Copy big copy small Jason 08 Aug 2006

45 comments Latest by Lisa

There’s a lot of link love in the blogosphere about Urban Counterfeiters, a site that “Brings American consumers reports from small companies and artists who have been taken advantage of by large corporations. We wish for these corporations to be held accountable for their actions and to change their business practices.”

Wow does that smack of elitism. Hey big guys, only the small guys are allowed to copy, remix, distort, and sample designs. If we do it it’s cool, funny, and hip. If you do it it’s irresponsible and you’re taking advantage of our delicate artistry. Stop that, it hurts!

My position is that no one should be copying anyone. Be original on your own. There’s plenty of originality to go around. Influence is one thing — we’re all influenced all the time without even knowing it — but copying and design plagiarism is something else entirely. And it’s entirely wrong for big and small alike.

But let’s not get all high and mighty about the big guys copying the small guys. In my experience walking around Chicago I see far more examples of the little guy jacking the big guy when it comes to design — especially big brand design — than the other way around.

45 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Carlos Segura 08 Aug 06

Go J. I agree completely.

Mark H. 08 Aug 06

My first thoughts were “whiny hypocrites” when I saw the site this morning. Thanks for summing it up a lot more eloquently. :)

Josh B. 08 Aug 06

I don’t think anyone will argue that it is okay for anyone to steal/plagiarize, but I see the issue being:

When a large corporation uses its R&D capital, distribution network, and advertising budget to push an idea that it lifted from a bootstrapping designer, they will be the ones to make money from the idea, not the guys selling the original t-shirt on cafepress.

The big corporations are not just stealing ideas, they are stealing money out of the pockets of the small guys.

Sam Sherwood 08 Aug 06

And yet the small guy, when he receives a cease and desist letter from said “big guy”, actually has to comply with removing the work. The reverse, however, doesn’t normally happen.

Their site is simply bringing light on a few corporations whose regular practive is to steal from their submission pool. Surely, we can’t be so ready to counterpoint, that we cannot realize the distinctions?

Calling people hypocrites that have never been met is a little off the mark… Especially when the few samples on their site don’t back it up.

Ergo, I disagree. Of course, people should be original; however, how does saying that actually help the little guy? The large corporations have money and lawyers on their side. The small businesses and freelancers, on the other hand, do not.

Zach K. 08 Aug 06

While I can understand what you’re saying about little guys copying big guys, the effects of doing so are quite different. You can’t tell me there is not a difference between a small company/individual stealing ideas from a large, multi-million dollar organization and a large, multi-million dollar organization stealing from a small business/individual.

Of course we can agree that in both cases it is wrong, but it seems a little MORE wrong in the base of an organization. This increase in “wrong” comes mainly from the fact that their respective bank accounts are drastically different and a large corporation can more easily spend the time and money to create original ideas.

Also, I can’t figure out your comment, “Wow, does that smack of elitism.” How can you define holding corporations accountable for the benefit of others as elitism?

k8 08 Aug 06

I agree with Josh B. And when the big guys rip off the little guys, it can break the smaller artist. So while equal distain for theft and plagiarism is right on, equal assignation of the consequences isn’t.

Alan 08 Aug 06

I couldn’t disagree more.

Regarding elitism, Urban Counterfeiters hasn’t indicated they support the grey area copyright and trademark infringement that goes on in “Internet T-shirt Land”. The designs they’ve featured so far are original works by the artists. If you want to charge people who post rants supportive of Urban Counterfeiters on their websites while wearing Darth Vader playing ping-pong shirts go right ahead, but leave Urban Counterfeiters out of it.

Regarding the copyright of a design, art isn’t like software. Software lets you protect and hide the creative stuff in a binary executable or behind a hosted service wall. Design is out there for anyone to grab. Copyright is the only thing a designer has to protect their work. Most of the examples on the page are blatant rip offs, the equivalent of asking a design firm for a bid, handing the comps that came with the bid to your in-house hack who fiddles with them a bit and then sends them off to the printer. It’s certainly unethical and, depending on the situation, illegal.

I’m all for the break-up or large, thuggish industry groups that lost sight of their initial mission years ago to concentrate and squeezing everyone for a dime (MPAA, RIAA), but abandoning the concept that an individual owns what they create is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Nathan Borror 08 Aug 06

Originality is such a subjective word when applied to design. Everything has been done. Design is just taking what’s been done and putting your spin on it making it better.

However, I disagree, there is a big difference between the big guy steeling from the little guy. Money. The little guy can’t market an “original” product on the scale of the big guy thus the pain of being ripped off is felt much deeper. When the little guy rips a big guy no one really takes notice.

Wasn’t it Pablo Picasso that said, “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.”

Geoff 08 Aug 06

I read somewhere that ideas in the absense of execution are worthless. That seemed pretty compelling. What would be the impact of the inverse.

Instead of: “no one should be copying anyone”, what if “everyone can copy anyone”?

Not advocating this per se, but interested in hearing some chatter — if execution if what makes something valuable, should we really care whether or not ideas get copied?

If anyone could copy everybody’s ideas, would idea originators become very valuable to the folks that have execution ability?

Dan Boland 08 Aug 06

Jason, not to bust your balls, but can you provide some examples of the little guy ripping off the big guy? I live in Chicago, so I want to know what you’re seeing.

Michal Migurski 08 Aug 06

I agree with Sam, Zach, and others in this thread.

I checked out that site last week, and few of the examples were instances of clothing designs that had been submitted to stores for production, *rejected*, and then produced anyway minus royalties to the original artist. Can you imagine a patent examiner rejecting applications while resubmitting them under his own name? Same thing, big problem.

This is hardly the same situation as street vendors selling fake Gucci bags or skate companies issuing corporate logo parodies. Borrowing and remixing *explicitly* rely on audience recognition of the work being appropriated (would a “Fuct” shirt mean anything if it wasn’t a Ford logo parody?), they are companies taking advantage of obscure designers.

Gareth Simpson 08 Aug 06

Surely little guys that riff on big guys’ work are relying on their recognition?

It’s imitation as a form of flattery or it’s parody.

Big guys using little guys work are relying on their obscurity so that they can claim that the work is ‘original’.

Sanyo 08 Aug 06

Many, or most, art cultures worldwide and across history place a lot of value on copying whats been done. The belief that copying is bad is not true in traditional Asian art.

Leon 08 Aug 06

While I think copying is a bad thing, the truth usually always ends up poping up somewhere. I found a site online http://www.beenfunkd.com that will let you make an online complain about pretty much anyone about anything, some of the complaints on the site are related to plagiarism.

Nancy Scola 08 Aug 06

Depends, Jason. Maybe originality is all-important in t-shirt design. But there’s a whole lot of art where the good artist borrows liberally from work created before her. Architecture for one. Hiphop/rap for another. Art that springs fully formed from the ether often sucks.

Phil 08 Aug 06

I have to agree with others here, that just because some small guys copy off of the big guys, doesn’t mean they all do, or specifically that anyone involved with this website copies from the big guys. They are completely seperate issues.

JF 08 Aug 06

You canít tell me there is not a difference between a small company/individual stealing ideas from a large, multi-million dollar organization and a large, multi-million dollar organization stealing from a small business/individual.

What does the size of the company and how much money they have have to do with anything? We’re talking about copying without permission, not market cap.

Putting numbers on things only attempts to bend the basic point: copying without permission is copying without permission.

I don’t support it anywhere. I don’t support the big guys blatantly copying from the little guys or the little guys blatantly copying from the big guys.

Of course copying/inspiration is subject to degrees and personal subjectivity, but I don’t support a site like Urban Counterfeiters which actually seems quite extreme in their proclamations:

“He also does a small side project called Delphi, which H&M decided to fuck over recently. Pictured left is his design, pictured right is the work of the douchebags.”

Then they go on to say…

“YOU ARE HELPING TO RIP OFF SMALL COMPANIES AND THE REAL CREATIVE DESIGNERS WHO COME UP WITH TRULY ORIGINAL IDEAS.”

So they seem to believe there are things such “truly original ideas.” I agree that there are truly original ideas, calling a star/rope-like shape in different colors is stretching that definition pretty thin.

And I’m also curious about what they mean by rip off. Do they mean rip off artistically or rip off monetarily? You could say that stealing a design from Urban Outfitters doesn’t affect Urban Outfitters sales, but I don’t see any proof that these artists who were “ripped off” by UO have actually been affected at all. If we’re so interested in dollars and lawyers, anyone got any real numbers to back up the claims that the little guy is actually being “ripped off”?

But thereís a whole lot of art where the good artist borrows liberally from work created before her.

I agree with that completely. So you support Urban Outfitters being inspired by independent art before it? Or does inspiration only flow one way — from the big guys to the small guys?

How can you define holding corporations accountable for the benefit of others as elitism?

I’m all for holding *everyone* accountable. As I mentioned in my post (did ya read it?) I don’t support blatant copying of *anyone’s* ideas. Big guys and small guys. I don’t care who you are. Poor, rich, 18 or 88, one person or a company of 1000, blatant copying without permission is wrong. I don’t play favorites.

BJ 08 Aug 06

Dudes I’ve seen that happy tooth design at my dentists office. Give me a break calling that original. Someone took that “retro” design and make something out of it. You can’t call someone else on making something out of something that was made from something else!

That site is for whiners.

Nancy Scola 08 Aug 06

me: But thereís a whole lot of art where the good artist borrows liberally from work created before her.

Jason: I agree with that completely. So you support Urban Outfitters being inspired by independent art before it? Or does inspiration only flow one way ó from the big guys to the small guys?

Generally and to some extent, yeah. Smaller artists need more agressive protection than larger producers. The idea with IP protection is to motivate the continued production of beautiful things. It’s society’s benefit that we’re worried about. The guy whose product line consists of three t-shirts is going to be more reluctant to keep being creative if his stuff gets stolen than a major company like Urban who is less injured if one of their many designs is reproduced on the streets of Chicago.

But more to the point, a few of these shirts look like direct ripoffs, like the cupcakes dropping from a plane and “take pills” ones. That’s not creativity. That’s bootlegging.

FredS 08 Aug 06

Urban Outfitters wouldn’t make a shirt and sell it if they weren’t making money off of it. What’s wrong with someone pointing out that they are benefiting from someone else’s work? Also, I don’t anyone who refers to ripping off someone’s idea as cool, funny, or hip.

Ben 08 Aug 06

I gotta say, I really agree with you here, Jason. I am so sick of hearing the proverbial “little guy” whining all the time and acting like he’s owed something. And like you say, copying is wrong. Period. It’s bad no matter who does it. And just because a bigger company is so “public” that it gets “caught” says nothing of the wanton stealing that goes on by the “little guys” out there who can easily get away with it. It’s both wrong. And you’re right, why are we so obsessed with playing favorites?! It’s like some kind of wacky REVERSED-elitism! Littleguyism. Loserism. Whatever. It’s old.

FredS 08 Aug 06

Hey, if you’re so fucking offended by the “elitism”, set up a small guys ripping off big guys site.

Zach K 08 Aug 06

How can you define holding corporations accountable for the benefit of others as elitism?

Iím all for holding *everyone* accountable. As I mentioned in my post (did ya read it?) I donít support blatant copying of *anyoneís* ideas. Big guys and small guys. I donít care who you are. Poor, rich, 18 or 88, one person or a company of 1000, blatant copying without permission is wrong. I donít play favorites.

You didn’t answer my question (did ya read it?). I never questioned your “no favorites” attitude. I’m merely curious as to how you can use the term “elitism” to describe what these people are doing.

What does the size of the company and how much money they have have to do with anything? Weíre talking about copying without permission, not market cap.

Let me try and simplify my point with an analogy of sorts. Think of a grown up and a child. If a grown up steals a sucker from a store, it is considered to be more wrong than if a small child steals that same sucker. Why is this? Greater accountability is held to the parent, and this is the same thing in the “business world.” Yes, it’s bad if a small company or individual steals from a large company, but it’s even worse when a large company, who has millions at their disposal, steals from an individual. It’s as though the big company “should know better.”

STe 08 Aug 06

I would like to throw in the wealth and size of the company, again. I want to highlight two possible reasons for both large and small blatantly copying ideas. These are points to think about, not my out and put opinion. Larger companies think that they have so much wealth and clout that smaller companies will not sue them or start legal proceedings because they basically have more money. The small guy will presumably lose because of lacks of funds.

The small guy is thinking that, because they are so small, they will not be Ďseení stealing ideas. Why would the big guy come after us? We are so small. The act of copying or stealing is wrong no matter how you look at it, but the reasons behind it and the motivation to do it seem right in the eyes of those doing it.

Inspiration and copying are not the same thing.

What are your views on the reasoning behind blatant copying?

Jon 08 Aug 06

Great thread so far guys. Another thing.. You know all those Louis Vuitton bags for sale all over Manhattan? Obviously, they are fake, but I’ll bet you Louis Vuitton is selling a ton more of the REAL ones ever since the fake ones got everyone’s attention.

So I bet LV doesn’t mind so much, even though they might act like they do.

A lot of the small guys copying the big guys is like free marketing, but I doesn’t work the opposite way.

Michal Migurski 09 Aug 06

JF: “I donít support it anywhere. I donít support the big guys blatantly copying from the little guys or the little guys blatantly copying from the big guys.”

What a bland, uncontroversial thing to say.

This whole topic is only even remotely interesting because of the size differential between the big guy & little guy, the power politics involved, and the varying ethics of ripoffs, copies, remixes, and parodies. Come ON, why whitewash the real meat here with milquetoast platitudes like “copying without permission is copying without permission?”

=o)

Niko 09 Aug 06

Luckily people have started to regard copyright as valuable. The problem is, people think copyright equals that copying without permission is wrong.

The big guys show the way by suing the small guys over the smallest infringement. Suing costs money, which the small guys don’t have. Without agreeing on all of the contents of Urban Counterfeiters, I can’t blame the small guys for taking the route they can afford: “morally suing” the big guys by publicizing the fact they’ve been done wrong.

Personally I think the suing of others, “protecting the copyrights”, is more opportunistic than the copying in the first place. There are companies that buy intellectual property (e.g. patents) and just sit on it and wait for someone to infringe. And then they sue. Lawrence Lessig has the famous example of making a documentary movie, where the biggest part of the budget comes from clearing copyrights: on chairs, posters, signs… whatever designed object is shown on film.

The attitude that all copying should have a permission is if not killing but slowing the creation of new intellectual property. (And I’m saying this even though and because considerable amount of my income comes from intellectual property.)

Martin 09 Aug 06

Virtually all advancements are based on plagiarising to some extent. even fabulous products such as ‘ruby on rails’ would never have been conceived without the ideas and the languages that came before it. Taking someoneís livelihood away is wrong but building on other people’s ideas is how we grow as a race.

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Gordon 09 Aug 06

One word: spirograph. If that “delphi” artist was ripped off, then so was every 8 year-old in the 80s. Hardly original.

That said, I do feel for any “little guys” trying to compete in the big world, but I don’t feel sorry for any of the ones mentioned here. As someone who has created web applications and started a design firm, I didn’t whine when others came out with similar services, or when big companies used similar ideas; I worked out ways to market my services for niches that the big guys don’t care about.

These artists need to get smarter. They should be able to use the web and their small size (one person in most of these cases) to outpace and outthink the big, slow-moving companies.

Greg 09 Aug 06

Totally agree with this.

It’s not that the artists aren’t right to be offended, it’s just a little strange to hear them complain about being ripped off (creatively, not financially) in the days of the remix/mash-up culture.

Also they come off like total jerks. I’m all for anti-consumerism, but yeesh. Rage against the machine a little less, guys.

beth 09 Aug 06

I do believe there’s very little original thought, so when people whine about other people stealing their ideas, usually the idea wasn’t very good to begin with or was something entirely vague or previously recycled to the point of public domain design concept. (For example “Hey, that person copied my circle!”)

However it’s one thing to appropriate/remix/whatever you want to call it, but’s another to profit off of it at someone else’s expense. I believe the best example is how Johnny Cupcakes actually submitted that design to Urban Outfitters’ buyers, and instead they turned around sold it as their own. Not to mention isn’t there a difference between appropriation as cultural commentary and Urban Outfitters jacking designs to make some cash?

Additionally when a small designer does something like parodying a major identity, the public is able to distinguish between parody and original.

August 09 Aug 06

I think part of the problem is that some of these small artists approached Urban Outfitters as potential suppliers of products for those stores. They attempted to initiate a good-faith business relationship with a firm who then, essentially, stole from them the only thing that made such legitimate deals viable; in this case the options of recourse that the smaller firms have is significantly less because of the restrictive cost of legal fees, and the potential for damage to those firms is exponentially greater because of their much more limited resources to place in developing products.

Stealing something you’ve ‘seen around’ might potentially be excused as parody, or even as subconscious and therefore accidental. But stealing from someone with whom you had a direct relationship with (even if only in the ‘negotiating the terms of that relationship’ phase) is not even close to justifiable.

Art 09 Aug 06

How many folks have said “I’m rooting for the underdog”, “I’m rooting for the little guy” in their lifetime? Think David and Goliath (an all-time popular story), Matz/DHH and java, etc. Let’s not forget that the “against-all-odds” angle is popular and sells (be it sports, business, love, human tragedy, new technology, or whatever).

In this case abandoning the so-called “elitist” viewpoint would undoubtedly make the site less appealing to its current constituents (those that like little guy — big guy battles amongst other things - a.k.a. “whiners” by some in this thread). Intuitively a more “inclusive” perspective (big and little) would work against the publisher - ‘jack-of-all and master-of-none’ (how many times - bar the presence of heavy wagers and “fan”atical allegiance - have you rooted for the odds-on favorite to crush the long-shot? - just not that interesting).

Market segmentation does not equate to elitism (you may appeal to an “elitist” segment - but that’s different).

Engelgrafik 09 Aug 06

Looks like something designed for the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico. They combined Huichol cultural symbology and lines with Op Art trends to come up with designs very reminiscient of Matt Irving’s “original” design.

psi29a 10 Aug 06

Pot, meet kettle.

Tim 10 Aug 06

How else can the little guy have a voice against infringement by a big corporation? Maybe they should just file a lawsuit, but they may not have the resources to do so.

I think it’s hypocritical to say you support copyright protection for all but then balk at this expression of it. Is it simply the execution you dislike? Are the artists represented saying they deserve special treatment, or do they just want the same treatment that a corporation would have?

Regardless, copyright law isn’t black and white. It does take into consideration the intent to profit, and the level of financial harm caused. The law doesn’t look at the big guy and the little guy the same.

Maybe there’s just too many stories of the little guy trying to get something for nothing that we’re numb to people that have valid complaints.

Kathleen Fasanella 10 Aug 06

I’ve worked in product development in the fashion industry for over 25 years. As Jason says -and it’s true- I’ve seen small companies and individuals knocking off both large concerns and their colleagues on their same level, just as often as I’ve seen large concerns copy small ones. I really don’t know who does more of it.

The way I see it, both groups have their arrogance. The small guys feel entitled, and justify it by thinking they’re striking back at “the machine”, an act of anarchy or that it is okay because the big company *must* have knocked off somebody in the past so they’re justified in exacting revenge on behalf of whomever else was wronged in the past. The big guys (at least in apparel, not talking about artwork or graphics but apparel design) think it’s okay because the designer they’re copying is usually unprofessional and their goods aren’t well made. They see it as fair game because it’s only “home sewers”, people that aren’t really in the business.

Not too long ago, I published a series regarding a handbag from a small designer named Beth Mitchell who was selling her “original” designs that were not just an exact copy of Bobby Breslau’s bags, but she even used his patterns as well!

Lisa 18 Aug 06

But what I really want to know from all of this is what do you think happens economically to the little guy, the original creative idea generator economically? Does he thrive or die when the the big guys copy him? Is there a size or number of years in business that will allow him to remain the originator in the hearts of most or does he die on the vine buried by the large corporation that stole his concepts/designs or ideas in the name of the almighty buck?

Let’s face it- at the end of the day what really matters is if there is justice to any of it in my opinion. If the little guy can thrive despite what the large corporation did then maybe its ok in the end? What do you think?

Lisa 18 Aug 06

But what I really want to know from all of this is what do you think happens economically to the little guy, the original creative idea generator economically? Does he thrive or die when the the big guys copy him? Is there a size or number of years in business that will allow him to remain the originator in the hearts of most or does he die on the vine buried by the large corporation that stole his concepts/designs or ideas in the name of the almighty buck?

Let’s face it- at the end of the day what really matters is if there is justice to any of it in my opinion. If the little guy can thrive despite what the large corporation did then maybe its ok in the end? What do you think?

Lisa 18 Aug 06

But what I really want to know from all of this is what do you think happens economically to the little guy, the original creative idea generator economically? Does he thrive or die when the the big guys copy him? Is there a size or number of years in business that will allow him to remain the originator in the hearts of most or does he die on the vine buried by the large corporation that stole his concepts/designs or ideas in the name of the almighty buck?

Let’s face it- at the end of the day what really matters is if there is economic justice to any of it in my opinion. If the little guy can thrive despite what the large corporation did then maybe its ok in the end? What do you think?

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