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Why Intellectual Property Rights Are So Important

Intellectual property rights are often confusing and sometimes the topic of heated debates. There are those who question the worth of creative products and projects, claiming design and art are something anyone can do, regardless of training, experience, or any inherent ability. As creatives, a deterioration of intellectual property rights is a dangerous possibility. By going public with our work, we have no recourse to prevent others from using our designs, our photos, or our other artwork without paying us or even offering proper credit.

And yet, creatives are just as often guilty of violating these rights as those who aren’t in a creative profession (and sometimes, I think, more likely). We need to have more respect for our fellow creators and their work, regardless of our perceptions of what we think about their work and their process. If it was created by someone else, we need to respect that and abide by their wishes when it comes to use, credit, and compensation.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

What Goes Into Intellectual Property? Link

As creative professionals, we often have a good idea of what goes into the things we create. A web designer can look at a website and have a good idea of what went into designing it. A graphic designer can look at a logo and get a sense of what tools were used to create it. Outside design fields, other creatives also have a good sense of what goes into their respective art forms.

But all too often, we don’t understand what goes into parallel creative professions. Web designers don’t necessarily know what goes into creating a stock photograph. Photographers might not have any clue what goes into creating a typeface. We look at different creative pursuits and careers from within our own, narrow focus, often overlooking important aspects of different creative industries. When looking at the creative accomplishments of others, don’t forget to take into account the following:

Time Link

Time is required for every creative endeavor. The time involved varies greatly between projects, though. Remember that there are plenty of creative pursuits that don’t seem to take much time, but in fact, they do. There’s always hidden time in any project, things that don’t seem like they’d take much time, but do.

Take, for example, a website design. The design itself might only take fifteen hours. But then there’s the coding, which could take another ten. And there’s working with clients, which could also easily eat up another five hours. That doesn’t include previous versions that might have been rejected by the client, or need to be revised. Suddenly that design that should have only taken a day takes a week.

Another example: photography is one of those things that a lot of people don’t necessarily think takes much time. Taking the actual photo might have only taken seconds. But don’t forget there’s setup (which, depending on the subject, could take hours), travel time (in some cases), and post-processing (which can also take hours). Consider, too, that some photographers might spend an entire day photographing a subject and only end up with a dozen (or fewer) images they consider usable.

Energy and Effort Link

Beyond the time involved, creative work requires energy and effort that’s often equivalent to physical labor, at least in terms of the effect it has on your brain and your mental abilities. A long day working on a new project can leave you feeling just as drained as any other work, even if it’s work you enjoy. This is true for all creative jobs.

Real Capital Link

Virtually, any creative pursuit requires a certain amount of real capital. Equipment is often the biggest cost for any creative pro. Designers need computers, software, and other resources, like fonts or stock graphics. Photographers need camera equipment, which can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars, plus computer equipment for post-processing and printing photos.

Capital costs aren’t one-time expenses, either. Most software and hardware needs to be upgraded on a regular basis. Capital costs are ongoing, as it seems something is always in need of an upgrade. Even if you start with all new, top-of-the-line equipment, you’ll often need to start upgrading some pieces within five years. Those capital costs can add up to a lot, and are necessary for a wide range of creative pursuits.

Education Link

Every creative pursuit requires some education — even if it’s not formal. Designers learn either taking classes, practicing their craft, reading books, and studying the work of others. Virtually any other creative profession has a similar educational method. Some professions might be learned in a year or two, though mastering any creative skill is something that likely takes a decade or more.

When considering the value of any creative work, remember to take into account how long the person who created it had to study and practice in order to be able to create it. Creatives deserve to be compensated not just for the time they’ve put into a particular project, but also for the education that’s behind their skill. It’s one reason hourly rates are often so much higher for creative professions than for those that require less education and practice.

Experience Link

Experience doesn’t just relate to professional experience. Life experience gives the work of a lot of creatives a distinct twist or flavor that isn’t present in the work of others. This is often what makes great designers and artists stand out from the crowd. It’s also one of the hardest things for new creatives to harness, as it’s something that usually evolves over time.

All of these things add up to a huge investment on the part of any creative professional. While some creatives produce physical products, more often their greatest assets are intangible; they exist purely as intellectual property. Without respect for the IP rights creatives, we’re effectively devaluing their most important products, as well as everything that goes into those products.

Don’t Discount Other Media Link

It’s already been touched upon above, but it’s common for people to ignore what goes into media other than their own. This is not only dangerous for those other creative professions, but also for our own.

For example, take type foundries. Actually, probably any font out there can be found through filesharing sites or torrents, or on sites that don’t bother informing visitors that the fonts they’re downloading aren’t there legally. And most people, outside of type designers, don’t understand just how much time can go into creating a high quality typeface. Beyond the different weights and styles sometimes offered, full character sets often consist of hundreds of individual characters. Each one of those has to be designed individually. And then there’s proper spacing and kerning and hinting to worry about. In all, a typeface can take a year or more from concept to finished files.

Now, most high-quality typefaces sell for between $100 and $300, with some higher or lower prices, especially for fonts with more styles or weights, or with larger-than-normal character sets. A lot of people shy away from prices like that, thinking they’re too high for what you receive. If you figure that a lot of type foundries are small, independent companies that might only sell 100 font licenses in a year, that starts to add up to a pretty paltry wage per hour. By downloading fonts and using them without paying for a license, we’re not only depriving them of income, but we’re also sending a subconscious message that we don’t value the work they do. That’s true of any creative industry. But by not paying for creative work, we’re devaluing it.

Respect for Creatives Link

Essentially, intellectual property rights come down to respect. Respect for designers and artists is sometimes lacking in our society. There’s a pervasive feeling in some circles that design is easy, and that anyone can do it. As creative professionals, we know that’s not true. We need to set the example by valuing each other’s work, so that the general public values it, too.

If we want to be respected for the work we do, we need to respect others pursuing creative professions. It doesn’t matter whether it’s another designer, an illustrator, a digital artist, a painter, a writer, a musician, or anyone else. If they’re requesting compensation for the creative work they’ve done, then we need to pay for it or simply not use their work. If we think a creative is charging too much for something, and we’ve taken into account the work that likely went into it, then we always have the option to not use their artwork.

Devaluing Our Own Work Link

It’s been hinted at before: violating the intellectual property rights of others devalues our own work. We’re contributing to a culture that thinks there’s nothing wrong with taking the creations of others without compensating them for it. Intellectual property is often looked at differently than other, more tangible goods. But it’s still a product that someone has created.

There’s also a big difference between pirating something for personal use and pirating something for professional, commercial use. Let’s leave the debate about pirating for personal use for another time, and just focus on the commercial debate. Taking the creation of someone else without compensating them for it and then using it to make money is certainly ethically wrong. If we’re making money from something, because of something, then the person who originally created it should also be receiving compensation if they desire.

There’s a big difference between downloading a song you probably wouldn’t have paid money for anyway and downloading a stock photo you then use in a project you’re being paid for. In the first case, there’s arguably no money being lost. In the latter, there most definitely is. As designers, we should be paying for content we incorporate into commercial projects and then passing those costs on to clients or including them in the cost of doing business.

Alternatives to Stealing Link

I’m sure a lot of designers and creatives are thinking about how expensive a lot of creative materials are. And it’s true, the costs can add up quickly. When working on a client project, it’s one thing, as much of that cost can be passed on. But what about for personal projects? Or for clients who don’t want to pay for things like fonts or stock photos?

Luckily, there are plenty of free and low cost sources for finding things like fonts or stock graphics. Some of them aren’t very high quality, but plenty of them are. Sometimes creatives who normally charge for their work will offer freebies of their products. There are tons of sites that offer free fonts, graphics, stock photos, and other resources.

Don’t overlook Creative Commons and other open source products, either. Creative Commons search on Flickr can yield photos for practically any project. There are free templates available for virtually every CMS out there, as well as in plain HTML. And there are stock photo websites like Morgue File5 or Sxc.hu6 that offer up tons of stock photos for free (some require permission for commercial or public use, so always check licensing agreements prior to use).

There are legitimate free font sites out there that offer fonts for both personal and commercial projects, some of which are very high quality. Sites like The League of Moveable Type7 are dedicated to bringing high-quality, free, open source typefaces to the masses.

Give Proper Credit Link

Even if someone is offering a creative resource for free, it’s still ethical (and sometimes required) to give them credit for their contribution. With certain licenses, credit is required (like with Creative Commons). Other times people will release things into the public domain. Even in those cases, giving credit is still the proper thing to do if practical.

Remember to look at how people want to be credited for their work, too. Some are happy if you just include their name. Others want a link back to their website. Still others have specific statements they want included. Credit in the way creators want you to credit them.

Give Back to the Community Link

If you’re going to use free resources provided by the design community, you should take time to create some resources to give back. These could be something simple, like a texture pack, or something a bit more complicated, like a free theme or typeface. By giving back to the open source community, we keep it strong and viable. When we contribute high-quality resources, we raise the profile of open source and give it more value. This, in turn, encourages others to contribute their own high-quality resources, and the cycle repeats itself.

If you’re benefiting from using open source content, take some time to give back and create your own open source resources. Other designers and creatives will respect you more for doing so, and it sets a good example for others.

Conclusion Link

Intellectual property rights are one of the most important aspects of the creative world and need to be honored by those who are part of that world, as well as those who aren’t. Don’t disrespect your fellow creatives by stealing their work and using it for your own benefit. Give credit where credit is due, pay for things that require payment, and set an example for others, whether they’re creative professionals or simply consumers.

(vf) (ik)

Footnotes Link

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Cameron Chapman is a professional Web and graphic designer with over 6 years of experience. She writes for a number of blogs, including her own, Cameron Chapman On Writing. She’s also the author of The Smashing Idea Book: From Inspiration to Application.

  1. 1

    Excellent Cameron. A detailed, well-thought out argument for ethics in web design.

    “There’s also a big difference between pirating something for personal use and pirating something for professional, commercial use.”

    For sure, the web would be a pale reflection of its current self if it wasn’t for the widespread use of unregistered software, but if you are earning money from using them then you have a moral responsibility to pay for them.

    Fonts can be very expensive to buy and are really only for the domain of agencies that charge a commercial rate that justifies that expenditure – however, there are lots of free font resources out there. defont is one of those:

    Also as well, try to give something back to your favourite Open Source project – contribute a little money, create a free template, attend local meetings. Get involved.

  2. 2 is an interesting read.

  3. 3

    Good article.

    One issue that wasn’t covered and could be a whole article on it’s own is copyright. Who owns what? I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice but here’s what I’ve learned.

    This info is aimed at the UK

    Just to remind. When a work is created – an image, a photo, a design or whatever, then the copyright of that work is owned by the creator of that work. It is automatic, doesn’t require any registration and as a law has real teeth.

    When you design or build a website you’ll acquire content from all over:
    The client may supply product images or piccy’s of their team.
    You may get stock photos from sxc or istockphoto etc
    You will create a design
    You WILL NOT just grab images off the net will you!

    So who owns what? Who has the copyright on which bits?

    Don’t assume that because the client supplies images that they have the rights to use them.

    Product images: The client should have the copyright assigned to them or have specific permission to to use elsewhere – ie on the website you’re building. You should check with the client.

    Staff photo’s: Did the staff agree for their images to be used on the net?

    Stock photos: on Stock Xchange each photo comes with specific permissions, check before you use. Other stock image libraries will have their own usage rules.

    Your design. You implicitly have the copyright on the design – you created it however, that design will include other copyrighted items which you do not have copyright on – unless assigned.

    Web images: You cannot just grab and use any image on the net because it’s there and on public view – it doesn’t belong to you and using web images without permission is actually theft!
    How would you feel if somebody grabbed and used what you’ve created?

    So you’ve checked permissions, built the website and all is well. What next?
    Does the client own the work?
    No, not automatically.
    Unless you assign the copyright to the client, they have no rights to use it even though they commissioned it.

    You need to create an agreement that states that you give permission to the client to own the work – if you wish to allow this.

    Here’s one suggestion: (USA)
    Here’s some furter advice from

    Hope this helps

  4. 4

    Thanks for sharing nice information about Intellectual property rights.

  5. 5

    Nice Article!!!!

  6. 6

    Good article! I’m glad to see someone who understands the importance of intellectual property and copyright.

    Ideas are often worth more than the execution so it should be treated just as importantly as physical property.

  7. 7

    great read! i was wondering, i recently came across a font that I would like to use for commercial purposes. unfortunately, after many hours of googling i have not been able to come to a concrete conclusion on whether I can. do you know of any places where I can check this? The font seems to be free for personal use and is called “Caribbean Island”. or do u have any design forums/communities that i can pose this question to? Thanks! :)

  8. 8

    sorry forgot to tick the followup checkbox :x

  9. 9

    Good, informative article there Cameron.

    One aspect that is not mentioned by yourself or Drew – if you create something under contract, the intellectual copyright transfers when the contract is fulfilled by both parties. The number of designers I have heard moaning about clients who ask for editable files of their logos is staggering. They pay you, they own it. Simple AND the law. Obviously the same is not true for all creative endeavours – websites for example where you retain rights to reuse the code created – but a lot of designers seem to confuse fine art with commercial design.

    • 10

      I have to agree about wording. I was under contract to build a number of sites and the contract stipulates that the designer and the firm must come to an agreement on cost and sign a release. Neither was done, I was locked out, and the sites were sold without compensation to me. Since then, I have filed a superior court case with damages exceeding $100K. The company continues to collect retainer fees from the sites and make small changes to my designs, thinking that they can say that the design is not mine. They don’t understand the issues and legalities behind their actions so they are in pretty deep.

  10. 11

    Hehe, intellectual property. I just saw The Social Network the other day and first then did I realize how serious this actually can be. It’s a funny concept, that someone steal something not physical… Somehow, it doesn’t make any sense to me, I don’t know why. Good blog, though.

  11. 12

    Excellent! It is so important to create contracts that include a price for design and strategy to promote more business. This is usually the most important first step.

  12. 13

    Interesting article.

    In web development we often come across issues when it comes to ‘signing the contract’ due to the terms we add about intellectual property. In terms of web development it is often quite a challenge to get clients to sign a contract detailing that we will retain the intellectual rights to the code we develop so we can reuse the code written in other work even though they have paid for us to develop their website.


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