Is It Inspired or Stolen?

Written by | Art & Design

There’s a fine line between inspiration and infringement. Ryan E. Long of Long & Associates, a copyright and fair use expert, offers a primer for professionals in the creative industries.

Are you a crook? Jonathan Adler may consider you one when you use an edited, transformed, and artistically styled sample of his pillow design to create a custom-made wallpaper design for a client. But would he be right? These days, it is getting harder to tell, but there are still guidelines.

To make a custom-made wallpaper design for a client, you copy Mr. Adler’s black vine design that was inspired by an ancient Japanese kimono vine design, and that there are many types of this vine design in the pillow market. You then transform the vines by making them look shabby and worn out, use pink instead of black, and infuse the pink with the copies of the American flag. Imagine, then, that you combine the transformed Adler design with 9/10 other types of content from elsewhere, including a starry sky design pattern from Ralph Lauren Home to make your wallpaper.

Does your wallpaper infringe Mr. Adler’s copyright in the kimono vine inspired pillow design? Does it matter if you made up your own vine design that differed from Mr. Adler’s design, but which used his, among others, as inspiration?

The answer to these two questions depends on a number of factors. For the first question, given that you clearly copied Mr. Adler’s design, the question is whether the “fair use” defense would apply, part of which asks whether you sufficiently “transformed” Mr. Adler’s design to make it different enough from the original. The closer you get to a complete metamorphosis of Mr. Adler’s design – think the caterpillar becoming a butterfly – the safer you are. That’s because if your work and Mr. Adler’s are that different then people won’t think that Mr. Adler designed your pillow.

For the second question, you may not even need to get to the fair use defense. That only comes into play when you have actually copied another person’s expression. Because you merely used Mr. Adler’s expression of the Japanese vine design, among others in the marketplace, as inspiration to create your work, and your work differs from Mr. Adler’s, then there would in all likelihood be no infringement. That’s because copyright doesn’t protect the idea of the Japanese vine design, only Mr. Adler’s particular expression of it. Given that his expression isn’t original in the marketplace, it will most likely receive less protection than something truly off the wall – and original.

In the end, a completely original design is the best policy. That being said, designs are rarely completely original. The more your design exactly resembles another person’s work, the closer you are getting to the infringement line.

By Ryan E. Long of Long & Associates, New York/Los Angeles/San Francisco counsel to technology, media, and design innovators. To complement his practice, Ryan is a copyright and fair use fellow of Stanford Law School’s Center of Internet and Society, and is a burgeoning author whose second book, Dirty Quiet Money, was recently released.

Last modified: March 9, 2018

If you liked this article, please share it with friends.