I am a mobile developer. I want to create my own mobile app, so I ran a contest for the mobile design.

Many good designers participated in the contest. I get lots of good ideas from almost all of them. Ultimately I choose one of the designers because of the good looking design.

But many other designers have used brilliant ideas which I never thought of. So I note down all ideas and ask the winning designer to integrate it into his work. The final result is completely different than what I have imagined.

Is it ethically, legally and morally right to use the design ideas of other non-winning designers in the design contest? Who owns the right of designs submitted in contests?

  • 10
    Depends on the legal contract they entered when they participated in the contest. If they didnt enter a contract then you own nothing, not even the winning one.
    – joojaa
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 6:08
  • 8
    I'm gonna hold a contest among 4 mechanics to see who can install my car tire the best. I will pay the winner for their services and better luck next time for the losers.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 17:34
  • 2
    Beneficial to who? The product owner? Of course.. they get many times more free work than they should. Which is why "contests" are merely a method of essentially "ripping off" people for their hard work. Hire a professional directly and they will assist you in narrowing down your vision.
    – Scott
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 10:48
  • 2
    "Just say No! to Spec" - nospec.com/- this site answers your questions very well
    – NKCampbell
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 16:07
  • 1
    Just FYI.. I don't fault anyone for running a contest. As I'vs posted, there's great benefit if you run a contest. Far be it for me to look down upon someone for trying to get a leg up. I'm merely stating that if you are a professional designer who makes a living from your creative.. one should never enter such contests. But I also suspect that 90%+ of all entries are traditionally from non-professionals or hobbyists.
    – Scott
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 18:26

5 Answers 5


Ethically and morally..... using any "contest" is merely taking advantage of designers.

Contest do nothing but take advantage of designers and give all the benefit to the person running the contest. It essentially amounts to "slave labor" of a sort. All designers should adamantly avoid "contest" settings. However, if a designer freely agrees to being taken advantage of, well that's their right (and folly).

Without knowing exactly what the terms and conditions are/were of your "contest" and what submission meant in terms of rights transfers.... Given that all artwork is copyrighted the moment it is created. No you can not freely use aspect of other designs without permission. Traditionally, you only get rights to the "winning" design you choose. Most "contest" do not provide rights to every single submission. You will need to check the terms though to be certain.

Ideas or concepts can't be copyrighted. So, using concepts is technically okay. Although it's again an arguable ethics issue. You must be certain to avoid using any tangible, recognizable aspects of any design you do not have permission to use.

  • 1
    The line between right and wrong is so thin it is very difficult to know when a person crosses it.
    – Paramjit
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 8:52
  • 21
    It's not really that thin. You don't own and can't use anything you don't have expressed permission to use.
    – Scott
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 9:11
  • 6
    It's interesting how digital things are easier to view as free to use as you please, if you don't have to input your credit card information to obtain it. Just like I pocket everything within my reach that doesn't have a price tag. — This reminded me of when Google removed the "view image" button from their image search not too long ago: arstechnica.com/gadgets/2018/02/… — tl;dr people steal images they find via google image search all the time.
    – Joonas
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 12:55
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – curious
    Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 12:00

No, it is not right.

Use what you paid for and make sure all the other contestants you are taking inspiration from are compensated. These authors own their work unless/until you buy it. If you can only afford one winning proposal, then that's what you should be using.

  • Agree 100%. Of course you do not own and cannot use this work unless you have express permission to do so (through the competition rules / contract with an acceptance from the person submitting). Ignore this and act in a mercenary fashion at your own peril. You will quickly gain a reputation and be black balled by the wider community. The definition of theft includes 'taking goods or services without the owners consent' I have dropped several clients over the years for these 'tactics'. A disgraceful approach to development. If you cannot afford design, go seek funding. Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 9:05

I realized that it is OK to take inspiration from others work, but what I have done is illegal and immoral because I used lots of design ideas from other contestants.

The correct way is to ask for permission from those creators, and pay them the mutually-agreed-upon price if they give permission.

But, I didn't have financial means to pay them. So, I was left with only one option to steer clear of wrongdoing: I deleted all design files and assets, as well as the project where I implemented the design.

Get nospec.com link from the above comments. I learned from the site that the contests harm both the designers and the clients.

  • 6
    Good on you for refusing to exploit your artists. I wish other folks took that sort of moral stand.
    – Shayne
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 1:34


In slightly more detail:

Ideas aren't copyrightable. But their expression is. If it's just an idea, well, you can use it. But the closer in expression your implementation is to what they've shown you in their entries, the more likely it is to be legally protected.

And if their designs are legally protected, which seems likely, then unless the entrants to the contest have signed their rights over to you then using their designs is almost certainly illegal. They would be well within their rights to sue.

If you have made them sign their rights over to you for free, then it's not illegal. But it's certainly immoral and unethical.

If I were you, I'd take this as an important learning opportunity, and implement the winning design only. Then count your lucky stars you asked this question and used the answers to escape so lightly.

  • Have you read my answer. I have done what is in my hands to correct my mistake. I like your explanation of copyright .
    – Paramjit
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 15:07
  • 1
    I hadn't; now I have. Good on you for being a mensch. The world could do with more folk who correct their mistakes with honour and integrity. I wish you luck in the future.
    – piersb
    Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 17:59
  • Thank you for your goodwill
    – Paramjit
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 3:02

I'm a bit late to the party, but here's my 2 cents:

For the legal part, that depends on what was written in the contest legal text and what the contestants agreed upon. Perhaps there was a clause that gave all copyright to you. In that case, you're clean. If not, then probably you need to get a permission from them.

It also depends on what you "steal". If it's just conceptual ideas (icon here, checkbox here, layout, etc) - I think that's fine. But whole pictures, icons, texts, etc - that's not so good. Still, IANAL (I Am Not A Lawyer), so don't take this as a legal advice.

Now, for the ethical part. What feels right to me is this - it's OK to make contests, but they have to be made in a fashion that doesn't abuse the contestants. That is, a contest of "make the whole thing for me and the best one gets paid" is obviously an exploitation. But "here's one small part of what needs to be done; show me how you would do it and the best one of you gets a big juicy contract to finish the rest" - that's totally fine. This is like asking them for a sample of their work. You should however make sure that the part you're asking them to make indeed is small. Like, it should probably take the contestants no more than some 4-16 hours to complete. The less, the better. It should be enough to allow you to evaluate their skills (that's the point of the contest after all), but not so much that they would feel like they've wasted loads of time for no return.

Alternatively, you could offer all contestants that meet some minimum criteria some fair compensation. Be careful with the criteria though so that you don't get abused. And, of course, this depends on how much cash you have to burn on getting the perfect candidate.

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