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The usage case is a freeware game with skill rankings, wherein each player is associated with their country and has their country's flag next to their name.

The most noticeable discrepancy between the game's flag design and the actual flag design is with the USA's flag:

A stylized version of the flag of the United States of America

The game's version of the flag has 13 stars (rather than 50), five stripes (rather than 13), and red/blue/white colors of #ED5565, #4A89DC, and #F5F7FA (rather than #B22234, #3C3B6E, and #FFFFFF).

I think that this version of the flag, as well as all the other flags the game redesigned, look quite nice, and all of them are very easily recognizable despite straying sometimes quite significantly from the original designs (primarily changing dense symbols and harsh colors):

Stylized Russian flag Stylized Indian flag Stylized Spanish flag Stylized Argentinian flag

But the question to ask here is simply as follows:

Is this okay?

These flags may look nicer, but is this in violation of the terms of how flags should be used in general? Do any countries have rules on how their flags can be represented and how strictly such a representation must follow the source design? I’m skeptical that any country would come after the people who made the game for not representing their flags exactly. I'm just wondering if this is a common practice that's accepted in the design world and – if not – if it's because of the preferences of the countries.

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    It's worth noting that reducing the number of stars and stripes will bring you very close to the Confederate flag, which is probably not what the designers would have in mind: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confederate_States_of_America#/media/… – Panzercrisis Apr 16 '18 at 20:00
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    If you are going to simplify the U.S. flag, 13 stars is a nice number to get to. (Revolutionary War-era U.S. flags had 13 stars and 13 stripes.) – Jasper Apr 17 '18 at 5:25
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    OK according to who? You can do whatever you want. It's not like there's an international law that says all digital representations of flags must be accurate. (Even if there were, it's not like Interpol is going to come after you..) – ell Apr 17 '18 at 21:45
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    Your flags look awesome. Some may choose to take offence at their flag being changed, but if you've done the same for many flags and have a defensible position (it looks better at this scale / fits with the game's aesthetic) you have the stronger position. Depending on the game you may even be able to make a joke of the issue; e.g. have 13 states in your in-game version of the USA, with their names amalgamated from the real states' names. – JohnLBevan Apr 18 '18 at 9:21
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    @Panzercrisis I wouldn't worry about that. I'm American born and bred, and I had no idea that flag existed. Steer clear of the Confederate battle flag though. – LastStar007 Apr 18 '18 at 10:52

10 Answers 10

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Yes, style the flags as you see fit. I see the USA flag translated successfully with 2 stripes and 1 star.

You see this done everywhere and yes it's legal, except perhaps for some new countries flags that are copyrighted.

Quora says: "Nearly all flags are old enough that they can't enjoy copyright protection anyway. But for newer flags, usually the country itself has placed the work in the public domain. In the U.S., for example, all works of the Federal government are automatically public domain."

It's a great design challenge to get the emblem as small and simple as possible and still be recognizable.

Like when doing comic portraiture, take the most recognizable elements of the flag and exaggerate them.

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    Most flags are older than the entire idea of copyright. – joojaa Apr 16 '18 at 16:48
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    fyi, 1 star, 2 stripes = texas en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Texas – DA01 Apr 16 '18 at 17:46
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    @joojaa I don't know... national flags are kind of recent, and copyright goes back at least to the Statute of Anne. There are probably a dozen national flags older than that, only two of which (Denmark & The Netherlands) seem to have been officially adopted before 1709. – Charles Apr 16 '18 at 18:59
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    @DA01 Or Chile, if the canton is contiguous with the upper stripe. – Monty Harder Apr 16 '18 at 21:11
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    One star and two stripes, otherwise resembling the US flag is Chile. 🇨🇱 – Random832 Apr 18 '18 at 18:39
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Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.

That said, I don't believe a country would sue a designer for using a simplified version of the flag or that they have a say on what you should use to represent it in your game; you're not producing an official or legal document.

For example: the official website of the United States government themselves use a simplified version of the US flag as seen below.

enter image description here

  • 1
    great information! – Fattie Apr 17 '18 at 10:54
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    Maybe the US should switch to this one: i.stack.imgur.com/b37US.png ;) – JohnLBevan Apr 18 '18 at 9:22
  • That image, viewed in context, results in the stripes being 1-2 pixels tall. They couldn't make it any better. – Joshua Apr 20 '18 at 16:10
  • If a country did take offence, probably they'd (try to) ban your game in their country, because that's something they might actually be able to do. It's unlikely, but more likely than suing. (You'd have to do something worse than simplify their flag to motivate a country to do either, though.) – Peter Cordes Apr 22 '18 at 1:49
14

I would be careful. It's one thing for a government to use a simplified version of their flag as an icon; it's another for you to simplify it for your needs.

I think there are some specific pitfalls:

  • some countries have flags which are really similar and by simplifying one, you may be blurring the features which make it distinct from the other; or from a prior historical version of the same country's flag.
  • the Arabic on some countries' flags is a passage from the Koran, and they may take great offence at getting it wrong or having it trivialized.
  • some countries specify dimensions for their flags, and having them mashed into different dimensions is a recurring slap in the face.

What might work is to extract elements from each flag and form a new icon which is so different from the flag that it can't be mistaken for a "wrong" flag. Like the uncanny valley for human animation: skip over it and go straight to an obviously stylized icon. Perhaps a circular "telescope view" of the most characteristic elements of the flag; so you're not changing the flag, you're just showing part of it.

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    Which countries have a passage from the Qur'an on their flags? – psmears Apr 17 '18 at 9:49
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    @psmears Saudi Arabia, for one: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Saudi_Arabia – tardigrade Apr 17 '18 at 10:34
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    @tardigrade: That flag (in common with many others) has the Shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith - but that's not a passage from the Qur'an? – psmears Apr 17 '18 at 10:47
  • @psmears Oops, quite right. My mistake. – tardigrade Apr 17 '18 at 13:37
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    Quite right, @tardigrade: "Though the two phrases of the shahada are both present in the Quran (for example, 37:35 and 48:29), they are not found there side by side as in the shahada formula." (same ref as @psmears). Thanks for catching that. – CCTO Apr 17 '18 at 16:22
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At least be careful with the number of stars in the Chinese flag. It has been miscounted for many times so the people might be sensitive with it.

http://www.chinatopix.com/articles/98951/20160822/rio-officials-under-fire-for-using-wrong-china-flag-again.htm

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    I've read up on this now. It was not the number of stars but their orientation! The small stars have to point to the center of the big star. So, the mini flag shown in the question is definitely wrong. – Dubu Apr 17 '18 at 8:33
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    As the top answer says, it's fine to modify the flag. It's just that in this case the Chinese flag has been mis-designed many times on the number of stars, so one just needs to be careful with that. Perhaps if the flag is small it won't be noticed. But +1 to know that. – Ooker Apr 17 '18 at 8:39
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    @MichaelSchumacher that's nothing compared to the Nepalese flag. Its construction sheet is actually in the constitution. – JAD Apr 18 '18 at 10:48
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    Would make a nice task for a Geometry 101 assessment. – Michael Schumacher Apr 18 '18 at 10:55
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    @Ooker Then again, if you do not follow the exact construction, what you have is by definition not a Nepalese flag. So the violation would be .. not showing the Nepalese flag? – Hagen von Eitzen Apr 23 '18 at 5:17
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There are many pitfalls regarding the redesign/depictions of flags. But I think the worst that could probably happen is that you offend someone unknowingly.

Is anyone going to be sent to jail, or sued? I doubt it, at least not in democratic Western countries. I can't answer for dictatorships, obviously

Here are some examples of these kind of errors that I am familiar with, for example the display of my own national flag, the British Union jack, upside down.

enter image description here

Also another one is where lines of the wrong width were displayed during the Rio Olympics 2016.

enter image description here

Now as to the question, am I offended personally? The answer is no, I've more important things to worry about.

  • With the one on the bottom right, I have noticed that usually the difference is thicker red stripes (though this may have largely been older ensigns and similar) – Wilf Apr 18 '18 at 19:49
  • Well, I guess, someone could have requested official flags for Olympics. This is some official interaction between states where such stuff matters, it's shown to millions on TV. The possibility of doing it right is certainly given, whereas in a game you're limited in pixels. Good example anyway. – Thomas Weller Apr 19 '18 at 7:36
  • It's only called the Union Jack when it's on a ship. Otherwise it's the Union Flag. – megaflop Apr 20 '18 at 16:22
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    They say fly your flag upside down when your ship is in distress. We tried that while Japanese flagged, nobody helped us. So we hoisted an upside down British flag, everyone still ignored us except the British. – Harper Apr 20 '18 at 18:29
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    @megaflop It's a myth the the Union Jack is only called the Union Jack on a ship. The flag has been given that name in general use for hundreds of years. – Vince O'Sullivan Apr 22 '18 at 8:59
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The point is obviously if the redesign offends the country. I cannot speak for other countries, but at least in my home country, which is Austria, there is the so-called "Wappengesetz" (law of coat of arms) which says:

Die Verwendung von Abbildungen des Bundeswappens, von Abbildungen der Flagge der Republik Österreich sowie der Flagge selbst ist zulässig, soweit sie nicht geeignet ist, eine öffentliche Berechtigung vorzutäuschen oder das Ansehen der Republik Österreich zu beeinträchtigen.

Translated:

The usage of images of the federal coat of arms, images of the flag of the republic of Austria as well as the flag itself is admitted, as long as it is not suitable to pretend a public permission or to damage the reputation of the republic of Austria.

During the soccer Eurocup in 2008, there was a prominent case that a caricaturist was sued due to a caricature where the federal eagle got a soccer ball shot on its head.

  • But this law only applies in Austria, surely? Could @poyo be extradited from Seattle? – Andrew Leach Apr 16 '18 at 22:20
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    @AndrewLeach probably not. But offending every country on earth could limit ones travel options ;) – joojaa Apr 17 '18 at 4:27
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    Well OP is asking about using a simplified flag to represent the country, not a parody version of it, so I think there's no risk even in Austria. – Luciano Apr 17 '18 at 10:14
  • @Luciano That's exactly the point - as long as the redesign is not offending (simplifications are hardly offending), it should be no problem. – rexkogitans Apr 17 '18 at 10:21
  • Austria also has a Minecraft friendly flag. – Harper Apr 20 '18 at 18:34
4

Flags are serious business. Altering them for an app is tacky and annoying - and the vexation of vexillologists. If you must do it, try to steer clear of the worst mistakes.

  • Don't re-proportion the canton. This is the most glaring and obnoxious mistake you can make. You wouldn't ever botch the canton on your own flag, but it's really easy to fumble for other countries.

enter image description here canton wrong proportion (41 states!)

  • Don't change the colors. Especially, don't accidentally use the Russian S.F.S.R. blue. Wikipedia has all the correct RGB colors.

  • Don't re-proportion the flag. The problem is that different countries want different proportions from 3:2 to 2:1. If you want a fixed rectangular frame, letterbox or pillarbox, or do something completely different for that country.

enter image description here proper US flag chomped to 3:2 proportion. Egads.

  • Support transparency. You're really going to need it for letterboxing, pillarboxing, Nepal (a pennant), and Ohio (a swallowtail).

enter image description here Meet the Nepal flag. enter image description here Meet Ohio.

Note Nepal's blue border is part of the flag.

  • Decorating the frame also doesn't work. Flags are, literally, flags -- they are designed to be seen against a natural background. However it helps if your background is not a common flag color.

enter image description here Wait. There's supposed to be a Chile flag in there.

  • Don't over-simplify a flag to where a viewer can't tell which country. Don't yourself confuse different countries' flags. This will really bother your customers.

enter image description here AU or NZ? It needs to show...

  • If you can't make a flag work (or just don't want to) then freestyle something off the wall that isn't the flag. The state shape (Olympic Korea flag, try to include both peninsulas of Michigan), an animal (kangaroo for Australia, kiwi for NZ), or herald on the flag (Canada maple leaf, Ukraine trident, etc). For instance Slovenia and Slovakia are problematic because only a small herald distinguishes them from Russia's flag. So create new art that features the herald. (Wikipedia has the vector files of almost every flag).

Slovakia enter image description here Slovenia enter image description here enter image description here unmistakable

Of course white on top of the tricolor plays poorly with SE's white background.

  • You're contradicting yourself: "Altering... for an app is tacky and annoying" but later "freestyle something off the wall that isn't the flag" so which one is it? – Luciano Apr 23 '18 at 8:04
2

Some countries are quite liberal with how their flag can be used - case in point the UK where you can find it emblazoned on just about everything.

On the other hand Singapore does not want any commercial product made with its flag which could extend to use in a video game.

See this link

Without going through every single country's policy I would say you're safe unless there's something else in your content or about you that a country could easily pin your misrepresentation through your flag on. Nationalism quickly becomes an excuse to do some pretty horrific miscarriages of justice.

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    This leads to conclusion that using artistic variation about flag of Singapore can be actually beneficial, because you can claim it's not actually the flag of Singapore : ) – Agent_L Apr 18 '18 at 8:27
1

For highly iconic flags is alright (USA, Uk, Japan etc) for others no, especially when the flag's colors bear a strong identity (France, Italy). Of cource it all depends on context. You can not change the flag's colors on the official site for the Olympics, whereas you can do pretty much whatever you want in the language selection menu of an e-commerce website.

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    Japan... well, I would challenge anyone to simplify the Japanese flag any further while keeping its most prominent features. :P – Andrea Lazzarotto Apr 19 '18 at 15:31
  • Yes I probably overdid it a bit with the Japan example – semion lapin Apr 19 '18 at 19:09
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    Japan's flag used to be a lot more dazzley. Bless MacArthur, he let them keep that one for their naval jack. Of course the coolest naval jack in history is the current US one, good luck Minecrafting that! – Harper Apr 20 '18 at 18:20
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Is it okay to sacrifice exact country flag designs in favor of aesthetics? Is this okay?

Yes, but there are some cautions to observe.

Wikipedia's webpage on Vexillography explains:

"Vexillographers face the necessity for the design to be manufactured (and often mass-produced) into or onto a piece of cloth, which will subsequently be hoisted aloft in the outdoors to represent an organization, individual, idea, or group. In this respect, flag design departs considerably from logo design: logos are predominantly still images suitable for reading off a page, screen, or billboard; while flags are alternately draped and fluttering images - visible from a variety of distances and angles (including the reverse). The prevalence of simple bold colors and shapes in flag design attests to these practical issues.

...

Certain cultures prescribe the proper design of their own flags, through heraldic or other authoritative systems. Prescription may be based on religious principles: see, for example, Islamic flags. Vexillographers have begun to articulate design principles, such as those jointly published by the North American Vexillological Association and the Flag Institute in their Guiding Principles of Flag Design.

There is a solution, use a simplified (low resolution) design and place the countries TLD letters on it (see below). Reading about the history of the country's flag is a difficult and lengthy task when done for every country. Where resolution is very limited one could use two black letters on a white background with a rollover or clickable link taking you to a much higher resolution version.

These flags may look nicer, but is this in violation of the terms of how flags should be used in general? Do any countries have rules on how their flags can be represented and how strictly such a representation must follow the source design?

Whether or not something is "OK" depends upon the individual making the judgement. Some countries have specific laws regarding their flag while others have none, in some cases it's offensive to a religion to make certain changes. If you want to be polite use their design, if you plan on selling nothing there and never visiting you may have a bit more freedom. Offending a large country with many potential customers makes poor business sense, offending smaller countries ranges from simple bullying to actions seen as much worse.

If you are attempting to differentiate countries by their flag it's important to retain enough detail to distinguish between two countries where that is possible, in some cases that is extremely difficult.

The Internet website WorldStandards.EU lists all the top level domains for all countries. By drawing the flag using a civil flag design (see below) and putting two letters on each flag there will be a clear distinction between every country.

The North American Vexillological Association has a webpage: "Building a Flag Library" which lists books that can be consulted to aid in flag design.

The website "Flags of the World" (the Internet’s largest site devoted to vexillology (the study of flags). With more than 67,000 pages about flags and view more than 136,000 images of flags of countries) has a FAQ question: "I saw a flag similar to the one you describe for a certain country, but it had a coat of arms/no coat of arms in the middle. What was it?".

Many countries with flags charged with a coat of arms use that version as a state flag, but remove the coat of arms to make an easier to reproduce civil flag for their citizens. Examples include Spain and Ecuador.

Their are simplified versions of some of the more complicated flags available. How the particular country feels about you using their flag for profit is another matter.

It would be difficult to argue that you could not reproduce a maritime courtesy flag. These are flown on vessels visiting another country as a sign of respect.

See also this question on Politics.SE: "Are there any restrictions on what a national flag should look like?".

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