Freelancing and Plagiarism

Some professional advice please.

I have a freelancing job where the client is increasingly pushing to copy an existing design. What originally was “I like this sort of thing” has become “I want you to make this”. I don’t want to copy someone else’s work.

I’ve pointed out to the client that their specified manufacturing and material limitations will influence the work in a certain direction, and luckily for me prevent an exact copy, but normally how does the c77 community manage this?

That is a tough one. I use a couple of conversational devices. Typically the person is not trying to copy the bench marked product per se, but the product’s success and they confuse the two together. So as a designer, you have to abstract what made that product successful and then design something different that hits all of the principles you identified. It can be a tenuous dance though. People that take things literally and get fixated on someone else’s solution as the end all be all can be difficult to talk back from the ledge.

cheers Yo, much appreciated.

I second Yo’s comments. I’ve had to deal with this a number of times in my industry where we do a lot of spec design work usually against a range of bidders, it is competitive. In some cases a (usually ignorant) prospect will select a design from one of the bidders and then reveal it to the others, usually to see who can build it at the lowest price. Of course, this practice is frowned upon by us and our competitors and is not regarded as a best practice on the client’s part.

So, the issue with this is in convincing our account execs and the client that the design they selected is not optimal for them, but by sharing it with us it gives us a better understanding of their objectives and that we would like the opportunity to pitch a new design. This ties into what Yo is taking about, defining what makes the existing design/product successful and discussing how to move it forward by defining by contrast other opportunities for success that the original design fails to address. My response is always that we will beat them on design and not compete on price, rarely does this fail. However, where I haven’t been able to convince both parties to take a new design approach (account exec doesn’t want to pay for it, client doesn’t want it) and they’d rather have us tweak a competitor’s design I have always walked away for 2 reasons:

1). There’s always a better design so why copy?
2). I don’t want to have to defend myself in court.

Instead of looking to your client’s specified manufacturing and material limitations to influence the direction away from a copy, consider leveraging it to create a better product/design. Play to their strengths, you know, that sort of thing…

Wait…what? Frowned upon? This sound downright illegal to me.

Well, considering that all the bidders put forth speculative (exhibit) designs, and since in most cases the client isn’t paying for the designs, this does happen occasionally. I used the word ignorant because it is a common expectation in our industry that the client will award the exhibit build to the bidder with the best design/price, amongst other factors outside of design. We do have some competitors that will not speculatively bid on a project and will invoice for design, but unfortunately there are far more competitors willing to do design on spec forcing the rest to follow suit. And yes, spec design does hurt the industry as a whole, specifically in the U.S. where design is less valued than say in Europe.

That said, I don’t know of any clients who have been sued for this, but there have been many lawsuits between competitors. This is why I will never copy and/or modify a competitor’s design except in certain cases such as an international exhibitor needing to exhibit in the U.S. whose domestic exhibit supplier cannot cost effectively build and ship to the U.S., or do it within a certain time frame. At that point, technically, the client owns the rights to the design anyways.

So, is it illegal, not as far as the client is concerned, but I do think that it is unethical. Aside from that the client pays the price of having less suppliers bid the next time around if they were burned.

My first full project at my first design job was a complete copy! I was instructed to take a device apart, measure everything, draw up all the parts, get quotes, etc. I was so nervous I went to the presidents office, and from somewhere had the courage to ask if this was legitimate? He assured me he had negotiated a license with the original German company to make, assemble and stock spare parts. Why don’t we just get their drawings? He said it was odd contract negotiation terms that the Germans wanted too much money. Weird. Anyway, I did it, and with our in-house manufacturing staff we changed some details.

At my own company we occasionally get this request, about 4 times in total. Taking a cue from my first job, when it is clear that the client is describing a desire to copy, I simply ask if they have a license from the original manufacturer and can they show it to me and failing that we simply refuse to do this work. So far 3 clients have just walked away, one tried a bit of bluff that he was negotiating a license.