Is borrowing an idea wrong?

When it comes to finding inspiration to embark on a design, there are different sources where one can find. I want to know whether it will be appropriate to borrow someone else’s idea and tweak it and incorporate in your work. What I am trying to say is that, if I want to design something, for instance, a logo, and I have seen how a particular logo is designed and I like the style. Is it wrong to borrow and utilize that particular idea?

I think you’ve described an enormous gray area where the answer would depend on what you have in mind.


For me, it is a big, fat red line. If you allow yourself down that easy way out once, you’ll do it again, it’s is a quick, lazy fix that does a disservice to your client.

Moreover – and I know this is going to sound very sanctimonious but this is only a personal choice – I won’t reuse an idea I came up with for one client (even if it was on the rejected pile), for another. Too easy. That way it forces me think anew for each project.

The litmus test is how you’d feel if you were stood in front of the client and they said they loved it and asked if it was all your own work. Would you have to lie?

To be inspired and influenced by something is fine. To directly lift it is, most definitely, not.

For me, it’s theft, as sure as taking a chocolate bar from a sweet shop and not paying for it is. In fact you are steeling twice; once from the person who designed it in the first place (How would you feel if someone did that with your work?) and also from your client, who is paying you money to come up with an original piece of work.

You are being paid to come up with something bespoke for them, not something that someone else designed that looks good and you like. If you work with that and their business in mind, then you should be able to come up with something as unique as their business is to them and something that reflects this.

Although, ideas are not covered by copyright, the execution of an idea is, so tread very carefully. Furthermore; even if you don’t fall foul of the law, you have to be able to square it with your own moral compass. Just because something is not directly illegal, doesn’t mean it is ethical.

[How is it that I always intend to write a succinct, 3-line response and end up writing a tome of verbal diarrhoea?]


Here’s why I said it’s a grey area.

There are few truly original ideas. Most everything we do contains bits and pieces of those things we’ve seen or experienced before that have been recombined in new and different ways.

If a designer sees a logo composed of, say, wavy lines, and likes it, I see no reason for that designer to ban wavy lines, or circles or the color red from her thoughts just because she has seen and liked those things elsewhere.

That’s an extreme example, of course. Flat out copying might be the other extreme. Somewhere in between the extremes is a gray area where things aren’t black and white. On either side of the nebulous boundaries defining the gray area, the ethical decisions are easy. But within that gray area, drawing red lines can be difficult since there are so few solid surfaces on which to affix the line.


I sort of agree, but ultimately I think there is a line between being inspired and influenced by and directly lifting something. Although everyone’s moral compass is set slightly differently, if you are being honest with yourself you know whether you are overtly plagiarising, or just taking inspiration.

I don’t think there has ever been designer (or anyone creative, for that matter) that hasn’t bee influenced and inspired by other people’s work. It’s natural, normal and almost necessary.

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When it comes down to entering that gray territory I described, I think it’s best to err on the side of caution and not go there if there’s any question regarding plagiarism versus inspiration. Like you mentioned, I think most of us know intuitively when we’ve been influenced a little too much and are in sight of that red line. In other words, if someone is asking themselves if they’ve gone too far, the answer is probably yes.

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So far we haven’t heard any elaboration from the OP. Perhaps we’ll offer an opportunity for him/her to explain?

Most legal systems see any kind of borrowing of ideas as stealing and grounds for a lawsuit. However psychology research shows that artistic creations are a result of subconsciously copying past experiences.

So with that in mind, let creatively takes its course naturally. Then when its done, put on a lawyer hat to see if anything appears too “borrowed”, if so, refine until it doesn’t seem that way.

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Thank you all for the responses. I can get the point you’re trying to make, that a design should be original. I have seen a couple of logos that have some kind of similarities. Examples are the Nike and Rexona logos. I don’t know whether I can post them here to serve as a reference. I really don’t know the ideas behind them, and which one was created first. But they are not the same. So as a designer, if I am inspired by something, say, a pattern, a composition etc., can I refine refine it to look different. Because sometimes you will be commissioned to create something you might not have any idea about, and would have to research for some information. In the course of this and you come across something that inspires you, not copying and pasting it actually, is it wrong?

Or if am creating something but this time very genuine, and I see that a certain design has some similarities with what I have already created, can what I have created be kept since I came out my own idea, or I should just create another one?

This is why it’s a good idea to look for inspiration in things that are not logos (if you are designing a logo).

If you use another logo as a starting point for inspiration, then it’s hard to move away from that design. It’s good to do research, to see what is out there and particularly to make sure you’re not designing similar to your client’s competitors.

If you find inspiration in other things, say a flower, a car, an item of clothing, the inspiration is more abstract.

Saying that, there are many logos that look like other logos.


I’m a t-shirt designer and I currently have around 20 orders in various stages for custom t-shirt designs. Do you know how many designs and versions you can create focusing on one topic? Clarification: I have at least three different football t-shirt orders on my desk.

We borrow or create designs based off of other designs pretty often. Its helpful for our customers and speeds up the process for us. I will often recommend to our customers to look at previous shirt designs to at least give me an idea of what they are looking for in their design. Whether its a certain style, layout, or color scheme. If they don’t find anything that they like, then I will look at several different designs and create a custom piece that either pulls inspiration or even elements directly from whatever I’m looking at.
If you Google something like “home inspection logo”, you will see that most of them look pretty similar, but different as well. I think that is kind of the same idea.

I don’t agree with outright copying a design, but if you like the layout or color scheme of another design, I would say to take what you like but make it your own as well. I wouldn’t say it is necessarily “borrowing an idea” but more like taking inspiration from it and making it your own. Its a thin line that you have to tread carefully.

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When you say borrow, do you mean “can I borrow your lawn mower” or “can I borrow that delicious slice of cake”?

“Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” –Pablo Picasso


If you recreate a person’s “style” I would not consider that copying, but if you copy their work, that is IP theft.

Leaders in innovative design eventually become the “style the time”. Often designers are asked to work in a certain style. The old rule of thumb is you have to “significantly change” at least 3 major design elements to use a design as a basis for your own.

But IP law is the fastest changing law in the modern world and this basic rule is now useless.

Basically here’s the rub right now:
Legal Elements (examples vary by jurisdiction)

  1. you Knowingly create a design that mimics another design
    a. in the same industry, or
    b. benefit from the use of another’s work in detriment to the owner of the IP
    This can get you jail time for IP theft.

  2. Not knowing, but using a name by a well established brand in a different industry.
    This will get you a cease & desist order and you could be liable for all losses by all parties.

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Abbeam, what you are describing is not “borrowing someone’s idea”, it is plagiarism. “Ideas” cannot be copyrighted (someone builds a mousetrap and you create a better one.) But designs ARE copyrightable, in fact, a design is considered to be copyrighted from the moment it is published publicly. What you are suggesting is not borrowing an idea, but rather, it borders on theft of a design. Be very cautious, my friend.

Pops, I’m sorry but that is false.
Ideas are absolutely firmly under Intellectual Property Law (CopyWrite, Trademark or Patent law) upon conception.

In order to assert a claim the claimant must prove he/she either:

  1. had the idea first, or
  2. Improved the “thing” to a level recognizable by a reasonable professional in the trade. (The PHOSITA Test), or
  3. Creation of a prototype that meets the PHOSITA test.

#3 is best, but often creating a prototype is undoable.
#2 look up the PHOSITA test

Sketch (or CAD for Patent Law) your idea with notes that clearly explain what it is, what it does, what it does differently than any predecessor, and why it is an upgrade recognizable by PHOSITA.
Put it in an envelope, take it to a post office, and mail it to yourself by registered post. That is a U.S. Federal Government seal on the stamp with the date and is considered proof of date of concept for 99% of cases.

Sorry, Neverman, but you are misinformed. Ideas are NOT copyrightable according to the U.S. Copyright Office. Read this . . . › help › faq › faq-protect
“Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. See Circular 1 . . .”

Here is an exact duplicate of the wording as listed in

circular 92
Copyright Law of the United States
and Related Laws Contained in Tıtle 17 of the United States Code
December 2016

“(b) In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.”

Page 8 Copyright Law of the United States

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I studied this for 2 years. The error you’re making is a common one and is one of the most difficult areas in Intellectual Property Law: Differentiating which sort of “thing” gets what sort of protection. Simply, Section b is not what you think it is. It differentiates what gets Copyright protection from what gets Patent (operation, discovery) or Trademark (system, process…) Law.

Each of the 3 has different requirements (and different legal definitions for “idea” vs “prototype” or proof).

  1. Copyright is what it sounds like “Copy” = text (pic/music) rights.
  2. Trademark is a logo (your mark in the trade industry), instructions (how your product is used in your trade)
  3. Patent is a “machine” or an improvement on a machine. (can be biological or chemical compositions, formulas etc…)

The basis for excluding “idea” as not Copyright is simply because each area has different requirements that explain how and when the appropriate Law is in effect. So anyone can claim they “had the idea first”. That’s why you have to, under Copyright law, prove that you had it first. That’s why the easiest way is to mail it to yourself and getting that Federal mail stamp with the date.

Under Patent you need to pass the PHOSITA test - ether a prototype or plans for a prototype (if a competitors prototype is done first though, you lose it).

Sorry this is long but I think it was important enough to clarify.

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