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Intellectual Property, Ripoffs, And What Have You
Guest Editorial by Alexander “Fish” Bohn

In 2003, the pop auteur Mellowdrone released an album called “A Demonstration of Intellectual Property”. None of the lyrics addressed the notion of intellectual property directly; the album’s name refers to the fact that Mellowdrone initially gave away the album as unrestricted MP3 files on his website, before offering it for sale as a retail CD.

I, personally, had never heard of Mellowdrone before this. But a friend of mine, who had seen him open up for Johnny Mar, directed me to his web site. I downloaded his music, and indeed, it was catchy enough to stay in my rotation (which is more than I can say for most free MP3s found online). As such, Mellowdrone effectively wagered his talent against both his royalty proposition and the music industry’s conventional wisdom.

His bet paid off, at least in my case: I have since bought his full-length album from Amazon. He has apparently been quite successful since then in many ways. One of the songs from “A Demonstration of Intellectual Property” was later used as non-diegetic background music in an episode of Six Feet Under, which could be considered a pop canonization of sorts.

I am interested in the notion of “intellectual property”, in large part because the term itself is rather oxymoronic: How can you own an idea? If I give you my sandwich, I’ll be hungry, but if I give you my idea, I still have the idea. We both win, n’est ce pas? Ideas don’t behave like physical property.

So, I wanted to have my own intellectual property demonstration, to see how the concept might operate in the field of graphic design. I assembled an exhibition of posters at a student gallery here at RISD. The show, called “I AM TOTALLY RIPPING YOU OFF”, consisted completely of from-scratch recreations of notable typographically-oriented examples from graphic design and conceptual art. In each recreated work, I used the words “I AM TOTALLY RIPPING YOU OFF, _______” with the blank substituted by the author or artists’ name. I ripped off a very wide range of practitioners in this fashion, from Wim Crouwel, to John Baldessari, to M/M Paris. I also included two of my ex-girlfriends, both of whom are practicing graphic designers.

[Click image for larger view]

In some ways, this approach is the opposite of what Mellowdrone was doing. Instead of giving away the fruits of my hard labor, it could be argued that I was standing on the shoulders of giants in a bid for attention, which is, like, the ultimate currency in graphic design.

Nonetheless, the act of ripping everyone off was a very revealing one, I found. The verb phrase “to rip off” here is important. I was not “precisely emulating” my subjects, nor was I “loosely borrowing”. When you rip someone off, you are adapting their trademark style to your own ends. This is something that we do all the time, as graphic designers. I will freely admit that in the past, I have adapted some idea I saw executed by some far more established practitioner, and passed it off without so much as a footnote. My early website designs, for example, were more or less reassembled components filched from The Designers Republic; for a while after that, I thought I could ride on Mr. Müller-Brockmann’s coattails by making everything I did some sort of geometric abstraction with Akzidenz Grotesk on top.

It was therefore fantastically refreshing to rip everyone off so blatantly and unapologetically. I could devote my time and effort to marshalling the rip-offs towards an emulation of the original technique as much as possible, without having to invest effort in diluting the spirit of the original to make the work seem more “mine”, which is typical in the normal, day-to-day course of ripping someone off.

Apeloig Rip-off

Sagmeister Rip-off

Ruscha Rip-off

But even still, the results were not perfect, by any measure. I know this definitively, because for the last phase of the project, I sent copies of each rip-off back to the rip-offee. I included, along with each rip-off, a “receipt” for rip-offee’s intellectual property, which consisted of a deliberately nonsensical but precise-looking tabulation of their ideas. This proved to be rather amusing to compile. When I ripped off Phillippe Apeloig, for example, I could not rightly attribute all of the modular typographical ideas in his posters solely to him; clearly, he was basing his character sets on work originally pioneered by Wim Crouwel. I stated this in the receipt.


At the moment, I have only received a handful of replies to these thought-crime dispatches, but the few I have received have been quite astounding. Peter Bil’ak wrote me back within five minutes, stating that I had ripped him off incorrectly. To rip him off, I had adapted his type-grid stamp design for the Dutch Royal TPG. I had not been aware of the fact that the stamps’ grid was based directly on Fedra’s metric tables, and as such, the rip-off’s grid included padding between the character and the grid cell boundary that wasn’t present in the original. Mr. Bil’ak even sent me a PDF mockup of the stamp with the phrase “I AM TOTALLY RIPPING YOU OFF MR. BIL’AK” rendered in a manner he deemed more correct.

Bil'ak Corrections

Fascinatingly, the other replies have been in line with this sentiment. The original authors and artists who have felt compelled to address the project have done so to say, “you haven’t ripped me off well enough!” I thought it especially funny to have received a reply like this from Mieke Gerrizten. I mean, isn’t everyone supposed to be a designer? I supposed that doesn’t make us all equal as designers, but hey.

My reply to this sentiment, incidentally, hinges on the definition of “rip-off” falling somewhat short of “exact emulation”. In each rip-off, I considered the precision of the original designer’s work, and used that as a loose guideline. For example, I am pretty sure I nailed the Wim Crouwell piece, but I did not seek the same sort of rigor when ripping off, say, 178 Aardige Ontwerpers, because I don’t see an analogous kind of punctiliousness in their work.

I had expected at least a smidgen of outrage from those I pilfered from. This kind of reaction is not without precedent: on April 17, 2006, the New York Observer published an article by Simon Doonan, entitled “How Did I become the Typhoid Mary of the Art World?” Mr. Doonan is a designer based in New York, and for decades, he has crafted window displays at retail shops like Barney’s, using found type from junkyards. In his article, he hilariously details an incedent where the Art World luminary Jack Pierson came to town for a show, and saw a high degree of similarity between his art and the work Mr. Doonan had been doing for decades. So similar was the work, in Mr. Pierson’s eye, that the only possible option was for him to sue Mr. Doonan for infringing on his intellectual property.

This was the sort of response I was gearing myself up for. I have seen otherwise reasonable people, in both the wide-open professional realm and the pressure-cooker of graduate school, who try to claim eminent domain over, say, a typeface, or a printing technique, or what have you. “How dare you use Gridnik! That one’s mine!” It sounds ridiculous, but it happens. Since I was explicit as possible about my method and intentions regarding the intellectual property of those I ripped off, it is possible that my victims have been playing along, and don’t actually see the project as a direct threat to their established aesthetics (and therefore their professional identities).

Because this, I fear, is the trap that the notion of “intellectual property” sets up. The unfortunate corollary to the investment of time and effort that one expends to build up a unique style is the ease by which such a style can be adapted by someone else. This, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. It becomes bad when your identity as a designer-author is irrevocably bound up in that style. It means your identity can be stolen outright, by anyone with the wherewithal, the tools, and the patience to do so.

Fortunately, we are smarter than that. By experimenting with the more topical aspects of style, we can create an identity that is greater than the sum of the parts of our aesthetics. By resisting the lure of a single aesthetic in favor of a broad-spectrum approach, the bodies of work we craft will inevitably maintain subtle but instrumental common threads, which will add up to a certain je ne sais quoi that observers will no doubt begin to recognize, over time. (In my last article, I described this as having a ™.)

It’s a very tricky proposition, to be sure. Neither my demonstration of intellectual property, nor Mellowdrones’, nor any other object lesson on the subject, in any way implies a blanket, prescriptive approach to dealing with ideas as things*. People should be able to come up with interesting ideas, and use those ideas as the basis for getting paid. That is what copyright law, patent law, and trademark law all seek to address, however disparately (and, some would say, ineffectively). But issues related to “intellectual property” are causing greater and greater convulsions throughout everyday life, from software patent problems to the availability of generic medicines in third-world countries. It’s a bloody mess. But most importantly, it’s an unresolved mess, and as such, we’ll have to continue to experiment until we figure it all out.

It’s more fun this way, anyway. I mean, totally.

* I realize that this statement (and in fact any discussion of intellectual property) implies a gargantuan breadth of issues, well beyond the scope of this pithy document. I would recommend “The Ecstasy of Influence”, an essay by Jonathan Lethem for the February 2007 issue of Harper’s magazine, to those interested in an omnibus analysis of the subject. I would link to it, but harpers.org is now “subscription only”… boo hiss.

[Ed.: Link to Harper’s article added — 05.17.2007]

Alexander “Fish” Bohn is a graphic designer and nacent design writer. Hailing originally from Brooklyn, he is currently a grad student at RISD, where he is researching bullshit patterns in design practice, among other things.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON May.17.2007 BY Speak Up
Su’s comment is:

The Ecstacy of Influence looks plenty available to me.

On May.17.2007 at 06:53 PM
fish’s comment is:

aha, thanks for the tip! I stand corrected.

On May.17.2007 at 08:32 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Thanks Su. Link added and noted.

On May.17.2007 at 09:16 PM
Guillaume’s comment is:

Man, I love your articles. And, yes, I too went through the Akzidenz Grotesk on geometrical patterns stage (preferably with some overprint and a limited scope of pantones).

Anyway, this is a great (if not the best) way to learn. When I got hooked on grids, I used to print down and the redraw every painting by Moholy Naguy, Albers and the others I could find, trying to discover how they were constructed, what geometrical logic is behind them, in what (chrono)logical order things were built. Too bad they're dead, man would I have liked to have their feedback on it.

I hope (and guess, since Armin is publishing this) you scored high with this. One thing I appreciate a lot in graphic design is modesty, you obviously have plenty.

On May.18.2007 at 08:08 AM
diane witman’s comment is:

Loved this article!

I also like your brief at the bottom of the articles where it says "researching bullshit patterns in design practice, among other things." It sounds like something my Dad would say about what I do for a living. They never understand.

I like that you got feedback from the designers that you chose to "rip-off" in a flattering fashion, but I'm wondering what did your instructors and fellow students think of this at RISD?

On May.18.2007 at 10:50 AM
Michelle French’s comment is:

Wow! Fun article.

I even read The Ecstacy of Influence and recommend that everyone take the time. Thanks Su.

Photographers and their reps have asked why we, graphic designers, do not make the same copyright claims on our work that photogs and illustrators get. Basically, we would all be creatively and intellectually strangled. (Not to mention that no one would actually hire us to create for them.)

We all build on the structures of the past.

On May.18.2007 at 11:11 AM
Julie’s comment is:

LOVE THE MUSIC TIP!!!! Sweet to find new music! Thanks!

hm..... I wonder how many other designers out there are influenced by the music they listen to also?

On May.18.2007 at 11:37 AM
Sean Flanagan’s comment is:

Regarding the idea of intellectual property and copyright as it pertains to this project, this would be considered an exercise in parody. Parody exists in all forms of media, and is explicitly protected under copyright law as long as it is not defamatory. Of course, it may be inflammatory, as you suggested as you expected irate responses.

In fact, even considering the complications surrounding intellectual property, parody is still somewhat acceptable as original material. This is akin to t-shirt designs that say "Clever Saying" on them, with the same type treatment as designs that do have clever sayings on them.

Rather than explain my own opinion regrading the use of parody in creative fields, I'll let Mr. Hemmingway explain my position:

The parody is the last refuge of the frustrated writer. Parodies are what you write when you are associate editor of the Harvard Lampoon. The greater the work of literature, the easier the parody. The step up from writing parodies is writing on the wall above the urinal.
–Ernest Hemingway

On May.18.2007 at 02:16 PM
Tom B’s comment is:

I'm surprised at the flippant attitude to Intellectual Property taken by many graphic designers, almost implying that protecting ideas from plagiarism is a bad thing.

There is a strange attitude, particularly amongst bloggers, that ideas should be shared freely; and that the originarors of those ideas should be content just knowing that their ideas are out there. Receiving money for an idea sullies and debases the whole egalitarian ideal.

Well I'm sorry, but I make a living from ideas. And i'm not talking about vague, general ideas (a visual style, a preference for a typeface). I'm talking about very specific ideas - painstakingly developed solutions to particular briefs.

I've had too many clients try to steal my intellectual property to be flippant about the subject. Most of them think they're perfectly entitled to do so, assuming that commissioning a design project is like buying groceries.

Being flippant about intellectual property protection is like a shopkeeper being flippant about shoplifting.

On May.19.2007 at 05:07 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Tom, because if you lived or died by protecting your intellectual property you would a) die or b) live a neurotic, non-productive life wondering who is going to steal from you because it is unfeasible to want to legally protect every single idea or execution, regardless of how painstakingly it was a developed as a solution to any particular brief.

See The Anatomy of Design. No design work is unique, nor completely original, nor independent of what has been done before. Not to mention that the derivative potential of any single execution is mind-boggling, leaving ample room for legal ripping off of your intellectual property.

> Most of them think they're perfectly entitled to do so, assuming that commissioning a design project is like buying groceries.

Unless you are legally protected and assuming that your clients are morally reprehensible, well, they are entitled to do whatever they want... as long as they are not ethically concerned.

So why be flippant about the situation? In my opinion, because we designers, all steal intellectual property in one way or another. Sometimes to a lesser, unnoticeable extent and sometimes to shameful, pathetic extent. We draw from what we see, and we live and die by that.

On May.19.2007 at 06:38 PM
fish’s comment is:

hey everyone. thanks so much for the comments.

to Tom B.: while my approach may seem flip, I assure you it is not. my aim is to demonstrate the fact that "intellectual property" is a very unresolved notion. no one should steal anything from anyone, but sharing ideas isn't the same as stealing. I am concerned that the phrase "intellectual property" reinforces the flawed notion that ideas should behave the same way as physical objects. I don't know what the answer to this conundrum is, but I know it isn't as simple as equating the two.

to Ms. Whitman: it went over pretty well with everyone who wasn't being explicity (or implictly) ripped off, I would say. and I would add that Guilliaume is correct: it is a fantastic way to learn. to an extent, with each rip-off, I dynamically acquired an entirely new skillset and outlook, courtesy of the rip-offee. I had a fantastic time making the M/M Paris rip-off, for example... I got to smash an epson inkjet cartridge with a hammer. I would recommend this sort of activity to basically anyone.

but yeah, I have been recommending Lethem's article to basically everyone I know whose work involves any sort of authorship or pseudo-authorship. I am glad Su found the link, indeed.

I would lastly add that I believe that once you realize that there are no new ideas, you are free to do whatever you want... within the bounds of what is respectful and decent, of course. but "respectful" and "decent" are relative terms, and so the best way to figure them out is to have a conversation about it all. yes? yes!

On May.19.2007 at 10:36 PM
Michelle French’s comment is:

Tom, I was thinking about your comments today. Armin has very ably addressed this, to which I add: we're not so much flippant as we are jaded and realistic. We can spend our lives fighting (and spend more money than we make on lawyers) or we bill for what we can and let go of the rest.

We don't own parts of our our own design work. We don't own the illustration, or photography or the typeface—we just rent them—no matter how much equity we put into the concept. How many claims can we make on our grids? Someone else always did it first. We just hope to do it better.

And get enough money up front so that we aren't cripplingly bitter at the end.

Thanks Fish for a refreshing look. I'm inspired to smash my Epson printer right now—not just the cartridges—but that's another story.

On May.20.2007 at 01:17 AM
Michelle French’s comment is:

Oooo, maybe instead of the term “Rip-Off” we should look to our musically inclined friends and use “Riff-off” as a more interesting description?

On May.20.2007 at 01:34 AM
Tom B’s comment is:

My point wasn't to say that ideas should never be shared. Taking inspiration from others is a vital part of being creative.

I'm just surprised at the number of people who think that protecting their own right to be paid for their hard work is a bad thing.

I'm not really talking about designers plagiarising other designers' work. More about large corporations trying to screw over little design studios. I've had clients use logos I've designed without my permission, robbing me of my livelihood.

I don't know much about American copyright law, but here in the UK intellectual property clearly belongs to the originator of the work unless explicitly transfered to someone else. Many clients are unwilling to pay for copyright release, and many designers surrender it unknowingly.

I suspect that large corporations are all too aware that they can push their weight around like this, and designers' reluctance to take the issue seriously only adds to the problem.

I'm not trying to stifle anyone's creativity. I just find it strange that the very people who copyright law exists to protect are the ones who dismiss it as irrelevant and prohibitive.

On May.20.2007 at 05:11 AM
Su’s comment is:

Tom, I think you're muddling concepts.
Clients using work you haven't released to them is theft, not plagiarism(and should be covered by your contact).

The exercise here was not to take existing work and present it as original, but to appropriate the style of the works. Some of them strain against this by the source possibly being a bit too iconic(the Sagmeister thing in particular), but I'd suspect that was built into the point, and is also why it's important that there were many pieces done.

Not that your complaints are invalid, but I get the feeling you're having a different discussion from everybody else.

As a sidenote, Barbara Kruger seems to not care all that much, at least in certain situations if the story's true, Michael Bierut doesn't think style is ownable, and Art Chantry has a thing or two or three to say in that thread, also.

There was a long thread here at Speak up a while back regarding a music video done in the style of Sagmeister's "words made of stuff" technique, but I've given up on searching for it. Maybe someone else will remember which post it was.

On May.20.2007 at 10:07 AM
Tom B’s comment is:

Su, you're right. I'm sorry for taking the discussion off on a tangent.

I do think these matters are connected, however. And I think we all need to be careful when attacking ambiguous concepts like 'intellectual property'.

I do feel that there is a genuine confusion over what rights we have as creative professionals. I think I'm a bit over-sensitive around copyright issues because I've been burnt in the past.

I suppose my only point was that copyright issues should be taken seriously; and I'm sure we all agree on that.

Right, I'll shut up now.

On May.20.2007 at 01:30 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

It’s time for Gunnar to be the pedantic schoolteacher again. Most conversations about IP don’t get very far, largely because the language people use is so imprecise that the actual issues are not addressed.

implying that protecting ideas from plagiarism is a bad thing

Plagiarism is not the use of others’ creative work. Plagiarism is pretending that others’ work is one’s own. The examples shown were clearly not plagiarism nor is any semi-successful parody since a parody only works if the original is known.

we designers, allsteal intellectual property in one way or another

1) Intellectual property is a legal concept. One can use form developed by previous creators without violating any legal interests, thus not “stealing” intellectual property.

2) “Intellectual property” is a philosophically problematic phrase because it is to some extent metaphorical but often taken overly-literally. Not all violations of property are theft. Trespassing is a violation of property. So is unauthorized dumping. Theft is not a particularly useful metaphor for violations of various sorts of IP.

Clients using work you haven't released to them is theft, not plagiarism(and should be covered by your cont[r]act)

Closer to theft but usually the sort of theft that includes passing bad checks or paying for a vacation cottage for a weekend and staying for a month rather than something akin to shoplifting. It is usually best dealt with as contract violation or related problem rather than as theft.

On May.20.2007 at 01:46 PM
Mike Williams’s comment is:

Armin and others alluded to this, but I think it is important that designers be very clear on their understanding that copyright and other forms of intellectual property protect the expression of an idea – they do not protect an idea itself. (i.e. Sagmeister’s poster is protectable, the idea of cutting messages into one’s skin is not.) Of course the degree of this is constantly tested, and depends on the amount of time and money one is willing to put forth.

Alexander, you mention that your “aim is to demonstrate the fact that "intellectual property" is a very unresolved notion.” You obviously have a good head and a smart way of demonstrating a point, though I encourage you to now begin demonstrating the solutions, not just the problem. For example, Mellowdrone’s staggered release helped demonstrate that free distribution does help sales rather than decrease them. I’m excited to hear what you feel are the major unresolved IP issues of design and a hypothesis of how we might tackle them.

On May.20.2007 at 03:14 PM
Tan’s comment is:

This has always been one of my favorite rules from Mau's Incomplete Manifesto.

35. Imitate. Don’t be shy about it. Try to get as close as you can. You'll never get all the way, and the separation might be truly remarkable. We have only to look to Richard Hamilton and his version of Marcel Duchamp’s large glass to see how rich, discredited, and underused imitation is as a technique.

So, that being said, I think what you're exploring here isn't intellectual property at all. You're simply exploring imitation. Plus, in the attempt to make a unique point about creative ownership through parody -- you've created an original thesis, expressed through a unique body of work.

So despite your blatant pilfering, you made an original point, communicated through a series of imitated work -- which doomed you from the start. You've ripped off nothing. You've just created something original and unique.

I'd give you an A for the execution, but an F for missing the point entirely.

Now, if you really wanted to violate intellectual property as an assignment -- you should've just ripped off a classmate's thesis idea, executed it almost the same way, and turn it in as your own work. That would have been closer to the idea.

Entertaining essay. Interesting ideas.

On May.21.2007 at 05:49 AM
Randy J. Hunt’s comment is:

Tan, you beat me to this one (citing Mau).

In class with Stefan Sagmeister he offered this suggestion to anyone wishing to improve their typography: take something with really really good typography and a lot of text, and try to recreate it verbatim. He insisted that this was the single best way to learn how to really work with type.

On May.22.2007 at 02:15 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Back to the original post:

the album's name refers to the fact that Mellowdrone initially gave away the album as unrestricted MP3 files on his website, before offering it for sale as a retail CD.

The loss leader is hardly an assault on IP (or any other sort of property.)

So, I wanted to have my own intellectual property demonstration, to see how the concept might operate in the field of graphic design.

I don't understand how this project did that.

When you rip someone off, you are adapting their trademark style to your own ends. This is something that we do all the time, as graphic designers.

Huh? Something that we do? Who is this we? I plead not guilty on this one.

"you haven't ripped me off well enough!"

This is the most important lesson of the exercise, as far as I can see. Copying others’ work can be very good for developing understanding, both formal and conceptual. Just as close observation teaches more than casual observation, close copying teaches more than half-assed copying.

It is also worth noting that well-crafted parodies generally work better than sloppy jokes on many levels.

On May.22.2007 at 09:25 AM
Derrick Schultz ’s comment is:

(note to self: always run thesis by Gunnar or Tan before publicly displaying it.)

Fish, there's a lot of great things to discuss here. I'm not gonna touch the IP stuff because it seems other people know it far better than myself, but theres some other questions i have.

What made you decide to focus on the typography of these designers? I ask because I'm slightly confused on the issue of plagarism as it effects "designed" words. I think it's been touched upon in previous comments, but typography is such a distinct thing from other aspects of design because it carries an explicit message with it. To rip-off just the aesthetic aspect of typography is, in my opinion (and pardon my Modernist education), to imply that the message built into the work is negligible in comparison to its style. Otherwise, its just style as applied to a new message, and as Tan metnions that creates something new and original through synthesis. While it certainly would have been harder to have the consistent message of "I'm ripping you off, so-and-so," it also perhaps would have been more clearly directed to the idea of plagarism of both style and content.

On May.23.2007 at 12:55 PM
martin gee’s comment is:

funny... i designed that mellowdrone cd, downloadable jewel case art, and saw him and johnny marr (at the troubadour in la). =)

On May.24.2007 at 02:19 PM