Why Intellectual Property Rights Are So Important

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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 and is the author of The Smashing … More about Cameron ↬

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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.

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:

What Goes Into Intellectual Property?

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 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

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

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.


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 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

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

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

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

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 File or Sxc.hu 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 Type are dedicated to bringing high-quality, free, open source typefaces to the masses.

Give Proper Credit

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

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.


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.

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