Everything Your Creative Business Needs to Know About Theft and Inspiration

By Zaheer Dodhia, DesignMantic.com

Theft and inspiration. While the two words carry radically different meanings and connotations, the two expressions have quite a bit in common. No borders neatly separate an inspired piece from delving into theft. There are tons of grey areas, and it’s quite messy. It’s a dynamic that frequently plagues the design realm, but remains prevalent across an array of disciplines.

When you’re designing anything from a simple logo to landing page or newsletter, it’s impossible to avoid inspiration. There’s a reason the expression “imitation is the greatest form of flattery” stuck around. Even famous artists were often inspired by their fellow artists.

A History of Theft and Inspiration

We see this a lot in design. As Evan Brown expressed in a Dec. 30, 2015 blog post, “it’s always significant to come out with an inspired approach.”

A 2014 New York Times piece by writer Giselle Defares discussed the thin line between theft and inspiration in the fashion industry. Margherita Missoni claimed fellow fashion designer Michael Kors copied her family’s recognizable zigzag pattern. In another case, shoe company New Balance filed a lawsuit against quirky fashion legend Karl Lagerfeld for kicks resembling their aesthetic.


Although design is a prominent example of theft vs. inspiration, it’s a prevalent dichotomy outside of the design space as well. In journalism, covering trending topics is essential to remaining relevant. Publications run nearly identical copies of the same story. Music offers several examples. Just look at rapper Vanilla Ice’s famous (or infamous) use of basically the same beat as “Under Pressure.” Ok, so there’s an added “ping,” but it’s essentially the same tune.

Shades of Gray

Yet how far can the demarcation line between stealing and innocent inspiration be drawn? Sweets heavyweight Cadbury ruled over its oft-recognizable shade of purple until a 2014 ruling overturned its trademark. It’s difficult to trademark a color or concept. Often, recognizable symbols and even colors are trademarked.


But as a Business Insider article explains, trademarking a color does not imply sole ownership. Famous examples of trademarked colors include UPS brown, T-Mobile magenta, and Target red. However, Target can’t sue Mastercard for using red. If Mastercard debuted a bulldog with a red dot on its eye, well, that might be a different case.

On the flipside, creative businesses, there’s the challenge of ensuring their work comes across as original, not copied. Cameron Moll phrased the difference in stealing and being influenced: “Good designers copy, great designers steal.” While Moll’s title may be a bit misleading, his actual examples present excellent examples of inspired design.

What You Can Actually Do

So how can creators ensure that they produced inspired works rather than pilfering? Luckily, following certain best practices helps prevent stale, plagiarized creations. Here are some best practices to help you stay inspired, and away from stealing:

Seek inspiration from a variety of sources, not simply one. By diversifying your portfolio of inspiration, your final product will therefore be more unique. It’s the same concept as investing: balance out that portfolio.

Connect the dots. After searching for inspiration from a variety of sources, find the commonalities. By identifying what stimulates you from each fountainhead, you’ll see the themes that want to emulate. Try concentrating on the overarching concept, not the specific instances.

Link your design to your vision and mission. If you’re designing a logo for your company, fuse your inspiration with the company’s overall image. Furthermore, make that consistent throughout all company branding. If you’re a roofing company, it’s fine to derive inspiration from, say, the Pizza Hut logo.

Ask yourself this important question: does this bring value to my audience? If you can honestly answer yes, you’ve successfully avoided theft. Every business should have a client-first mentality. After all, without your customers, you’re like a singer without an audience.

Be unique. A rip-off does not accurately portray your company and its continuing mission. So this not only hurts your customers, but by nature your company as well. When you steal concepts, it’s just copying from another source. This fails to bring any value to your clients because it’s not your own.

These general ideas are applicable to almost any space. To pretend we aren’t influenced by external sources is ridiculous. It happens every day. Even this post was inspired by several sources. But rather than regurgitating information, this instead uses those sources as a springboard for further exploration. Additionally, they’re referenced, giving proper credit when it’s due.


Final Thoughts

While they may appear at odds, theft and inspiration are much closer than they might otherwise seem. However, it’s easy to stay stimulated and avoid stealing. Just focus on these ideas: Be unique, bring value, remember your mission, connect the dots, diversify your inspirations.

Your turn: How do you avoid theft when working with inspirations?

Zaheer Dodhia is a serial entrepreneur and founder of DesignMantic.com.

Learn more about copyright and design in the online course Intellectual Property Rights for Designers.