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.

America’s Favorite Pantsless Peanut Gets Rebranded (Our 200th Post!)

Editor’s note: We’re in Las Vegas this week for the NAI National Workshop—and to celebrate our 200th post! (Though if you don’t count the posts about baseball and our family vacations, this is only our 57th post.) On with the drivel!

I was listening to a podcast of Into the Night with Tony Bruno last week as I was biking home from work in the dark, cold, Colorado night—have I mentioned we’re in Las Vegas this week?—and I was shocked to learn that Mr. Peanut has a voice. Mr. Peanut was not a guest on the show, but he has been in the news recently because for the first time since his debut in 1916, he has a voice—not to mention a stylin’ smoking jacket.

Mr. Peanut is now voiced by Robert Downey, Jr., a natural follow-up to his important roles in the Iron Man movies and Weird Science. The Downey-voiced Mr. Peanut—the result of a $35 million campaign orchestrated by an advertising firm called Being—was unveiled on the Planters Facebook page on November 9 in a commercial that I found pretty funny (embedded above).

Mr. Peanut has undergone numerous redesigns since 1916, which you can see on the Planters website. Even the previous most-current iteration of Mr. Peanut, which was likely created using a vector-art computer program like Adobe Illustrator, had an old-fashioned feel about it. The new version still features a monocle and top hat, but the old-fashioned feel has been replaced by newfangled 3D computerized realism. The cadmium yellow shell tone we’ve known of late has been replaced with a color that better represents actual peanuts.

And that’s not all: Mr. Peanut has a sidekick named Benson, who, to quote an article from reputable source The New York Times, has “one nut in his shell rather than two.”

And while the thin mustache of Mr. Peanut’s early days has been gone for a long time, to me, there’s been one constant throughout the decades: He’s a creepy, leering legume with no pants. I know they say he’s wearing pants, but they look like leggings at best to me. I feel like I have a pretty good idea of where pants go, and I don’t see any pants on Mr. Peanut. (Let’s put it like this: If Shea shows up for our preworkshop training session tomorrow dressed like Mr. Peanut, I will tell him that he does not have pants on and should probably change.)

That said, the best mascot ever is the Phillie Phanatic, and he also doesn’t wear pants. (And I’m not saying he’s the best just because of my rooting interests. It’s a documented fact.)

I’m actually surprised by the lack of outrage over the Mr. Peanut redesign, not because it’s a bad redesign (which it is not; I think the use of humor and a celebrity voice is a good idea for a brand that most people had sort of forgotten about), but because there’s almost always outrage when anything with nostalgic value is redesigned.

I’m also surprised that there’s no outrage over the fact that the Mr. Peanut depicted in the new commercials is an anthropomorphized cannibal—serving peanuts at his own party. That’s weird, right?

For interpreters and designers, it’s important not to take your brand for granted. If your logo, publications, websites, or other media are out of date, it reflects poorly on your organization. If you’re the person responsible for that identity, it’s up to you to make the change. Take note, though, that if you decide that a change is in order, you’ll surely encounter individuals who have an emotional connection to the old identity or simply prefer the previous look. If you can’t defend the changes you make to these individuals, then perhaps they’re bad changes—or changes weren’t necessary to begin with. (If you can defend the changes and people keep hounding you, it means they don’t like you as a person.)

I don’t think Mr. Peanut was out of date, but the redesign was implemented to reinvigorate the brand and stay with (or slightly ahead) of the times. Creepy pantsless cannibal or not, people love Mr. Peanut, and Planters has done a good job of getting him back into the pop culture discussion.