Wesley the Copyright-Free Walrus Says, “Don’t Steal!”

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about being plagiarized. In the comments on that post, I was particularly moved by this remark from IBD reader Heidi:

I agree with Karissa!

By way of context, I should point out that IBD reader Karissa had commented earlier on the same post:

Why not write a blog or two about copyrights and plagiarism in general? I would love to learn more about the challenges in the digital world regarding intellectual property.

Well, I’m not a lawyer, so I haven’t exactly written a post about copyright. But I’ve done the next best thing: I’ve stolen all of the text below from Dummies.com and claimed it as my own:

The Basics of Copyrights
A copyright protects an Original Work of Authorship (OWA) — think short story, computer program, or song lyrics, for example — which must have tangible form, be a result of significant mental activity, have no inherent technical function, and be the author’s original creation.

This seems pretty straightforward, though some might debate whether IBD is the result of actual “mental activity.” The most important thing to note here is that when you create something—anything—through your own “mental activity” (or in Shea’s case, randomly mashing his computer keyboard and punctuating it with “Go Yankees!”), you own the copyright. You don’t have to register it with any government agency (though you can; in the United States, visit the U.S. Copyright Office website to learn about that), and you don’t even have to put that © symbol on it. You own the copyright as soon as you create it, assuming you created it on your own time rather than on the job or under some other form of contract.

One obvious problem is that bad people steal things—be it money, intellectual property, or that parking space that I was clearly waiting for with my blinker on. Another less-obvious problem is that good people steal things without realizing what they’re doing.

Friend of IBD Amy Lethbridge shared this fascinating story from the Utne Reader about a mild-mannered guy named Noam Galai who posted an image of himself screaming on Flickr, only to find months later that it had been used around the world without his knowledge on everything from magazine covers to T-shirts to political posters. There’s a terrific video about it on the Digital Photography School website. (I’ve reproduced this poster from Uruguay in the name of fair use, which I’ll discuss below.)

In terms of technology, it’s extremely easy for me to download a photograph from a website and use it. But even if I credit the photographer and include a link to the website where I found the image, I’ve still used another person’s intellectual property without permission. I can legally use another person’s photograph if its owner has released the copyright (like some of those found on sites like Stck.Xchng or Wikimedia), if it is in the public domain (like many images created by government employees), or if I specifically request and receive permission from the copyright owner.

That said, copyright law does not always prevent you from reproducing another person’s work. The US Copyright Office says this:

It is illegal for anyone to violate any of the rights provided by the copyright law to the owner of copyright. These rights, however, are not unlimited in scope…. One major limitation is the doctrine of “fair use.”

Fair use allows you to reproduce another person’s intellectual property for the purposes of commentary, criticism, or parody. If I use an artist’s illustration without permission just because I need an illustration, that’s copyright infringement, even if I credit the artist. However, if a piece of artwork has been put out in the world for public consumption and I use it in the course of critique or commentary (as with the poster above), that’s fair use.

If I publish the complete lyrics of Alphaville’s “Forever Young” for no reason, that’s both copyright infringement and poor taste. However, if I quote the single line, “Let’s dance in style, lets dance for a while, Heaven can wait, we’re only watching the skies,” in the context of a post about how awesome senior prom was, that’s fair use.

If I write about certain design aspects of logos from Major League Baseball teams (which are trademarked rather than copyrighted, but fair use still applies), that’s fair use. However, if Philippe De Wulf of the Belgian design firm 6+1 takes all of the text from one of my blog posts and reproduces it in its entirety without my permission (even with that tiny little credit at the end), that’s copyright infringement.

In the end, the basics of copyright law are pretty simple: Don’t claim other people’s work as your own, implicitly or explicitly, and don’t use other people’s copyrighted material without permission. Unfortunately, technology has made copyright infringement extremely easy and far too common. If you’re an honest person, resist the urge to borrow copyrighted materials, even just this once, and even if they’ll never notice. If you’re a dishonest person, consider a career writing for the Belgian firm 6+1!

Note: The photograph of Wesley the Copyright-Free Walrus at the top of this post was taken by Captain Budd Christman in the course of his duties as an employee of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is in the public domain.

Pistons poppin’, ain’t no stoppin’ now—Panama!

Continuing an annual tradition on this site, I will begin with a shameless plug on behalf of my employer: The National Association for Interpretation’s 2011 International Conference will be held in Panama, May 4-7, at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort about 30 minutes outside of Panama City. NAI’s International Conference on interpretation is one of the best events in the field and you should make it a point to be there. (I began this tradition last year, when NAI unveiled dates and a location for the 2010 event in Australia, and I made some promises in a post titled “Free Beer (in Australia) for Interpretation By Design Readers.” Little did I know that you can’t get Fosters in Australia.)

Because I like the NAI International Conference so much, I enjoy developing the website and publications associated with it. We’ve done surveys and know that the location is one of the primary reasons participants attend, so creating a sense of place when publicizing this conference is important. One of the challenges I run into, however, is that NAI is now six for six in selecting places I have never been to hold this event.

So once again this year, I set about the process of trying to make meaningful decisions with only my own preconceptions and what I could find online as background knowledge. I put together a template for the event’s website and posted it on the Interpretation By Design Facebook page with a note asking for feedback, some of which I’ll share below (with last names changed to initials to protect the identities of the snarky).

Using expressive type is something of a departure for me. It’s even more of a departure for me to use expressive typefaces that are meant to emulate handwriting, because I find them insidious and stupid (not to put too fine a point on it). However, for Panama, I wanted something that conveyed a sense of fun and energy—a sort of typographic salsa dance. I think the typeface Luna Bar, which I found for free on one of our favorite free font websites, almost does the trick. (See our post, “Free Fonts!” for more about websites with free fonts.)


One of the reasons I hate handwriting typefaces so much is that they don’t look like handwriting. For instance, when a character is repeated, as with the letter “a” in the example above, handwriting typefaces start to take on an even, un-handwriting-like cadence.


One solution to this problem is to use multiple typefaces. In the example above, I’ve set the second and third “a” in the typefaces Christopher Hand and James Fajardo, both found on the site DaFont. So while I normally try to limit myself to two typefaces for an entire identity system, I’ve used three in one six-letter word for this event. (To quote Buster Bluth on Arrested Development, “We have unlimited juice? This party is going to be off the hook.”)

I thought this was a pretty good solution, though my wife pointed out that the style of the first “a” is so different from the second two that it still looks weird. But she doesn’t read this blog so I’m not going to worry about that. Some comments on the type that came in from our Facebook page include:

I like how you combined two different typefaces…;) (Amy F.)

I think I actually see three different fonts?? (Linda S.)

Amy and Linda are so clever.

Color and Image
An image of a palm leaf by John Nyberg found on the free stock photo website stock.xchng is the foundation for the color palette. I used red highlights because red is the complement to green and I wanted to create an intense, high-energy palette. The screen capture to the left above is what the site looked like when it was posted on Facebook. To the right is how it looks now, with some modifications made after comments came in. Some of those comments include:

I’m waiting for the Christmas comment. (Shea L.)

Shea, In Arkansas, is lime green a Christmas color? (Paul C.)

The red is just pink enough not to be Christmassy. (Amy F. )

I like the colors (even if they are sort of christmassy – is that a word?). (Linda S.)

Maybe add a toucan or something up in the left or right corners. (Jeff M.)

I’ve got to agree with Shea and the Christmas comment (slight reminder of Christmas) but a bird (maybe parrot?) in the corner as Jeff suggested would eliminate that issue. 🙂 (Lynda D.)

The idea that the particular green and bright red I had used might evoke Christmas had not occurred to me, but the comment came up enough that I thought I’d add some photos with other colors. Thankfully, photographer extraordinaire Jerry Bauer generously provided us with some of his photos from Panama, which will be extremely helpful as we continue to promote this event. I’ve used some of Jerry’s photos in the new website template and in the magazine ad pictured at the top of this post.

The Facebook comments continue:

I love the palm/palmetto leaf. I don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other about the color or style of the text. (Rachel D.)

The design makes me want to put on lime green tights, grow my hair long (well, at least on the sides of my head), and sing Panama or Pa-na-ma (with hyphens). (Shea L.)

Excuse me while I go take a cold shower to get that image out of my head. (Amy F.)

Things can get weird on the IBD Facebook page.

This particular identity system has gotten a generally positive response (which, trust me, is not always the case). I was lucky to find a strong, high-resolution image for that eye-catching, top level of visual hierarchy, with expressive type and colorful supporting images to establish a sense of place. Still, the comments came in:

I like the colors and texture. But, to quote Shea: “There seems to be a heirarchy issue.” Is Panama the most important thing to see? I had to make a point of finding “NAI” and “international conference.” (Kelly F.)

I’m in agreement with the Kelly/Shea concern with hierarchy. (Linda S.)

To borrow a term from Jebediah Springfield, I embiggened the phrase “NAI International Conference” on the website and in the magazine ad. The palm leaf and the word Panama are still the most important, but the name of the event is not far behind.

One final comment:

Like the design, like the layout, like the colours…. hate the fact it’s in tables – any chance of getting some lovely semantic html and css to shape that layout? (once you learn css you will love what it can do for design!) (Charlie W.)

Charlie makes an excellent point. It’s all too easy to rely on comfortable technologies, so by the time we unveil the next NAI International Conference website, I’ll see about implementing some lovely semantic HTML and CSS. CSS offers a lot more control over typography online than does a typical HTML editor like Dreamweaver, so it’s definitely the designer’s friend. (And we don’t have many of those.)

One final note: If you want to present a session at the NAI International Conference in Panama, the Call for Presentations closes October 15. If you make it to Panama and I’m lucky enough to be there, too, I’ll buy you a Fosters.