Printing a copied design

I have a client that wants me to letterpress a design that they “designed”. However, it is a straight copy of another letterpress studio’s design. What do you do?

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I think you know the answer.
Your potential customer appears to be untruthful and a thief.
Is that the type person you wish to do business with?

You fire them on the spot. And send them to the studio that they’re copying.

Or, you take the long road and explain to them Intellectual Property — that there are 1) risks associated with theft, and 2) if they are running a business what does it say about their brand if they are essentially “speaking in someone elses voice” rather than generating their own forms of communication, and lastly, 3) if it is a personal expression (ie: stationery or wedding invitation) shouldn’t they have something that reflects them personally?

It’s a tough one.

Your other option is of course to take the money and keep the work out of your portfolio (it’s not very ethical, but you aren’t the one performing the theft).

Had this happen. It was an almost exact copy of something that made the rounds through the design blogs last year.

Sadly, we discovered that after I ran the film and took a deposit. I asked the client to redo the design.They redid it and they were happier in the end, I think. It was certainly an awkward conversation to have.

I wasted time worrying about how I was going to handle it, but in the end I got paid and they got something unique.

It should also be kept in mind that it was normal that images repeat from one person to another ,there was a time when every designer used similar clip art books so copying was inevitable and generallly you would see this but neither client would be aware of it as they may never see the other job anyway !! I see stuff when i look at briars art work that i remember printing 25 years ago ,after all how can you change the shape of a hand that is pointing , or the profile of a deer with antlers for a business card for the stag hotel !! General layout principals are taught in colleges and they are exactly that general ,so designers will have parallel thought processes whether we spot it or not cant really be helped can it . Where do you put the logo on a letterhead and still be original ? Having said that if designs are shown without a register mark then that implies it is open to all and if its not you register it with a small circled C but then you will have freds great grandson sue you for using his grandads design from 1850 !!

I went to a graphic design awards show in San Fransicsco back in the late 70’s because we had a few pieces that had been accepted and were on exhibit. As I walked through I was stopped in my tracks when a whole line of cosmetics packaging was displayed. It was very, very nice but I immediately recognized the artwork/design that was the main element used. There were several different products and each had a different graphic image that carried the theme. I looked at the credits and the designer and illustrator were listed, both local San Francisco people.

Absolutely no credit whatsoever was given to the person that actually drew the designs because they where all Bradley ornaments from the 1906 ATF catalog!!!!! The designer and illustrator obviously did not think that anyone would actually known that these had been lifted from such and old obscure source.

As luck would have it, people from the design firm that did this happened to walk up to it and were actually explaining how wonderful their DESIGN was to a group of friends or clients that were with them.

Already having a few cocktails in me at the time, I boldy spoke up and told them that all the graphics had been lifted directly from an old typefoundry catalog and that Will Bradley had actually drawn all of those images. Oh crap, oh dear!!!!!! The designer knew he had been busted right in front of everybody and immediately stormed out. It was actually a pretty sweet moment for me.

Lest anyone think I am without sin myself. My press logo is pretty much an altered copy of the artwork on a poster that was done in the 1920’s for a Parisian printer, Ming. That poster shows Ming standing behind a press holding up a sheet of paper and smiling at it. I thought that this particular image “said it all.” I carefully redrew the printer in my image and made the press a Poco proof press, not the original lithography press on the poster. The graphic style I used pretty much matches the original poster.

The images in San Francisco were a direct copy of the Bradley ornaments.


To clarify, this was for a wedding invitation, so this was designed by the bride, not a real “designer” per se. I basically pushed it back and asked if I can redesign it but the bride’s pretty set on the design. I told them that I can’t print it and to ask the original studio to print it for them, but she’s looking for a local printer asking me to PLEASE print because she’s running out of time.

If it was a graphic designer sending that over, it’s definitely a no-brainer, but this one’s difficult…I’m still on the fence and haven’t responded yet.

It’s easy. Don’t do it.

I think the easiest way to make the decision is going to be to look at it from the perspective of the press you know did the original design work. If you were in their shoes, how would you feel if you found out another printer used your designs without asking? If you can truly say to yourself that you’d be OK with it if you were on the receiving end, then go ahead and take the job. If you feel you wouldn’t be able to accept it if your positions were reversed, how can you ask another to?

We, the armchair commenters, have not seen the graphic.
To imitate is fine. To copy is not.
One can argue that if the item is not copywrited, it is OK to copy it. It may be legal to do so, but is it right?
If a designer did the original and charged off the whole price to the original customer, and did not intend to sell it again, perhaps it would be OK. We, and probably you, do not know what the original arrangement was. Probably neither does your new bride/customer. She probably received the invitation, or saw it elsewhere, likes it and wants hers to be the same.
We don’t have the facts and can only discuss it from a philosophical standpoint.

I think you were right on target telling her she needs to take it to the studio that made the design. Too bad if she’s in a rush. It’s their design, and she needs to go to them. She can’t expect a professional to rip off another colleague.


To Inky: I agree that we haven’t seen the artwork and can’t comment about whether the art is an exact copy or not. But I do make my living in the design department of a printing company and have some experience with copyright and it’s application. In countries that have signed onto the 1976 Berne Convention, all works of original art are automatically copyrighted to their creator in most countries. The US signed this into law in 1989. This means there’s no “not copyrighted” unless the creator specifically states it.

Update: I turned down the job.

She was pretty angry, and when I said I’m mailing her the pre-payment refund, she wants it wired. When I told her she has to eat the $25 wire fee, she wasn’t happy about that either. Hopefully I don’t get wrecked on the wedding sites.

Now that I’m thinking about it, I should have just asked the original designer first. If someone asked me, I would have said go for it and to just give me credit if it’s ever made public.

What would you have said if I asked? I’m probably opening up a whole new can of worms!

Good for you. I hope your client doesn’t turn out to be too much trouble.


Interesting thread. An awful lot of issues here. These are just put out here for thought/discussion.

1) Personally, while I do think a printer should be a directive as much as possible to assist the client, I am more than a bit disturbed that a printer would censor, or cause financial harm to the client by doing so.

2) Material from the past that may be uncopyrighted or even made for hire, such as the Bradley Ornaments, are somewhat free game. There would be no problem here with anyone if these were actually printed from the metal type, correct?

3) There aren’t many designers who actually register their copyright, if they claim it at all. If one does not do this there is no legal ability to sue for financial damage. In other words, you are fair game.

4) I have had a number of instances where folks have copied my work, not sure why, but believe that or not. Basically, so what?, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Nevertheless, within the law, I go after them.


As i put above, the magic circled C , if its not there you lose the right to reproduction unless you did the old fashioned thing posting yourself a copy and not opening the received package . This i believe was done by authors in the long distant past to prevent publishers from screwing you .


In the case of the Bradley Ornaments I am in complete agreement that those were copyright free and in the public domain. What I pointed out was the fact they there was an “Illustrator” listed and the only artwork was the ornaments themselves, so they were in fact presenting this as though their listed illustrator had created those images himself.


For what it’s worth, the practice of mailing yourself your work doesn’t count for much (in the US, at least).

From the US Copyright Office (

“I’ve heard about a “poor man’s copyright.” What is it?
The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a “poor man’s copyright.” There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration. “

What’s more, copyright is automatic, even if you fail to add the circle-c symbol.

“When is my work protected?
Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. 

Do I have to register with your office to be protected?
No. In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “Copyright Registration.” ”


You absolutely did the right thing. You can tell by the reaction of the “client”. You showed great integrity and she demands you wire the deposit, as if you wouldn’t do it.
She should look in the mirror and the groom should take a second look himself before he is on the downside of her true colors.
Good luck,
Steve V

Turn the work down. You are only opening the door for problems.

Now, if the customer loves the work to the point and wanting to use. The customer should get a written letter giving the customer the okay to use it.

Many things, the designer just want the copyright with their name printed on the work.

I work at a newspaper. If we need some thing that anther person designed we contact that person or company.

Many times the cost is only a few dollars, and everyone is happy.

It always best to contact the other guy!

“Now that I’m thinking about it, I should have just asked the original designer first. If someone asked me, I would have said go for it and to just give me credit if it’s ever made public.

What would you have said if I asked? “

since this issue is a hot button topic lately on a stationer’s forum i frequent, pardon me while i get on my soapbox.

so the summary of this is: a bride sees a design she loves. for whatever reasons (probably budget) she doesn’t want to purchase it from the studio who made it. she appreciates the finished design, but doesn’t want to compensate the designer whose experience, time and effort went into making it. so she does it herself, and wants you to print it.

if i was the original designer, and the printer the theif had tapped to print the stolen design contacted me for permission, i would thank them sincerely for the call and have them politely tell the bride to shove it. no way am i giving my consent to letting you print that, because then the story will end with the bride bragging how she got away with it (at least to friends, at worst on a big bridal website) and the practice will perpetuate itself. it not only takes compensation directly from my pocket, but it devalues my work and that of others when people start thinking this is ok to do.

if you’ve got champagne tastes and a beer budget, you either distribute your budget in a way that allows you to buy champagne, or you make do without it. what you don’t do is steal the champagne and hire someone to serve it for you.


This problem is only going to get worse. Thanks to the internet, people have gotten the idea that anything that’s “out there” is up for grabs. Personal integrity is quickly becoming a thing of the past when it comes to respecting someones “intellectual property”. and honoring copyrights. Sadly, designs are uploaded, then copied and re-uploaded over and over again until the original source is all but lost. Clients are not in the business and some allowance should be made for their lack of understanding in a world that is much different from only a couple of decades ago, especially when they see the same designs being displayed on unrelated sites. They might easily assume that they are in the public domain. They do need to be educated on the matter, but with a gentle, non-accusing hand, I think. It would not be unreasonable to ask them immediately if the work is entirely their own before proceeding any further. If not, then a lot of heartache, bad feelings, and confusion will have been avoided.

Having your clients sign a contract before you print any given job is common sense, and any such contract should have the client sign off on the work being either original or a design purchased from its copyright-owner for the specific use.

That way there is no confusion about the fact that any design must be cleared, and your client can’t deny responsibility in the case that any issue comes up.