Battling Visual Plagiarism

Illustration by Adam Quinones

As a graphic design educator or practitioner, battling against visual plagiarism can be frustrating and daunting.

I typically begin each semester with the mantra, “Art is work.” This is reinforced by showing students Ira Glass,’ “The Gap,” where he talks about the creative process and the importance of continuing to make work. I follow this up by showing Kirby Ferguson’s, “Everything is a Remix.” This usually leads to a lively discussion about visual plagiarism, appropriation, fair use, and copyright.

Visual plagiarism is a complex issue at best. Most design educators require students to do visual research, just like most designers do. If a students doesn’t do research, they often say it is because they didn’t want to be influenced by someone else’s work. In my experience, this is a euphemism for not wanting to put the time and energy into doing the research. We spend our time reinforcing the value of research and how important it is in the design process.

After stressing the importance of looking at other people’s work, it’s necessary to follow this up with a discussion about visual plagiarism. My battle against it typically begins by reading our college’s plagiarism policy as stated in the course syllabus:

Plagiarism, i.e.: the use of words or ideas of others, whether borrowed, purchased or otherwise obtained, without crediting the source…

I next discuss in detail how this relates to visual plagiarism and show examples. I explain that penalties may include failure and further action if the incident is reported to the Dean of Students. I discuss reverse image finding sites like and let them know that I will be checking their work here and they should be pro-active and take a look at their own work here to prevent inadvertently taking someone else’s work.

Despite these efforts, every semester work is submitted where the “remix” looks more like a “rip-off.” This happened a few months ago when the offending student didn’t bother to look past the screen of the student sitting right next to him and proceeded to present a design that looked very familiar to his classmate. Of course, it presents an excellent teachable moment. In this case, I waited to see if the students themselves would bring it up, which I was happy to see that they did. It’s important to note, that I honestly don’t think the student even realized that he was doing anything wrong. We assume when we say that visual plagiarism will not be tolerated, students know what that means.

Earlier this week I participated in a workshop about collaborative learning where an English professor discussed using memes as a required assignment. Meme’s are all about the remix and the rip-off. Memes have become a ubiquitous part of our culture. When students grow up in an environment where memes are part of our dialogue, visual plagiarism becomes more complex.

It happens all the time and our tools make it easy. The ability to outline fonts, image trace raster images and then make slight alterations to the vector art makes it simple. A few high profile cases include John Williams and his company Logo Garden and Modern Dog’s fight against Disney. William’s position was that he was within his rights to create many of the logos offered on the site because the logos were new vector drawing with slight alterations. In Modern Dog’s case, Disney claimed that the drawings were technical and not creative, so the issue of copyright infringement did not apply.

Don’t even get me started on appropriation…

In Mark Johnson’s book, Moral Imagination, he discusses how important our imagination is in our ethical deliberation. This makes sense to me and I try to incorporate it into my lectures on visual plagiarism by using the “walk in another man’s shoes” proverb. As much as we would like to believe we are wired to be good and have impeccable ethics, most of us aren’t born that way, but rather develop into ethical people with imagination playing a key role.

I’m looking for ideas; as designers and design educators, what works best for you in making sure you, and those you employ or instruct, avoid visual plagiarism?

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