Design Rules

Here at my school, “original ideas” can be considered a traced version of anything, which is an issue, especially when your produced content is used commercially. I’ve seen several other of my peers tracing other people’s vectors, sometimes not even bothering to vary colors from the original. So I ask, what are the copyright rules when it comes to these things? Could you trace a preview of someone’s paid vector, or would you have to change a few details or colors? Obviously coming up with original content is the best way to go about things, but when that fails, paying for other people’s ideas seem viable.

One more thing, (sorry), my friend is designing a real logo for a local hardware shop. He’s found someone’s else vector and wants to use it, with some small tweaks here and there, but isn’t sure if buying the vector would give the rights to the local shop, or just to him, if that makes sense. If he had the rights to the logo, but then gave the logo to the shop, would the shop have the right to the design?

Is this high school or college?

It’s situationally OK to trace or copy things in school as part of learning exercises, as long as the instructor specifies that copying is part of the assignment. For example, when I was in design school, we were assigned to trace thousands of letters from magazines as a way of familiarizing ourselves with typography. Painting and drawing majors often went to the museum and drew from the works hanging there for much the same reason. On the other hand, I remember a star student in our senior level design class being permanently expelled from the school for copying an ad from a magazine and turning it in as his own design.

It’s absolutely not OK — ethically or legally — to trace or copy things if the plan is to use or sell those copies commercially. In a real-life work environment, plagiarism is often a firing offense since it puts the employer in legal jeopardy and undermines the credibility of the business.

What do you mean by a vector? Do you mean a logo that’s built with vector outlines? Is this a for-sale logo found on a website somewhere? Would it be an exclusive sale where they would remove it and not sell it again if this hardware store bought it? Or is it just a logo-like object that was found on a download site? The end user license agreement (EULA) on most dowloaded commercial art specifies that it cannot be use as a logo or a part of a logo. Your friend would need to check the EULA.

If it’s just something he found and wants to steal by copying, that’s wrong and, as I said, illegal. There is no agreed-upon amount something needs to be changed before it’s considered changed enough to not run afoul of copyright laws. Most anything that looks as though it’s been copied and changed is pretty much fair game for the original copyright holder to sue.

With logos, the usual practice is for the copyright holder (the designer) to transfer all rights (including the copyright) to the buyer. A business owner would be stupid to allow someone else to maintain control over something as important as the company’s branding.

He said it’s a logo for sale that is not exclusive. Here is the type of license listed:

I looked over the details of the licence and it seems that the logo must be modified/incorporated in a meaningful way in order to be used, anything else (using the raw downloaded files in the final product) would be taken as illegal distribution. My friend’s problem is a good learning experience for me as well.

A business owner would also want to Trademark his logo. When doing so, a trademark search is initiated to see if the mark infringes on other’s trademarked logo. If I were buying a logo, I’d also do a simple type of Google search to see what else is online.

I had an interesting conversation with Getty recently regarding the large number of Logo designs they have in their collection and why they are called Logos if their EULA says they cannot be used as logos. The answer they gave me was rather intriguing and shows me just how much this whole profession has devolved the past several years.

You can use those things as “logos” once you pay the royalty, but so can anyone else in the world. You cannot trademark them. And you don’t own the copyright on them. So apparently, if you are ok with using clipart that anyone else in the world can use (and dilute your brand) I guess you can have at it. At least that was the impression the rep gave me.
< Not a lawyer.

Any designer that proposes such a thing for a client brand should be barred from the business. While probably perfectly fine for an Etsy thing or web blog, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had clients with non-trademarkable logos, or raster image logos say to me, “we never expected our hobby to take off and make a real business out of it.”

Can a logo be trademarked if If the original logo I buy is meant to be changed in a meaningful way? Here’s the licence my friend will be getting if he does buy that certain logo.

Your friend is buying clipart that anyone could by.
If I were his client and found out he was using clipart that anyone can buy, I might ask for a refund. If I found out after my business collateral was printed, I’d sue him.

Picture this scenario. Someone comes to you for a logo unique to their business. They are gonna sink a LOT of money into their business. You decide to use a piece of clipart for which you pay a few credits, add some colors, maybe change this or that, call it a logo and bill the client for your “work.” The business owner takes your “work” and creates a brand, using that piece of clip art for his sign, his interior decoration, his product, his ads, IOW he gets that brand out there and people recognize it.

Now someone else comes along and buys that same clipart and starts using it on billboards and T-shirts with the word SH!T spattered across it. What does that do to your client’s brand? There is nothing your client can do about it.
The art can’t be trademarked according to that EULA.
And, according to that EULA, you can’t hand off the logo file with the art in a client-clickable format, which a logo must be.

If this avenue were pursued with the direct knowledge of the client, that might be a different matter, though a professional designer would never suggest it. If it’s being done without the client knowing, that borders on fraud.

< Not a lawyer.

Most small businesses, like an independent corner hardware store, don’t trademark their logos. It’s expensive, usually involves an attorney and, well, they just don’t bother with it. Even so, it would be a very bad practice to give a client a piece of artwork to use as a logo that couldn’t be trademarked due to the artwork’s copyright belonging to someone else, like a clip art service. As PrintDriver said, if the client entirely understands the situation and is okay with it and no infringement is taking place, I suppose it’s okay, but as a designer I would never propose such a thing and I would recommend against it if a client proposed it.

What you’re really asking is how close can your friend get before he or she slips over the edge into what’s unethical and/or illegal. The problem with this approach is that there is no hard edge, it’s a murky, slippery slope that could end up in court with one side saying it’s fine and the other saying it’s not. Then the judge decides and somebody loses but nobody really wins other than the attorneys who walk away with a fat paycheck.

It’s really best to stay well away from that slippery slope. Every designer takes inspiration from things seen in the course of living one’s life and the research done for specific projects. I might, for example, see a color combination I like, or a typeface used in a certain way, or a particular style or shape or line with an interesting personality. I might end up combining my own take on all these things into something new. But I would never copy something then make calculations about how much I needed to change what I copied in order to make it different enough that my client wouldn’t risk a law suit. That’s just plain, old plagiarism and is unethical. Even in those instances where it might not be technically illegal, it’s the technique of a bad designer.

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