Concept Copying – A Primer (Part 1 of 3)

It is easy to tell when something is the exact copy of something else -the two look alike, after all. Even small kids can compare two identical or virtually identical drawings and usually correctly determine whether the drawings are alike or different. It is far more difficult when the copy is not an exact or nearly exact duplicate, but simply another way to express an identical or similar concept.

This is the first in a multi-part series, where we’ll spend some time talking about a very important subject to the creative community – concept copying. In the creative field, a “concept” is an abstract idea that is typically described in words or represented visually. According to AIGA (the professional association for graphic design), “Graphic design is a creative process that combines art and technology to communicate ideas” If you read our earlier post about the Nike logo, you’ll recall the concept for the Nike logo design, reproduced below.

That concept was reduced to a visual form. Could another designer take this concept, change a few things (make it red, for example), and use it as their own work? If not, how does one draw the line – what is concept-copying and what is not? What is appropriate and what is not? That’s what we hope to discuss during this multi-part series.

One recent example that illustrates both the importance of this topic and the complexity of the discussion is a patent application filed by Apple in 2006 for a remote control-like controller that allows for full movement ( Apple’s patent application was published by the United States Patent and Trademark Office for the first time in May 2008). The Apple patent application describes a controller that works with a sensor, placed near the display. The sensor uses infrared technology to translate the movement of the controller in three dimensions. Apple no doubt intends to use such a device to support more interactive and gaming features on its Apple TV device (or successor product).

Sound familiar? Remind anyone of Nintendo’s Wii and its innovative controller which works with a sensor, using infrared technology to translate movement of the controller in three dimensions? Did Apple copy the concept for the Wii controller? After all, the Wii was released very shortly prior to the time Apple filed its patent application in November 2006.

More about this subject, and our continued discussion about the Apple patent, in a few days.