The line between inspiration and stealing

nvhladek's picture

I'm new to the craft of logo/ID design, so I apologize in advance if these questions are facile or reveal profound ignorance. (Although, I would rather be thought of as stupid and get educated than blithely go about with niggling questions).

Just seeing if anyone can lead me to information or give me non-legal advice (i.e. general good rule of thumb common sense cya advice) about permissible uses of free fonts and freeware images in designs.

Fonts seem more clear cut to me because typically when downloaded or purchased, the license gives the terms of use (e.g. only non-commercial, or permissible in for profit work, etc.).

Use of freeware images in commercial are less clear to me. If, say, I download a freeware image and run it through Photoshop so that the original image is unrecognizable and inspires, say, a logo design, would someone consider this stealing if the image terms said it could not be used in a logo? Would the use of an element of the freeware image be considered a use of the image in its entirety?

What if I drew my own font or image based on the freeware font or image and then used that as the basis for my logo? Would that be inspiration or stealing? What do people consider the line between stealing another person's creative property and getting inspired by another person's work?

AGL's picture

I think and believe that if you inspire yourself in somebody's work and, utilizing only your EYE to drive you hand and create a 'new' version of something you SEE, that can not be consider as stealing.
Ie.: I love this Picasso but I can not have it... So I find a picture of it and draw a grid to help reproducing it on canvas; like the street painters that are commonly seen on any european capital. The resulting reproduction becomes then a 'study'. That seems to me as a legit effort, a exercise. Just don't reproduce the signature, because that would be disregarding.

When I have to work in a project for print, I do look at all sources of inspiration and, if I like something that is freeware, I just make sure that my final artwork don't look like it or anything else.

Old becomes new. If it is a painting, never say you painted it; instead say "I learned it".



kentlew's picture

Are you looking for a legal definition, or a moral one? Because the two will probably be slightly different.

nvhladek's picture

What if there were a particular shape in said Picasso painting that I really liked, so I scanned the picture of the painting into the computer and then used software to isolate the shape and use it in a design. Would that be stealing, or would my digital processing be considered an "electronic study."

To put it another way, did Andy Warhol steal the image of the Campbell's soup can, or did his manipulation of it using technology render it a found object useful for his creative task?

Well, unless there are any attorneys willing to give free legal advice, I'll have to stick with moral/ethical perspectives on the issue.

dezcom's picture

I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

Warhol made a very large replica of the soup can which he did not claim as his own original. Everyone on earth knew that ubiquitous Campbells can and accepted Warhols scaled up painting as an artistic comment on his place and time. There was no fraudulent intent or claim of ownership. Andy was not coming up with a rival soup brand and tricking people into thinking it was Campbels.

Regarding your situation, I would say if it feels wrong, it is wrong is a good guide to follow. Having said that, a logo is not a font. Plenty of logos have been based on existing fonts. If you make another font based on that font and call it your client's corporate typeface, then I would say you have ethically crossed the line and should discuss it with the original font's designer before you use it. "If in doubt, check it out" is a good motto. I don't mean with online forums, I mean with whomsoever developed the original face. There is also a danger that a freeware font or image was borrowed from someone else's work and is itself derivative. You might find the guy who made the freeware but he may not have the rights to the original design anyway. If I use your example, you may have gotten approval from Warhol (if he ere alive) to use an image of his painting in a logo design for a new soup company but you would still have to go back to Campbells and get their OK as well.

Contact the original source.


William Berkson's picture

Ethically, an ancient test is whether what you are contemplating doing is "good in your own eyes, good in the eyes of others." A modern way of putting "the eyes of others" is that if an article were written about what you have done, and were printed on the front page of the morning paper--or Typophile!--would you be comfortable with it or embarrassed?

nvhladek's picture

Thanks for pointing out the flaw in my logic regarding the Warhol reference.

To consider this issue in broad strokes, it seems like there is a subtle interplay between context and process. This interplay is then subject to moral intuition. Finally, if any other doubt exists, one needs to get permission from the original source.

Andy Warhol's context is art gratia artis; his process is the large reproduction of the Campbell's soup can image. No one could reasonably construe his use of the Campbell's soup can as a means to derive profit from the use of the image in the same commercial context (i.e. Warhol could have made money from selling the art, but he was not trying to sell soup). As a result, moral intuition would lead one to believe that Warhol is earnest in his artistic use of the image.

Let's consider this statement in terms of type and logo design.

(type design)

Designers Alpha and Beta like Helvetica. Alpha designs a font for the client that has parallel horizontal end strokes. Other elements of Alpha's font are unique and do not resemble Helvetica. Alpha's process is Alpha's own. No one would intuit Alpha's need to go to Linotype for approval. Alpha has not crossed the line.

Beta takes Helvetica and changes all the glyphs to have diagonally parallel end strokes. Beta sells the font to a client as their corporate font. Beta does not contact Linotype for permission to use Helvetica; perhaps Beta knows that the use is questionable? Beta has crossed the line.

(logo design)

Designers Gamma and Delta are developing a logo for a ski resort. They both like the image of a mountain in an Ansel Adams photograph. Gamma draws the mountain by hand and then develops that drawing into a logo. Gamma's process is Gamma's own. No one would intuit Gamma's need to go to the owner of Ansel Adams's work for approval. Gamma has not crossed the line.

Delta scans a reproduction of the photograph into the computer and using digital methods traces the image of the mountain and uses it in a logo design. While some details are lost, other unique details of Adams's image persist, and the proportions of the digital product are spot on to the original. Delta wonders if this constitutes stealing, but decides that the result is different enough not to count. Delta has crossed the line.

Caveat: Pangs of guilt lead Delta to abandon the first design. Instead, Delta uses the same process of an image of a mountain that is specifically provided as public domain and for free use. Has Delta crossed the line?

dezcom's picture

Delta may not have crossed the line because the actual mountain photographed by Adams was an act of nature and it was only captured as a photo by Adams. Adams made no claim of creating the mountain, only the image. If Delta drew it with his own hand, he may be OK. If he scanned in Adam's image and used it as a photo, he has to get permission from Adams. If Delta uses a public domain image as source material for his drawing of the mouintain, he is ethically fine in my eyes. He has not used a persons face that requires a model release either but that is a whole other can of worms.
Images in logos must be so simplified and abstracted to work in reduction and imprinting that they cannot retain much original detail anyway. Think of the Rock of Gibraltar image used as an insurance logo. The rock is an act of nature. I am sure years ago when it was drawn, the designer used a photo as a source image to be gin his sketch. Nether the rock or the source image are close enough to the logo to make it appear to be unethical behavior in my eyes.

Again, I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.


pattyfab's picture

Delta may not have crossed the line because the actual mountain photographed by Adams was an act of nature and it was only captured as a photo by Adams.

I had a similar situation once, I needed the profile of Michelangelo's David for a project I was doing for an Italian restaurant. At the time I was working for an art publisher so I cribbed a photo from one of their books. I converted the photo to greyscale, cropped it tight to the face, and manipulated it. Perhaps I should have gotten the rights from the photographer, but he would have had a hard time telling, in the end, that it was his profile of the David and not one of the thousands of other photos that have been taken of that sculpture over the years.

Michelangelo is dead and his estate is long out of copyright...

AGL's picture

Well, unless there are any attorneys willing to give free legal advice, I’ll have to stick with moral/ethical perspectives on the issue.

"What if there were a particular shape in said Picasso painting that I really liked, so I scanned the picture of the painting into the computer and then used software to isolate the shape and use it in a design. Would that be stealing, or would my digital processing be considered an “electronic study.”

Interesting. What I said was that by only utilizing your senses, like self refraining yourself onto actually copying someone's work, printed or digital or whatever, because you would not dare staring at yourself at the mirror when shaving... Cause then that wouldn't be stealing but lying, to yourself.

Ie.: I have a project which requires a actual version of a 1800 label. I go around the web and take snap shots using grab of a bunch of freeware picts [you name it, just drift around a bit], having in mind that you are looking for a impression. It IS over the web. All sorts of things - the gdm thing does not ... cool. After maybe few hours your got yourself blinking strangely. You find a label that may feel like it is that. Then all this impressions collected your just seat on the sofa and sketch nonsense, as if the green become red and yellow become violet. The woman you have seen countless times on a billion images visited is of all colors.
In my case, particularly, I am interested only on things that come from or before the nineteen century and earlier. So, I am by choice, excluded from the ME collecting impressions that are older then 1925.

A electrónic study of picasso can be seen all over the place on the form of 'gicles' which is execrable!

Andy Warhol did not steal a soup can, he gave life to it, by mechanical means. Each print was unique on its imperfection. He too collected pictures! Thus promoting the product, maybe in a attempt to obtain some patronship (maybe it didn't work as planned), but by then, the object of art become ITSELF.

Free cut:

Can you imagine Warhol on the web age?

ps.: sorry the slow response

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