Defenders of design theft

Published: October 1, 2006. Filed under: Misc, Pedantics.

When a case of alleged design theft on the Web — the appropriation of one or more elements of a site’s design, without permission — is exposed, there is an elite group of mentally-challenged individuals who spring into action to defend said theft. Their arguments never vary; they stay the course and seem to assume that if they simply repeat themselves often enough, their lack of functioning neurons will be ignored.

Broadly speaking, these arguments fall into three categories. I pray you’ll forgive my abominable Latin grammar in describing them.

Turpem tuus

This category of arguments is predicated on the assumption that something which is not aesthetically pleasing is not to be afforded protection, and thus may be appropriated by anyone without fear of repercussion.

Proponents of this principle typically begin their comments by pointing out that the site from which the design was appropriated is, in their humble opinions, ugly. Often this is merely a stepping-stone to the more advanced turpes omnia, which deems all of the sites involved to be visually unpleasant.

The correct counter-argument involves suggesting that, by this logic, it should be perfectly acceptable to steal your neighbor’s Pontiac Aztek.

Auferet omnes

This style is more properly a subset of the better-known informal fallacy tu quoque, and is centered on the allegation that all designers engage in theft. Typically, reference is made to the line “bad artists copy, great artists steal”, often attributed to Pablo Picasso, and anecdotes will be told regarding designers who have large collections of misappropriated fonts.

Due to the regularity with which ideas are recycled and cross-pollinated among designers and, indeed, artists of all sorts, this is at first a beguiling argument; typically the line between “inspiration” (as it is often called) and “plagiarism” is possessed of a sharpness inversely proportional to an observer’s distance from the works in question.

The most effective response to this line of reasoning avoids that logical quagmire and instead asks whether Vanilla Ice, in light of Ice Ice Baby‘s outright appropriation of the bass line from Under Pressure, should immediately be elevated to the pantheon of great artists.

Situs in publica

This school of thought has developed only recently, but has been prolific in its output. Their philosophy can be summarized by the principle that anything which is placed on a publicly-accessible web server loses the protection of copyright law.

Note that this premise is taken to be true a priori and so is assumed to require no justification from empirical experience; thus it is not necessary for proponents to make reference to case law, or to identify where in Title 17 of the United States Code they believe this principle is enshrined.

When debating with disciples of this school, be sure to make reference to the number of times their axiom has allowed defendants to prevail in lawsuits brought by the Recording Industry Association of America.


Compiling the above listing would not have been possible without a vibrant community of parasitic “designers” whose ethical senses are detectable only by electron microscope. In addition, I am greatly indebted to Greg Storey for the variety of flora and fauna I was able to study, in their native habitat, at the comments section of his post entitled “Scab”.