Globalization, and an open-source mentality have changed our thinking almost overnight about what constitutes a copy versus an original. Copying not only has legal and cultural repercussions; it bears on moral and psychological issues as well. 


Fear of Being Copied

Every art or design student has likely had some fear of being copied, or that what he creates is actually a copy of somebody else’s work. No designer likes to hear, “your work is exactly what designer x did in the mid nineties (or something similar).” The fear that an idea, form, or material will be stolen by another has the same foundation as the fear that one is “stealing“ (from?) oneself. This fear is completely understandable: the uniqueness of a creation is being threatened by the possibility that someone will copy it. And uniqueness–or call it originality–is at the heart of western European creativity. 


The tension that immediately arises when speaking about copying proves its relevance and explosive potential – not only in the field of design. Aside from the formal and juristic consequences, in design there is a “moral of authenticity” that is deeply rooted in western culture. What would happen if we could let go of this ‘authenticity’?

Copying and Inspiration

copy-watchAnother issue at stake is the similarity between copying and inspiration. Every designer will study examples of designers that inspire him. Designing is in part copying, leaning, re-using; placing an old idea in a new context. It’s foolish to reinvent the wheel, so we cut and paste from all kinds of  sources of inspiration. And since the rise of the internet those sources are even more accessible: with a couple of clicks we can see everything, everywhere. Instantly.  

But the line between inspiration and copying is a thin one. Anyone who breaches that line will be singled out not only by colleagues, but also, inevitably, by lawyers. The western world has installed a huge copyright system in which the copying of intellectual property equals theft. That whole system is relatively young–only about a hundred years old, and some say copyright protections holds us back from innovation and  impedes creativity. It’s common knowledge that in the music industry, the Internet has had a huge impact on the business models of performing artists. Will the same be true for the design sector? 

Different Attitudes of Asia and Europe
The question of where inspiration ends and copying begins can be answered from personal, cultural, and moral standpoints, but also from commercial and legal points of view. Cultural differences certainly have an effect on where one stands in this debate. It has always been said, for example, that Asia and Europe have very different attitude towards copying; that originality and authenticity have different meanings in different cultures. In Japan and China, where a totally different ethical code governs authorship, you are considered a ‘master’ if you are able to copy good craftsmanship. Here in the West however, originality is at the heart of design culture.

Legal Questions

Legal questions surround copyright culture. How is copyright built? What are the premises?  How do we define a copy from moral, legal, and cultural points of view? Should copying be deplored or could it be also seen as a process towards perfection or the development of skills? Could it be regarded as the predictable consequence of an ever-present marketing, branding and personality cult? 

In the likelihood of a future society dominated by copy culture, what changes will we see? Will patents and copyrights lose their raison d’étre, becoming artifacts of mass industrialization? Will they be replaced by open source concepts, appropriation and personalization? What will be the designer’s role in a shared and thus reciprocal relationship with a new, potentially multi-faceted breed of user, client, producer, reseller and co-developer? 

The discussion needs to be placed into a wider cultural context, refining and reviewing our views on copying, imitation and inspiration, suggesting entirely different sets of moral values and ultimately proposing updated global economic and socio-cultural cooperation models.

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