Copying an Existing Brand — Illegal or Just Immoral?


Whether it happens in a corporate conference room or in a startup client’s office, at some point in your career, whether it’s as a designer, social media manager or marketing expert, someone is going to ignore your suggestions and ideas and say, “here’s a site I like. I want one designed just like this!” Your bruised ego is one thing, but knowing where to draw the line between inspiration and theft is another. Relaying that to a client or boss can be even tougher.

There are times we need to just give in to clients and bosses—it is a service industry/job, after all. As an old teacher once said to me:

“If you’re a marketing designer, you will have to follow instructions and inane wishes of clients and bosses. If you want to do your own thing, be an artist and paint pictures.”

It sticks in my mind because at the time he was strangling me while other students tried to pry his hands from my throat. My arguments about creativity and self-respect were naive… and aggravating, judging by the teacher’s attempt to murder me. I’ve since learned my lesson while enjoying breathing freely.

Your Duty to the Client

As a professional hired to build on a company’s brand, it’s up to you to not just be a pair of hands that knows how to do “that internet stuff” and build and promote a business and their website, but to also know how that branding will affect the client in the market and among a customer base. When faced with a request to copy another creative’s work, line for line, button for button and color for color and word for word, you have to consider the ramifications for your career and for the client or company.

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Thief looking around a blank signA website that takes all its “inspiration” from another design is totally heinous to a creative, but it happens more often then we’d care to admit. Companies like to jump on bandwagons and an idea that’s been tested and succeeds is a magnet for those who fear risk. As creatives, we love risk and we live to dare, so it is hard for us to understand. As professional business people, we need to understand the fear a client feels and how to guide them past it to success. Design is a message—it should be pointed, effective and unique. It should also make us feel good about the job we do and love and knowing we left the client in a better place.

But if a client wants you to take “inspiration” from an existing, successful website, the first question you must address is: Will the design of the example site fit the demographics and purpose of the client’s business? If it’s way off target, you need to express those concerns to your client. If the answer is, “I don’t care” or “just do it, web monkey,” then you have a good idea of the client’s ethics… or understanding of business.

The next question is: Will there be any brand damage by using the design? Again, as a professional, it’s part of your service to protect the client’s reputation. It takes a gentle but firm demeanor to explain why using a knockoff of the Coca-Cola website is not a good idea for a funeral home (“Coke Adds Life” is their motto. It’s doubtful a funeral home wants the same motto… Thief Worksone would hope!). If targeted consumers see the brand’s website as a spoof of the original design, they won’t take the company seriously. If word spreads on social media, huge embarrassment will ensue and chances are, your name and reputation as the one who did the branding/marketing will get thrown under the bus. Oh, look, the 3:10 express to Endofcareersville is right on time.

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Let’s say the client is really excited and determined about the idea of the funeral home having the same branding as Coke. There is only one final question for the client: Are there legal ramifications to using the same design and branding? Are any copyrights or trademarks being infringed upon? The company could get a cease-and-desist order, which would shut down the website and any collateral materials. You might very well be blamed for the whole ordeal. If the client’s answer to the legal question is “Eh, I think it’s fine,” you know there will be trouble ahead.

Protect Yourself!

If you’re ordered to “take inspiration” from another design/brand and all the outs described above haven’t worked, refer to this handy list of subtle acts of nonviolent resistance:

  • In meetings, dress as a thief character from the 1920s by wearing a mask, striped shirt, black pants and flat cap and carry a bag marked “loot.”
  • Cry and ask for God’s forgiveness every time you say the word “inspiration” while meeting about the site.
  • Ask for an extra fee to keep your mouth shut about the “inspiration.” Wink every time you say, “inspiration.”
  • Make sure your contract indemnifies you from lawsuits. Save all correspondence that show you argued about the direction the client is taking.
  • Demand that you be referred to by a pseudonym such as “John Smith” in all correspondence so you can go under the radar once the site goes live.
  • In every discussion about the project, end it with questions about the plans to avoid litigation.
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These acts of protest should make your point clear: crime never pays… and clients in prison also hardly ever pay a freelancer.

A Client’s Duty to Branding/Marketing

Thief stealing a laptop computerI’ve never heard of a person refusing to be put under during an operation so he/she could tell the surgeon how to operate or, for that matter, tell a portrait painter what colors to use and brush strokes to be taken. Using professional designers, branding experts and marketers is hiring people with experience and knowledge. Like a surgeon, they know what needs to be cut out, stitched up or augmented. Like a painter, they know how to make you look your best.

There are a million ideas to be thought up and just as many solutions for your business branding. Listen to unique, standout ideas from the professionals you hire and employ. They want you to succeed because every win is success for them as well. A growing business means a growing client for more work!

Images ©GL Stock Images


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