Is creative copying a mortal sin (or a sin at all?)

Short version:

Can a person involved in a creative process look at another creative work, appreciate its qualities and use elements of another work (colors that were chosen, how information is presented on page, relative size of text) in your own design? This is not copying the text, the pictures, or the coding / programming of the work, just the visual style. To be clear this is not software piracy, it is the appearance / style / look that is being copied. Is this copying a sin under “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages…” (Jeremiah 22:13)?

Long version:

I’m a web designer and work on numerous websites dealing with business issues. Designing a web site requires a lot of layout and graphic work, and it can become difficult to come up with fresh ideas on how to lay out a website. Existing web sites that have been put together can be a rich source of ideas as to style, as are pre-made templates that can be bought. As to the pre-made templates the purchase would give you the code so no effort is required, where as doing it myself requires far more work, but the inspiration comes from the template. I cannot look at a advertisement without thinking about invisible lines, white space, eye direction, item groupings, and which persuasion techniques are being used.

I wish to avoid sin, and have found most helpful the works of St. Alphonsus Liguori (a doctor of the Church), says (“The Glories of Mary”) "The second means is to fly the occasions of sin. He that is aware of the snares shall be secure: ‘Qui autem cavet laqueos, securus erit.’ "

If this is a sin I must avoid it at all costs, but I wonder. Many of the great artists going back in time drew inspiration from each other as well as shared stylistic techniques. Science in all fields also has a history of drawing methods and techniques from proven advances. People studying literature to write better are provided style manuals as well as key extracts from noted authors to impress the student into incorporating the styles of the masters to improving the novice. I realize that these are clever examples, but are they the tricky persuasions of Satan trying to trick me and weaken my soul?

The counter argument is the legal case between Samsung and Apple where they have a cell phone device that are very similar to each other and is causing a contentious court case. There is no question that neither code or programming was copied, just that they look and work too similar (eg the slide to unlock feature). However this is a intellectual property (IP) case, and might not apply to moral theology.

Now to be clear there are books written specifically for this for web designers on design theory, and I have some of those books. However these are not as useful as the live examples.

To what degree can the appearance of something be copied without it being a sin?

Copying the look of a website is not a sin, a tort, or a crime.

I used to do desktop publishing; I know what you mean!

Anyway, I think that if what you end up with could be mistaken for the other site you are looking at that you have copied too much :wink:

But if you are just looking at different pages then putting together your own page with elements from here and there to create a *new *look, then I’d say, go for it! The creative process is after all putting various elements together in a new way, and as a general rule, all those elements either came from somewhere else or will become common if they work.

The question of when drawing inspiration from a particular source becomes plagerisim is a difficult one.

If you have directly copied from a single source to produce a new website which is very similar in “Look and Feel” to an original then you may well be guilty of stealing another persons intellectual Copyright.

If on the other-hand you have drawn inspiration from a wide range of sources, including your own previous work, and other ideas and sources, then that is simply drawing inspiration.

The example of the slide lock and look and feel between Apple and Samsung is a good example of a BAD law-suit- it is being dragged out in multiple jurisdictions because no consensus can be reached. It is an example where it is NOT clear that any breach of copyright truly occurred, and some jurisdictions that found that such did occur have returned highly dubious verdicts.

My advice:

Build yourself a Portfolio of Ideas. be it by photographing / taking screenshots etc.
build yourself a digital or printed catalogue of ideas from a range of sources.
Make sure never to directly copy any one site but draw inspiration from a minimum of 3

Any novel widget or piece of code should not be copied if it may be copyright or patented (without checking first) - I’m talking here about functionality not appearance.

It’s a legal matter called “trade dress.” Speaking as an assistant art director, all of our books have a style and layout that identifies most of them as ours - yes, there are a few exceptions. I’m not an expert in product/industrial design, but the shape of a device helps identify that particular device from all others. It could be a matter of color and other shapes a person sees when examining the device closely, plus functional aspects. I’m not a lawyer, but the question that any legal department needs to ask is - is this device similar enough to mine to “cause confusion in the marketplace.”?

I don’t know how long you’ve been a web designer, and I’ve been involved in all the things you mention: layout, positions of items, color choices, overall composition. Having assisted in a recent total web redesign, I’m aware of the functionality aspects and making the site attractive, but seamlessly functional first. The last thing anyone wants are calls or emails saying “Your site is to hard to navigate or where do I find this?” Granted, there are always going to be a handful that will need a little hand-holding.

I get inspiration. I work with artists/designers all the time. Our books are very visual. Even science-fiction designs have to look plausible and that means research. You can look at say, a modern tank, and design a futuristic tank, but maybe you exchange the tracks for legs or give it a hover capability.

Anyway, back to your moral dilemma. I look at artists, especially in the area of computer games, and I’m noticing a few trends. It seems that when a few come up with a new – “”" modern “”" - look, some begin to grab the basic styling and incorporate it into their own character and environment designs. Now, you can look at this as any art “movement” like Cubist, Dadaist, etc. where everybody has adopted a look that falls into that category. Certain games, like Halo, have an incredible - this can’t be anything other than Halo - look, no matter how many Halo expansions appear. We only have a few of the ‘art of’ books.

My point is, as a graphic designer/artist, you eventually develop a personal look and style. It just comes to you. Sure, there are hard and fast rules about design, color, composition, etc., that form the building blocks, plus the specific desires of a specific client. There’s a big difference between designing a site for a florist and a company that sells machine parts. Sometimes, the client can convey the look and feel of what they want, other times, it’s “just give me something that looks good and works.”

I know professional freelancers who are either buried in work and go through dry spells. It’s the nature of the business.

My suggestion is: if you have spare time, design a batch of your own templates with add-on notes. Create a library you can draw from regardless of the client. Or check out some of the web design forums.

designerstalk.com/forums/

Copying - straight copying - I would argue against as far as being a moral thing to do. Observing elements and thinking, “You know, I need to get away from overusing certain shapes and throw some others into the mix.” That’s OK.

I know. It’s hard but the learning curve never goes away. All artists/designers take time to mature, to refine, and all want good approval ratings from their clients so you can say, “I’ve designed websites for the following big companies or here are a few examples of my work.” Building a reputation takes time.

And then there’s money pressure. “I want to work as quickly as possible on as many jobs as possible without sacrificing quality and not live just at the poverty line.”

Inspiration or copying? Your call.

Peace,
Ed

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