infinite number of pros and cons. And how can you create a framework for creativity if it basically has no boundaries?

We can assume that the issue will still be resolved to some extent, or at least there will be attempts to solve it in the next 20 years using Artificial Intelligence and systems of detailed object scanning with the possibility of their recognition.

For example, in case of a dispute between two companies producing furniture when one of them tries to accuse the other of plagiarism, it is most likely to fail. It is very difficult to prove the similarities that are visually obvious but metrically different. But using the scanning systems and AI, it would be possible to determine the fair similarity percentage of shape, color, proportions, dates of the first publication and many other parameters. As a result, we could get a mathematically accurate conclusion about the similarity percentage of the objects. With these data, it would be possible to put forward some specific requirements for the plagiarist, and what is most important, it would cost much cheaper and it would be a much faster process than today.

On the other hand, we can assume that with the advent of such programs, there will appear the programs that, using the same information, will automatically design objects that will not have the limit percentage coincidence, and thus they will force out a huge number of creative niches. By the way, programs with similar algorithms are already used in the world famous architectural companies.

Nevertheless, you should protect yourself, and you can do it in the field of computer graphics either independently and with the help of data protection services or using the resources on which you publish your work. The main thing you should remember is that original works become protected after the first publication or printing. This is one of the fundamental rights of intellectual property creators in copyright law. The key document in this area is the Berne Convention. So if you publish your work on well-known creative social networks like Behance, CGsociety, 3dtotal, Instagram your work is always protected by copyright, and if you notice a violation you can always complain and get justice, and also you will have a proof that your publication is the first.

When you publish your work on your own website, the most simple and functional way is to subscribe to copyright protection services like the DMCA. Also, software blocking on the site using scripts is very useful, it makes it impossible to download the image in full size or it is downloaded with additional graphic elements such as frames, shadows, watermarks. This method is valid, but still it is not the most successful because it reduces the usability of the site and causes dissatisfaction of users.

Classic ways to protect copyright for visual content are:

1. Watermark. This is the most common method of photo protection against copying. The best way is to place brand labels not along the edges, but along the entire picture or in places that will be difficult to edit later.

Example of a Watermark over the original image. 

2. Digital tags. The author receives EXIF ​​metadata (date and time, information about the manufacturer, camera, program, etc.). Having these data, it will be quite easy to prove your right in a conflict with a thief.

MetaData Information from the original image

3. "Double bottom" or hidden picture. With Adobe Photoshop, you can also create a transparent layer and lay it on the front of the image using html or css. This image does not differ from others, but downloading the photo the thief can’t see the desired image, only the upper (protective) layer.

When the file opens in Photoshop, you only see white. 

An equally effective way is to use your own original designs in your work. For example, a visualizer, can be original 3D models of furniture or decor that are definitely not on sale on 3D stocks. It will be an irrefutable proof of your authorship.

For artists, a very old but very effective method is to simply take a picture with the work. Later, you can send this photo to your own address by ordinary mail and leave the letter closed until it is required as proof of your authorship.

Summing up, we can say that intellectual property ownership is protected by national and international law, but it does not exclude the cases of theft and it does not punish the fraudsters. It is important that you defend your works yourself. The best way is to use all methods to protect your authorship, you should publish and advertise your work more. Develop your own original style and make your audience recognize your work.

Unfortunately, the proposed methods will not completely protect you from someone stealing your idea or your composition, but you will have the right to state that your work has become the basis of someone else's copy or plagiarism, demand reference to the source, inspiration, and in cases of gross theft even insist on the financial compensation or removal of the content.

World of Design


Mykhailo is a fulltime artist with 5+ years of experience, based in Poland. In his free time, he likes to sculpt and design furniture decor.