Cheap (or free): Not necessarily . . . How to consider (and manage) the risks when cutting costs with offshoring or crowdsourcing

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trademark rip off
Designer Mark Busse used Google Image Search to find 18 rip-offs of a trademarked logo design for one of his clients.

Designer Mark Busse outlines in a blog posting/referenced article the risks of going cheap with design decisions. He says he discovered how cheap crowdsourced designers were lifting his clients’ trademarked work, and passing it off as their own — resulting in possible litigation and other rather unpleasant costs.

Certainly, I’ve experienced (thankfully only once) this type of problem, which occurred when a cheap offshore web designer “lifted” some art owned by one of the well-known photo rights companies, which has developed a side-business in threatening copyright violation litigation. This enterprise sends legalistic letters demanding $1,200 or more for a single purloined image — purportedly to protect freelance photographers’ rights.

I can see the arguments from both sides of the spectrum. Obviously, if you create at significant expense intellectual design property, you don’t want some cheapo ripping you off and passing your work as if it is in the public domain. However, on the other side, rights protection and patent/copyright trolling has reached the stage where innocent or minor violations turn into disproportionately costly or risky rights assertions. (I reported my violation and litigation threat for the background design-lifting error to our company’s excellent general lawyer. He told me to ignore it as the claim was unjustifiably high, though of course I quickly removed the offending image from my website.)

Nevertheless, how do you draw your boundaries, and what should you do when you have intellectual property you want to avoid being stolen by freeloaders, and how do you control your costs while avoiding the risks of running up against copyright/trademark trolls?

If it is your work, and you can prove it,  make it clear to the violators you own it, and where necessary take things further.

Just as it is easy to copy stuff these days, it is also generally quite easy to find out where you’ve been copied. Google Image Search has a useful resource where you can check an image by uploading it, and seeing whether it appears elsewhere. Once you find it, you can complain through DCMA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act)reports, to have the image or otherwise stolen content removed. (See this link to get started if you sense a problem with any of Google’s products.)

Never lift content without verifying its source, and be especially careful if you intend to use the information commercially.

Be careful about potential copyright claims, especially if the content’s purpose is vital to your business, there is a celebrity or professionally-shot photographic image, or you sense in any way the original designer/owner will assert copyright. There are cheap or free content/image sources for supplementary or secondary materials, including stock photo services, news release publications, and (in some cases) Wikipedia. Just be sure to read the rules and check your rights/limitations before using this material.

Finally, prepare to pay/be satisfied about your core design or other intellectual property sources, especially if you want to defend exclusivity.

Busse correctly warns against going cheap with offshore/crowdsourced design when the work reflects your most important identity/logo or otherwise core content. If the material is vital to your brand, you may be cutting corners in the wrong places. You don’t strangers and even competitors borrowing what you thought was your trademarked material, then discovering that you never really owned it in the first place.

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