There’s no such thing as an original idea. We hear this all the time. You come up with a brilliant idea, or you write that killer tagline, only to find that somewhere along the line someone has done it before. So, when does inspiration become plagiarism? Claire Baldwin explores the differences between the two and investigates what can be done to avoid the situation.

Inspiration vs plagiarism

One of the biggest fears for designers is having their work stolen or copied.

Creativity can’t exist without inspiration: artists inspired by nature, musicians inspired by other musicians, filmmakers inspired by real-life stories. By reacting to this stimulus and combining it with our individual ideas and experiences, we create something new.

However, it’s hard to tell when inspiration ends and theft begins. While it’s an important part of the process, you should never let inspiration become imitation.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics

The Japanese Olympic Committee made headlines in 2015 after revealing the Games’ official 2020 logo.

Kenjiro Sano was accused of stealing Belgian designer Olivier Debie’s 2013 design for the Théâtre de Liège. Debie undertook legal proceedings for copyright infringement due to the similarity of Sano’s work.

Comparing them side by side, it’s clear why Debie was unhappy. Sano claimed to have never seen Debie’s work, but further allegations of plagiarism surfaced from his past work and the logo was scrapped.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Last year, posters for the ‘Star Wars’ spinoff ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ attracted media attention for their similarity to a series of Sony Music France album covers.

Created by Hachim Bahous and released in 2015, the album covers feature large, colourful typography and graphics, which are almost exactly replicated in the Disney designs. While this could be considered coincidence, the posters even use the same colour scheme.

Bahous said: “I am flattered that the quality of my work is recognised, but it is still pure and simple forgery, I have not been asked for my permission, I wish to be credited and paid for this work I have done for Sony!”

Little Swan

This year, Chinese washing machine manufacturer Little Swan was criticised for stealing adverts created by Design Army for the Hong Kong Ballet.

 In a series of ads, Little Swan almost exactly replicated the artistic shots used for the Hong Kong Ballet. They included ballet dancers wearing the same outfits, and even copied and pasted portions of the original images.

 While China has long been known for its copycat culture, it’s hard to understand why Little Swan would copy the adverts so precisely with so little connection between ballet and washing machines.

How to avoid design plagiarism

With the current media saturation, being consistently original can be a tall order.

Here are some tips to avoid accidentally copying something, or creating something so generic that it’s hard to tell if it was copied or not. 

Avoid the familiar 

Try to create something unusual, as you’ll have more chance of this being a unique design.

If something seems like ‘the obvious choice’ then steer clear! You might accidentally copy something or just end up creating something really dull.

Do your research

Do whatever you can to check that your idea doesn’t exist. Search online, look at design books, and hunt through trademark databases.

Don’t limit yourself to the sector or medium you’re working with, as common designs can be found almost anywhere.

Track your process

Keep note of your inspiration, how you researched ideas, any initial drafts or sketches, and date everything.

Should the worst happen despite your best efforts, you can better prove that it was a coincidence, show what inspired you, and that you used due diligence to avoid plagiarism.