Every now and then, clients ask designers to “copy” a design that they have seen elsewhere.
As innocent as this may sound (to some), it is copyright infringement and a straight-up violation of our international copyright laws. It is important to handle (and/or decline) these requests professionally.
Typically, my response is
“I would happy to design something for you that has a similar look and feel, but I am not comfortable copying another designer's work”.
A client may become frustrated by this response. Sorry, not sorry. Personally, I'd rather err on the side of safe legal business behavior even if it means a client is frustrated. It is my job to educate the client.
The client may not understand why the copied design (that will most likely not be seen by enough people to make a difference) cannot be reproduced.
The answer is simple: it is unethical (not to mention illegal) to copy a design, claim it as your own and sell/profit from it.
What is copyright infringement?
Of course, there are designers out there who are not bothered by this. They will do whatever their clients request. It should be known, that if it is found (by the original artist) that their work has been plagiarized, the artist can be fined and/or face copyright infringement charges.
I do not know anyone who wants to be contacted by an attorney or served with cease and desist papers relating to their business. It may sound far fetched, but believe me: I have seen this happen, and it is not pretty and always expensive. It can and will tarnish a designer's career.
Thinking a designer won't get caught is not justification for infringing copyright. Artists spend a fair amount of time creating their work. The original artist is the only one deserving of the credit and profit.
Unless a contract is signed between a designer and the client that stipulates that the client is the new owner of the work and may resell the work as their own (which isn't common), the original artist will always be the owner of the work. It doesn't get much simpler than that.
What do I do if a client asks me to infringe a copyright?
Obviously, you do not want to decline business. May I suggest opening up a dialogue with your client and offer ways to create something fresh and new and original? Most clients would rather have a unique look than something that has been around a while. Being original is better anyway, right?
Negotiating this with a client will offer far better rewards in the long run. And if your client decides to take his business elsewhere (to a designer who will oblige), don't worry. There is plenty more business to be had. Declining a request such as this, will not ruin your career. If anything it will gain you unmeasurable respect from your clients and colleagues.
When in doubt, follow your gut.
If it doesn't feel right, then it probably isn't. For more information, feel free to visit the U.S. Copyright Office.