Get Real: Graphic Design, Trademark Infringement & Art Prints


prints sneak peek

[sneak peek]

I’ve been designing a series of typography prints over the course of a couple months now.

As i’m nearing the end of finishing touches & getting them test printed, i’ve also been doing some research to double check that everything is A-OK to sell. This means making sure that the fonts are able to be used in a commercial design as per their licensing agreement. This means that if a quote is used, it’s properly quoted as so people know where it came from. I have an in-progress design that I wasn’t planning on selling because the art is centered around a song lyric by a band that is active.

I don’t wanna self promote my upcoming shop right now, but more so I want to talk about trademark infringement and what’s okay to sell in the world of graphic design. While hunting for a little inspiration on Etsy on how shops are set up to sell prints, I came across some things that bothered me.

Personally, I get annoyed seeing so many graphic art prints that are simply just typefaces put together. It’s one thing if the fonts are edited & manipulated in some way, and accompanying other artwork, but it seems wrong for me to see prints being sold with little designing done (largely just featuring a font that someone else designed, in some cases).

I also noticed, and became aware that there are tons of possible copyright/trademark infringements on Etsy. There seems to be a blurry line. For example, there are many simple prints featuring the phrase “may the odds ever be in your favor” from the Hunger Games. I was under the impression that this was NOT okay to do, legally or respectfully. If I wanted to, I could quickly whip up a similar print and pop it up on Etsy for a profit.

This is not an attack on graphic design by any means. I’m very aware that simple/minimal design is not easy to do, and takes just as much time and work as a more complicated design. When I say ‘simple’ I mean that from working in the industry I can recognize when something was created without much effort.

Moving on!

How do you know if/what ‘fan’ art is okay to sell? Like the above example, if everyone is doing it it seems OK. Is the writer of the Hunger Games book going to take the time to sue someone over a $20 print? Probably not. Did the seller of the artwork get permission to use the phrase? Probably not. As far as I can tell from looking into it, the internet tells me that particular phrase is trademarked. It seems like you can create a lot of fan art and get away with it.

For me, I see this as a huge issue of respect. You might be able to create art centered around someone else’s idea and not have it reported, but is that really courteous?

All of this frustration makes me want to throw in the towel and not sell prints of my own. Maybe i’m just tired of seeing ‘Home is wherever i’m with you’ quote prints (as lovely as they are). In all seriousness, it bothers me to be taking a part in something where there’s such an unclear area of what’s right and not right. It seems like no one wants to talk about it.

What are your thoughts? Is this a problem on Etsy and in graphic design?

‘Get Real’ is a new monthly-ish series on Completely Unfinished featuring honest ‘real talk’ & more personal posts.

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  • Amanda says:

    It’s a problem on Etsy, yes. I wouldn’t say it’s a problem in graphic design in general since professional designers are usually aware of the issues regarding copyrights and re-use. The cases on Etsy are mostly exactly what you call them: fan art. Slapping pre-made, unaltered fonts on a generic background doesn’t count as design as far as I’m concerned. And I hope it goes without saying that quotes should always, always be attributed. Even the Hunger Games one, which most prints I’ve seen did not.

    It’s when there is some artistry involved that it gets a bit tricky. Say a person used that same Hunger Games quote, but took their own photograph or drew their own illustration, and hand-lettered the quote on top. The work is all their own, but the use of the quote still questionable. I think legally it’s still just as much a no-go zone, since the words are the same.

    If you have a quote by someone that’s been dead for 75 years or more, generally those are safe as they are considered to be in the public domain.

  • erin aka eef says:

    A lot of people on Etsy are really guilty of this–I think it’s pretty tacky to take a quote from somewhere and then slap it onto a colored background using a font designed by someone else and call it art. There ARE some really talented designers who use typography and make great prints, but most of the time it’s about 2 minutes of “design” and ripping off other peoples’ work–or at least not crediting it.

  • lissa says:

    I’ve seen artwork that are clearly in violation of copyrights and not just in Etsy but other online sellers as well. it’s not an issue that can be easily fix. so I just think you should just do what your consciences tells you to do. sometimes that is the only thing you can do.

    thanks for dropping by my blog. have a sweet day.

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