How Does crowdSPRING Protect Intellectual Property?

UPDATED: March 17, 2010.

crowdSPRING respects intellectual property – this is one of our core values as a company (before co-founding crowdSPRING, I spent 13 years as an attorney focusing on the protection of intellectual property, for clients around the world). People often ask what crowdSPRING does to protect intellectual property. The Q&A below shares our answers to the most common questions.

1. Does crowdSPRING have specific policies to protect people’s intellectual property rights?

Answer: Yes. crowdSPRING has two specific, written policies designed to protect intellectual property. First, crowdSPRING’s  Copyright Policy makes it easy for copyright owners to report alleged violations of their intellectual property rights. Second, crowdSPRING’s User Agreement prohibits people from selling, reproducing, modifying, displaying, preparing derivative works from, reposting, or using the content found on crowdspring.com – without the express written permission from the owner of the work.

2. What does crowdSPRING do to prevent people’s intellectual property from being stolen?

Answer: The International Chamber of Commerce estimates that the global fiscal loss due to theft of intellectual property is over $600 billion USD per year. Stealing someone else’s intellectual property is a crime in just about every single country on Earth.  However, it is impossible to prevent people from stealing intellectual property (whether the theft occurs online or offline).

Just because it is generally impossible to prevent theft doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t make reasonable efforts to protect intellectual property. Here’s what we do at crowdSPRING:

  • We’ve developed and published detailed, comprehensive written policies concerning intellectual property (as you saw in the answer to question 1 above).
  • We’ve adopted strict policies and practices governing IP disclosures.
  • We’ve developed and published detailed, comprehensive written standards of conduct for creatives (see Q&A 4 below).
  • We’ve developed rules and procedures recognizing the importance of original ideas in projects so as to protect original ideas and prevent concept copying (see Q&A 14 below).
  • We make it very easy to report possible violations of intellectual property (see Q&A 5 below).
  • We work together with our entire community – nearly 55,000 designers strong across the world (our designers come from over 170 countries) to identify possible violations of intellectual property.
  • When a creative withdraws their entry, it is screened completely so that no part of it is shown. The word “withdrawn” is instead shown to buyers and other users.
  • We permanently bar people from crowdspring.com for violating others’ intellectual property rights (see Q&A 7-10 below).
  • We enforce the licensing restrictions of third parties (see for example, Q&A 13 which deals with stock images).
  • After a project is completed, we screen with a gray filter all except the winning entries for that project to make it very difficult to review any details associated with non-winning designs.

We have a number of other systems in place that we keep confidential, that help us to protect our community from the theft of intellectual property, and we continue to look for other technological and non-technological ways we can improve our efforts in this area. If you have suggestions, we’d love to hear in the comments to this post.

3. How does crowdSPRING inform its community about crowdSPRING’s intellectual property policies?

Answer: Every time a creative submits a design to a project, they are required to pick one of three statements about their design:

  • I created everything in my entry and I didn’t copy anyone else’s concept.
  • This design includes photos, illustrations or fonts created by others but I have the right to both use and resell.
  • This design includes photos, illustrations or fonts created by others and if the buyer picks it, they’ll have to buy the rights.

A creative cannot participate in a project unless they select one of those three statements. We also publish links to our policies on the participation pages, and in a creative tip’s page visible to everyone in every project.

In logo design projects, we specifically require that designers represent that their logos do not contain any form of stock art. You can read more about our strict stock art policy.

4. Does crowdSPRING have standards of conduct for creatives and buyers?

Answer: Yes. In January 2009, after a lengthy discussion with the crowdSPRING community (in our forums), crowdSPRING adopted a Standards of Conduct for Creatives policy. The standards require creatives to submit only original work. In projects where third party work is included (such as stock photography in web design projects), the standards require clear and unambiguous disclosures that the work by a creative includes elements created by others and that the creative has the right to include those elements.

From time to time, we remind members of our community about those standards. Here is a short version of our standards of conduct for creatives:

  • Always tell the truth.
  • Never, ever undermine the reputation of another person.
  • Follow the buyer’s requirements and submit only original work.
  • If the buyer asks you to break one of these rules, it’s not OK.

Also in 2009, crowdSPRING adopted Standards of Conduct For Buyers. Those standards of conduct were developed in collaboration with the crowdSPRING community and this community expects every buyer on crowdSPRING to follow it.

1.1 Provide consistent and constructive feedback and score as many of the entries in your project as possible. You have our solemn oath that you will directly benefit from better entries to your project.

1.2 Select your winning design(s) within 7 days after your project ends and complete the project wrap-up without delay.

1.3 Never violate the intellectual property rights of another person and never, ever ask someone else to. Everything on the site is owned by the person who originally created it until it’s bought and paid for.

1.4 Never ask one creative to use a concept introduced by another creative. When a creative submits a unique idea, we respect and protect that idea.

1.5 Please be nice in private and public communications. Don’t be mean, nasty, malicious, obnoxious or otherwise unpleasant to another user no matter how much they may deserve it.

1.6 Always be honest.

5. How does crowdSPRING help people to report possible violations of intellectual property?

Answer: Every design submitted on crowdSPRING, in it’s detail view, has a “REPORT VIOLATION” button immediately below the image. Any person (you do not need to be a registered user), can report a violation. A short form asks for some basic information about the report so that we can properly investigate.

6. What does crowdSPRING do when it receives a report of a possible violation of intellectual property?

Answer: From the day we launched (May 2008), we’ve had in place formal procedures for responding to alleged violations of intellectual property. We follow these procedures every day (weekends included). Allegations of intellectual property violations are fast-tracked and always assume the top priority for our customer service team. Here’s what we do:

First, assuming we don’t need additional information from the person reporting the possible violation, we acknowledge in writing that we’ve received the report. If we need additional information, we ask for it.

Second, we send a written notice of a possible violation to the person who is accused of violating another’s intellectual property rights. In that notice, we provide specific links to the accused designs, the alleged infringed design, our Standards of Conduct and User Agreement. In most cases, we require a written response within 24 hours. In some cases, where waiting that long would harm the buyer or the owner of the alleged original copyright, we request a response in a much shorter time-frame. In very rare cases, we act immediately because any delays could harm the buyer or the owner of the alleged original copyright.

Importantly, crowdSPRING will NEVER allow any project to be completed where there is a pending claim of an intellectual property violation. In some cases, we temporarily suspend accounts of all people involved until we can adequately resolve the issue.

In cases where we act immediately and withdraw a design, we make an effort to give the accused creative an opportunity to respond and we will restore the design if they present a compelling response (many accusations of violations turn out to have no merit). We always give the creative a chance to voluntarily withdraw their entry and tell them that if they choose not to do so, a three person panel at crowdSPRING will evaluate all of the facts and will issue a decision.

Importantly, when we notify the accused creative, we tell them that:

We take the protection of intellectual property very seriously. The standards of conduct were developed in collaboration with the crowdSPRING community. If you violate the standards, you will permanently lose your right to work on crowdSPRING.

Third, we follow-up to make sure that we’ve received a timely response from the creative. If the time to respond has expired, or the creative has responded, a three person panel at crowdSPRING meets, reviews all of the available facts, and decides (by a vote). Most decisions are unanimous.

Fourth, after the panel issues it’s decision, both the person who submitted the initial notice of possible violation and the accused creative are informed of the panel’s decision. If the panel has found a violation of intellectual property, the offending design is immediatedly withdrawn by crowdSPRING.

7. What does crowdSPRING do when it has determined that a person has violated another person’s intellectual property rights?

Answer: We evaluate each incident on its own merits. It’s not uncommon for designs to look similar to other designs in the marketplace. We don’t presume that every time we’ve found a design was infringed, that the infringement was intentional.

Generally (there are exceptions), we will permanently remove a creative after a third violation of intellectual property. We use a number of different technical and non-technical tools and procedures to help us make sure that they never work on crowdSPRING again.

We have on occasion acted after two violation of intellectual property (and in a few cases, after a single violation). Because we evaluate each incident on its own merits, we recognize that a general policy (of three violations) might not be appropriate for all cases.

We’ve also suspended users for different periods of time (ranging in time from days to weeks to months).

8. Why doesn’t crowdSPRING always permanently bar the person from its community after a single violation?

Answer: We believe that people are generally good. We all make mistakes. crowdSPRING is not a court of law – we are a community. We believe that a zero tolerance policy that would in every case, permanently bar a person from crowdSPRING after a single violation, can be unfair and unreasonable. For example, as I wrote above, there are times when two designs can look very much alike. Moreover, we’ve found in some cases that the accuser was actually the person who infringed the rights of the accused.

Most importantly, our experience over the past year has shown us that the vast majority of people deeply respect intellectual property rights. Time after time, we see creatives who’ve made a one-time mistake turn a new leaf and become excellent members of our community. This experience tells us that when possible (and appropriate), most people use a second chance to better themselves.

On the other hand, our policy isn’t carved in stone. As I wrote above, we’ve acted after only a single violation. We will continue to evaluate each incident on its own merits.

9. Has crowdSPRING permanently barred creatives from crowdSPRING for violating others’ intellectual property rights?

Answer: Yes. While we are deeply saddened when we have to permanently remove someone from our community, we expect that people in our community will share the community’s core values, which includes the protection of and respect for intellectual property. Since our launch in May 2008, we’ve unfortunately had to permanently remove a number of users from working on crowdspring.com.

10. Has crowdSPRING permanently barred buyers from crowdSPRING for violating others’ intellectual property rights?

Answer: Yes. Respect for intellectual property extends to every person on crowdSPRING, including buyers. Although it is rare to see buyers abuse or ignore another person’s intellectual property rights, it has happened and our procedures – and response – is the same as for creatives. Since our launch in May 2008, we’ve had to permanently remove several buyers from posting projects on crowdspring.com.

11. Who owns the intelectual property for the work submitted by creatives on crowdSPRING?

Answer: Under our User Agreement, the creative who submits the work to a project on crowdSPRING at all times owns the intellectual property rights to their original work. Of course, if the work (such as a website design) includes work of third parties (such as stock photographs), those third parties would retain ownership to their own work.

Once a buyer selects their favorite work by “awarding” the project to a creative (or to several creatives when there are multiple awards), the buyer and creative(s) go through project-wrap up and after the buyer approves the final deliverables, we pay the creative and the rights to that work transfer to the buyer under a written contract. The terms of the written contract for the project are published in the DETAILS tab of every project and are available for everyone to review before they decide whether to participate in a project.

The intellectual property does not transfer to a buyer until the winning creative is paid. Those creatives whose work is not selected continue to own full rights to their work, and we make it very clear to buyers (in the User Agreement and in the specific project contract) that they cannot simply modify the work of another person and use it – they acquire full rights only to the work they’ve selected and only after the creative is paid.

12. What rights does crowdSPRING receive to the designs that are submitted to projects?

Answer: crowdSPRING is given limited rights to the work. When users submit work to crowdSPRING, they give us:

a non-exclusive, worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display and perform the content in connection with the Site, in any media known now or in the future.

Without such rights, we would not be able to host projects or maintain the marketplace. You’ll see similar language in the terms and conditions of service of other popular sites (for example, YouTube)

13. Does crowdSPRING have policies about the use of stock images in projects on crowdSPRING?

Answer: Please review the following post Ask crowdSPRING: Can Royalty-free Stock Be Used For Logo Design? for an answer to this question. Also see our post about our new stock policy in logo projects.

14. Does crowdSPRING help protect original ideas in projects so that creatives who submit original concepts have the opportunity to refine/improve their work without concept copying by others?

Answer:Yes. It is not difficult to tell when something is the exact copy of something else -the two look alike, after all. 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. In the creative field, a “concept” is an abstract idea that is typically described in words or represented visually.

Concept copying is a very important subject in the design community – both for professionals and non-professionals, offline and online. After all, while it’s commonly accepted that all design is inspired by other design, mere copying is NOT inspiration. But it also should be said that not everything we create is unique. We are influenced by our culture, our history, and our environment. Yet there is a very clear difference between inspiration and influence, and outright stealing.

Because standard projects on crowdSPRING are visible to all users, it is not uncommon for creatives to come up with similar ideas. We extend our intellectual property efforts to protect the originality of ideas in a specific project, even if two designs aren’t exact copies of one another. For example, if the buyer’s project brief and/or name of the buyer’s company name or product name doesn’t naturally suggest certain design elements, we will protect any original entries that introduce original elements into a specific project and will not allow other creatives in the project to use the same elements (especially after a buyer reacts positively when seeing the ideas from the creative who first introduced those elements).

How does this work in real life? Let me illustrate with an example: a consulting company called James Consulting is looking for a logo design. Nothing in the name or buyer’s brief suggested any specific design elements. A creative submits a logo with an orange (the fruit) and the buyer reacts very favorably to that design element by giving that design 5 stars and in the comments to the design. We will protect the originality of that idea by protecting the original creative’s right to continue to refine/improve their design and will, when asked by that creative, bar others from using the orange design element in this project.

We do this to be fair. If the galleries were closed, nobody would know that the buyer liked the orange and so it’s highly unlikely that others would submit designs with that same element.

On the other hand, we won’t protect unoriginal ideas, even if they are submitted first in a project. For example, in a project for a sea shipping company, we won’t protect design elements using ships as graphics – the name itself suggests that such elements are appropriate.

15. How can I ask a question that isn’t covered by any of the above?

Answer: Please feel free to ask your question(s) in the comments below and I’ll answer them in the comments and/or add to this article.

Photo credit: loan Sameli.