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I am neither a graphic designer nor do I consider myself one. I have little grasp of colour theory, and basic knowledge of design principles. I do possess a sense of what looks good, though, and I am good at recreating designs.

I chose a beautiful website and set about creating my own design using it as a template. I asked the site owner for permission to use his backgrounds, and he agreed upon the condition that I show him the finished product.

Having finished I am not comfortable doing so. The designs do look similar. I am using the same font, the same backgrounds, and the same heading style. The layout is different, amongst other things, but there are many similarities.

Is it ethical to copy the work of other designers? Where is the tipping point from being inspired by (ethical) to copying (unethical) something?

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I see you've edited your question (welcome back!). If any of the answers here helped you, you should mark it so, as this has remained as 'unanswered' for 2 years. –  Yisela Sep 26 '13 at 20:27
    
You're framing this as a question about "ethics", but this clearly touches upon the law (ie copyright law), which is a whole different area. Ethics is in the eye of the beholder whereas the law has very specific definitions and processes and varies by jurisdiction. –  thomasrutter Sep 27 '13 at 6:37
    
@Yisela I'm not yet entirely sure what the right answer is. I suppose I've thought about it long enough. I am happy to say--two years is a long time--I've become a relatively decent designer since. Hurray for me. –  Mohamad Sep 27 '13 at 15:05
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9 Answers

I think you've copied too much, and so no, it's not ethical. Using one or two elements of someone else's idea is one thing, but when your site is essentially Same Song, Different Verse of the other guy's, then no.

To fix this, change things up. Use a different font of similar style — if it's Helvetica, use Franklin Gothic or Stone Sans; if it's Times, use Garamond or Caslon. If it's blue and yellow, use gray and bright red. And what the hell, ask him if he has any suggestions for how to improve yours.

This may also help you to understand why the other guy's site works.

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I asked the site owner for permission to use his backgrounds, and he granted to me upon the condition that I show him the finished product.

I'm rather ashamed to do so. The sites will look uncomfortably similar.

It sounds like you answered your own question. If there was no ethical problem with what you did, why would you feel shame? Why would you be uncomfortable? The person said to show them what you've done.

You're quite right to be concerned about these issues. There's a difference between inspiration and plagiarism. My advice is to change the design until you no longer feel ashamed or uncomfortable to show it to the person who inspired you.

I'm impressed you had the good sense to ask them for permission first, this is an extra step most people ignore.

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I think I'm afraid that once I show him the final product he will look at it and think it's too similar. I will post a link to the site and another to the finished product once I'm done to see what people think. –  Mohamad Mar 23 '11 at 12:59
    
I agree with your conclusion, but not how you got there - shame is too easily induced where it may or may not be valid. Don't here what I'm not saying - it can also not exist where it ought to be - my issue is purely with ethics via emotional appeal. –  AnonJr Apr 3 '11 at 14:46
    
@AnonJr You make a good point. There is a difference between personal ethics and societal ethics. I would say the only reason to feel shame or feel uncomfortable is because you feel you are crossing a line. Perhaps he is being too hard on himself. Even so, I would feel reluctant to do something that made me feel uncomfortable, even if the my own standards happen to be stricter than the norm. –  ghoppe Apr 4 '11 at 2:01
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Simple answer to your question: NO

As a creative type, I'd never answer with, "it's OK - go for it." But as a creative type, it's getting more and more difficult to be original...truly original.

HOWEVER, grabbing a design that you like, just to swap colors, fonts, and logos is about as close to plagiarism as you can get - IMHO.

The funny thing is, I agree with @Lauren and @whatsisname on most points. It's frustrating. The "smaller" our world gets, the more obvious it is that we're all very similar beings with similar ideas (drag, right?).

My advice is this: Try to figure out WHAT it is that you like about the design in question. WHY do you like it? When you determine those things, rather than using a copy/paste approach, find some inspiration and roll your own.

There are sites out there that cater to creative-block: http://www.smashingmagazine.com/category/inspiration

See what got people's attention last year (and prior): http://www.webbyawards.com/webbys/current.php?season=14

Google: "web design trends for 2011", or "web design inspiration" (20+ million sites to peruse - give or take).

Good luck. Kudos for caring about originality.

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There is a difference between Copying and Creating a Derived Work.

The first rule of ethics is, "is it ok for others to this to me?", considering one is not too far away from the norms of the society, then if you think it is ok to do something to you/your work then you can have a clean conscious.

See if you see your work taken and turned into something different than you intended, or for a purpose you did not intend. E.g. if you are against militarism, smoking etc. and see your work used to promote such things, how would you feel?

Also the first steps into creativity is imitation, look at the work you find appealing to you and try to understand what elements from it you can take away. Use the elements in your own work, and slowly but surely you will be developing your own creative style.

If the original artist can look at your work and recognize that is his/her work being used as a base, then try to get their permission. Otherwise if it unrecognizable it is not a copy.

Regards

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Since you've asked for permission, it's up to him to decide. If he's ok with it, then it's perfectly ethical in my book.

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Others have said what I'd like to say, but I want to cover an additional point.

Do you really want to copy this person's work, even down to the font? Chances are you're not running the same kind of website as this person, so try to think of how your topics differ from each other. If you're making a corporate business website, you don't want to use the same warm colors that his floral arrangement shop's website uses.

That being said, if you're in the same or similar category of what's delivered by this website, you probably shouldn't copy his design so similarly.

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It depends, nothing is original. Everyone had their inspiration from someone previous. Either another designer, a work of art, something in nature, etc.

On one hand do not just copy their work and take credit for it.

On the other hand, using general formatting, font styles, and color combinations is not really bad. Often better to go with what others are already accustomed to seeing to increase the user experience. Oftentimes, A designer tries too hard to be "different" and it damages the useability of a product.

It is greedy to just try to claim exclusive as yours. We owe where we are to many people before us and the support of other designers.

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The guy you are copying from copied 98% of the design from other stuff he saw, and his source material was copied from other people, who copied it from someone else, going back since to the dawn of time.

Nobody has learned everything they know from within a cave without looking at and copying the work of others.

Basically, as long as it is obviously not plagiarism, don't sweat it.

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I don't think it's right to assume that he copied "98%" of his design. I agree that nothing is truly original but you can still make a design without copying "98%" of someone else. –  Johannes Mar 23 '11 at 3:29
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What is ethics?

Ethics is a field of discourse dealing with what is good practice, what is bad practice and so forth. It's informed by people's morals, which are individually held beliefs about good and evil.

Thus it is pretty much impossible to give any definitive or authoritative answer on any ethical question, due to the nature of ethics. The best you can get is "A lot of people think that ...".

That is, if you really are asking about ethics, you are asking for primarily opinion-based answers. However, I suspect this isn't entirely the case.

Your question doesn't appear to be about ethics

Whether you may copy someone else's work is covered by Copyright law. That is, it's not a field where ethics is really much of a consideration unless you have specific reason for ignoring the laws (eg whether it's okay to ignore a certain law may itself be an ethical question).

However in this case it clearly looks like what you're asking about is covered by Copyright law.

Copyright law

Under Copyright law, any copying of someone else's work is restricted. By copying, it means any methodical effort to duplicate someone's work, in whole or in part, for any work that can be protected by copyright. A design can be protected by copyright, therefore any methodical effort to duplicate someone's design is restricted under copyright law.

What does restricted mean?

Simply put, restricted means you don't have a right to copy the work unless you have the owner's permission, or your use of the work falls under "fair use" or "fair dealing", a set of exemptions to copyright restrictions which varies by country.

What does copying mean?

Under copyright law, simply coming up with a similar design by accident or coincidence is not copying, and nor is borrowing an idea but not methodically reproducing it from the author's work.

Examples of things that are copying:

  • Taking a screenshot of the design, putting that in a Photoshop layer and creating your own design in a layer above it, using the layer below as a template for all or part of your design.

  • Looking at the HTML or CSS source code of the design, copying and pasting parts of it into your own source code, possibly modifying parts of it.

Examples of things that aren't copying:

  • Looking at their design to get a sense of what design ideas or techniques look good, and creating your own design which may make use of similar ideas without any effort to methodically trace, copy pixel-by-pixel or dimension-by-dimension, etc.

  • Looking at the HTML or CSS source code of the design in order to figure out how they have achieved a certain effect. Use those same concepts in your own source code to achieve similar effects, writing the code yourself without copying and pasting or any word-by-word/letter-by-letter duplication.

Being a civil law, there is no public prosecution of copyright infringement - it is up to the copyright owner to prove that you infringed and it is up to you to prove that either you didn't, or that your copying falls under the "fair use"/"fair dealing" exemptions in your area.

One common fair use exemption in many places is copying for the purpose of reviewing someone's work, eg reviewing someone's design and showing a small screenshot of the design to illustrate your review. Another is copying for the purpose of parody, and so on.

Don't take any of this to mean that designers don't infringe copyright, or that copyright infringement is inherently evil (that second point would take us full circle back to a question of ethics). I would go so far as to say that on the web, copyright infringement is commonplace, even. It comes down to whether your personal morals align strictly with copyright law or whether you are willing to take a more risky approach.

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