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Back in 2011, designer Christian Louboutin sued Yves Saint Laurent for copying his signature red sole, a distinguishing feature of the former’s footwear. YSL retaliated that it was not possible to trademark a colour, especially in fashion where the element acts as a backbone. The case dragged on for years and ultimately the court ruled in favour of both parties. I guess, imitation is the best form of flattery so long as it doesn’t hurt business.
As designers, our lives are completely dictated by inspiration. Bookmarking pages, browsing through designs and downloading artwork have become routine because looking at other ideas is known to fuel one’s own. Unfortunately, the very connectivity that our field thrives on is also its biggest bane.
We all use the internet to search for answers. We call it research. But what happens when you use someone else’s work and pass it off as your own? Plagiarism, as an issue, has plagued most creative fields ever since the unrestricted exchange of ideas began. Like obscenity, plagiarism is difficult to interpret and varies from person to person. Simply taking inspiration from another’s work isn’t really cheating. And when the source of inspiration isn’t quantifiable, the lines are blurred even further. Moral codes dictate that deliberately picking out major elements from an artwork and using them as they are qualifies as stealing. But what if you weren’t aware of a particular design, yet yours ended up looking exactly like something from the past? This is where intent comes into play. We live in a world where unique ideas are often rare. If you’ve come up with something innovative, chances are someone else has already begun acting on it. Thus, it becomes important to understand the intent and use of the design. A telecom company stealing a grocery store’s app interface doesn’t raise hell. But a fashion designer copying his fellow competitor’s work is worth being talked about.
But does plagiarism in design affect us all? The answer is yes. You don’t have to be a creative professional to be a victim of this phenomenon. Our world thrives on innovation but with such a blatant theft of designs, people could become less motivated to think differently. The incentive to share their ideas with the world could diminish causing the rate of innovation to shrink. Since humans are accustomed to a constant upgradation in their way of life, this dearth of new ideas could prove to be quite catastrophic. However, an interesting school of thought says that it is the borrowing of concepts that drives the world to do better. As the pool of invention gets smaller and smaller, picking ideas and remaking them to suit different needs is the only way to innovate. If the telecom company borrows its competitor’s interface but adds more features to make the user’s life simpler, then there isn’t much harm in that. The competitor could, in response, borrow this new concept, recreate the experience and further better the design. As a result, both companies would actively work towards bettering their product, ultimately causing the user to benefit. But this theory only works when the borrower adds his own vision to the design. Blatant copying is wrong, illegal and quite frankly, tacky. As design consultant, Amanda Reiter said in one of her interviews, “If you want to copy someone else’s design, at least make it better.”