When does inspiration turn into plagiarism?

With open source development, there are great ideas available for all to use. But when does sharing become copying?

Whether we're talking about visual design, the writing of code or – in the case of web design – a combination of the two, most design work is at least inspired by the work of others. And that's no bad thing: why should we spend hours reinventing the wheel when neither our clients or customers will thank us for it?

That doesn't mean plagiarism, of course. But where do you draw the line between inspiration and copying. We speak to seven industry experts to find out their views...

01. When the source is uncredited

David Darnes

"With sites such as GitHub and CodePen allowing us to share code within the community, it's easy to find things that save a lot of time," says David Darnes, designer & developer for BaseKit. "What we sometimes miss out, however, is crediting the source.

"This is the difference between utilising resources and plagiarising resources. If you've used an open source package, credit it. Using open source packages is a good thing – I'm not asking you to reinvent the wheel, just tell us what wheels you used."

02. When irrelevant chunks of code are copied

Gus Mark

"In the years before it was easy for anyone to get a site live, our website was copied several times (that we know of)," says Gus Mark, director of Mark Design.

"It usually showed up because the visitor tracking code was also inadvertently copied. Once it was an exact duplication, translated into Vietnamese for a design company in Ho Chi Minh City. We were particularly flattered that they kept in our staff pictures.

03. When bespoke photography is stolen

Elliott J Stocks

"It's virtually impossible to create entirely original designs," says Elliott J Stocks, creative director of Typekit and co-founder of Lagom. "Almost everything we do has been informed by others' work and existing conventions. In fact, users rely on conventions to make sense of our work. Imagine a web without conventions – it'd be extremely difficult to use!

"But there are certain design elements, or combinations of elements, that have a purpose specifically for the website on which they belong, and to re-use them elsewhere starts to cross into the murky waters of plagiarism.

"Images are easiest to reference here: re-using photography that was bespoke for a particular project is a big no-no. But beyond that, it's all a grey area, and it's wisest to treat things on a case-by-case basis.

04. When it's a "substantial violation"

Asad Ali

"Morally, the boundary between inspiration and plagiarism is likely to be crossed when someone largely recreates the work or ideas of another and represents them as their own," says Asad Ali, partner, Blacks Solicitors.

"Legally speaking however, the boundary is only crossed if there is a violation of the legal rights of a copyright holder; the key test being whether a substantial part of the work has been copied.

"In an authoritative case involving two video game companies, although the original game was found to have 'inspired' the allegedly infringing game, this was deemed to be too general and did not amount to a substantial part of the original, the distinction being that there was no copying of the code or graphics.

05. When there's no improvement on the original

Jonty Sharples

"Designers collaborate with clients to create moodboards, where the work of competitors is reviewed for best-in-class features and quality of execution," says Jonty Sharples, Co-founder & CDO of Hactar. "Being inspired by this stuff is fine – it's your job to find inspiration wherever you can.

"If there's an element of functionality that's particularly standout, look to improve upon it. This is fine. You're taking an idea and running with it. If, however, you pilfer that idea and reproduce it wholesale, you're on very shaky ground.

"My rule of thumb is as follows: if you're taking someone else's work and carbon-copying it for financial or reputational gain, you're plagiarising.

06. When a "blurred line" is crossed

Dave Ellis

"There's no definitive line when it comes to plagiarism," says digital & web designer Dave Ellis. "The lines are blurred and unfortunately that's the reason why so many people get away with it. I've had my work copied a few times over the years, and it leaves you feeling both flattered and annoyed at the same time. It's good to look for inspiration, but you have to push your findings in your own direction to create something new."

07. When designers are learning

Daniel Howells

"I'll admit it: I've stolen," confesses web designer and developer Daniel Howells. "I've sneaked into other people's CSS and JS files, and pocketed design patterns and colour palettes that have taken my fancy. This was all years ago when I was learning development and design.

"Research and copying is part of learning, and the line between inspiration and plagiarism will always be blurred. If you've had your work plagiarised, take a moment to feel proud: you've inspired someone who's probably just learning the craft."

This article first appeared in issue 264 of net magazine.

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