Recently and yet again, I was asked for a copy of a font. Someone I thought of as a legitimate designer asked me to e-mail a font I paid for so they would not have to. Though it has happened many times, this “I’m a shoplifter so you must be one too,” attitude never ceases to amaze (and insult) me. Is my attitude extreme? I think not. In fact, I believe the pilfering of images, fonts, and software is not just benign cheating or victimless crime, I think of it as professional suicide. Here’s why:
1. Minimizing the value of other people’s work minimizes ours.
Every knowledgeable graphic designer understands that good design and development require creativity, technical knowledge, and resources. A typeface designer not only conceives of, draws, and refines every turn and corner of every letter of the alphabet; they also craft sets of numbers, symbols, ornaments, and a standard set of foreign characters. Add ligatures, alternative characters, and width and weight variations and a single typeface family can easily represent literally hundreds of individual images.
So ask yourself this: “Does type design have any merit or value?” If so then, “Should a type designer be compensated for the hours they work?” And finally this, “Should type designers donate their vision and craft so we can profit from it?”
2. Voluntary compliance is the key to professional survival.
But why should we pay for software? In recent years, the retail prices of Adobe Creative Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, etc.) and a Apple 30-inch Cinema HD Display were both roughly $1799. So why are virtually 100 percent of the monitors paid for while some estimates say as much as 35 percent of software was pirated?
Because of a convenient misconception. I guarantee you that most of the people who use pirated software would not pick up a $1800 monitor and walk out of a store without paying for it. The monitor has weight and form to it, it represents a value that the software does not. It is convenient to think that the monitor has some value the software does not. But walking off with the software is no less theft. (Since writing the original version of this post, Adobe has opted for a subscription model for their software. Ever wonder why? You just read it.)
A free society is dependent on voluntary compliance with the law. If we ever get to the point that we must rely on enforcement for compliance, the game is lost.
3. Solidarity of purpose is the cost of admission.
Your adoption of the common goals and interests of our profession is the price of admission to it. If you expect to be treated ethically and fairly by your clients and colleagues you need to do the same.
The same holds true for all of the resources we employ—fonts, hardware, teaching materials, photographs, illustrations, and so on. My client hires me for the messages I craft to communicate their ideas and the imagery and technology I employ to create them. They pay, in no small part, for my knowledge about how all these pieces fit together, where to get them, and how to use them.
Every designer’s work, whether they want to acknowledge it or not, is built on the work of others. A communications designer does not work alone—ever. The people and organizations that supply us with the creative elements and tools for our work depend on us to share our profits with them. Depriving them of their share is not only selfish; it will result in the death of our profession by our own hand.
The pilfering of images, fonts, and software is not just benign cheating or victimless crime—it is professional suicide. I welcome your thoughts.
Conversation about this article
“If you think about it, there is time, education, and skill invested in the design of a font. The time it took to perfect this craft could have taken several years. The cost of the font designer’s education could of easily been in the thousands. Then the skill it often takes is priceless. So, when you pay for a font, you are not just paying for the act of creating it or the product itself. Rather, we are paying for that person’s skill, knowledge, and a lifetime of experience as well their ability to make a living. We are also making an investment in our career as designers, because the work of a font designer is inexplicably tied to what we do in many ways.”
“When we don’t pay for, or value, what goes into a font, why should anyone value what goes into making any design. This is what is happening in the field of graphic design today. When someone wants a logo, most of the time they want a product. They don’t care what goes into the process. They want something pretty or decorative. Many designers are insulted when their ideas are undervalued, or their skill, education, and experience are undervalued. So why undervalue those things that make our craft possible?” Kerry C.
“What to do if you are a struggling young designer or student? You want to get ahead in this crazy world of marketing, design, and creative thinking, but you can’t afford the newest, latest and greatest software, so what do you do? Usually you ‘borrow’ the software from a friend or get a group of your colleagues together and scrape up the money to buy at least one licensed copy of the needed tools. Is this right? Probably not. As an old, grumpy former print production guy, I have seen my share of work that comes across my desk that is incomplete, missing files and not assembled correctly, all due to lack of knowledge in the workings of programs like InDesign. What do we do?”
“I realize the time and money that goes in to designing and producing programs and software and I’ve seen all this new technology completely change our business. Is the business better because of it? I’m not sure. All of the new technology does give designer much more flexibility. The problem is how to they pay for it when business is down and you are depending on the next job to pay the rent? Somewhere in-between lies the answer.”
“Maybe it’s different models of the software that can be changed when the designer can afford more than the full-tilt program with all the bells and whistles. I know of many honest young designers that would never think of pirating software. I also know an equal amount who have no problem with it. So, does the purveyor of the software only sell the top of the line programs, or does he suggest something else? How do students and young designers get the knowledge they need to take advantage of all the latest in technology? Too often, they don’t and either use pirated software or lose the assignment because they don’t have it. It’s not like buying a new set of Prismacolor markers to change your ideas and or make them better. I understand that I didn’t answer the question, but maybe this may give pause to someone who is a lot smarter than me to stop and think about it.” Denny H.
Thanks for your comment Denny. I understand your concerns. What we are talking about is the “system” in which we live-the voluntary “I’ll provide this for you if you’ll provide this for me.” Every time (or example) you use your telephone, you acknowledge your dependence on the system. By paying your phone bill you compensate the worker who mined the ore that produced the bolt used to assemble the tower on which the lines are strung that make your call possible. I assume you see the value in that.
If I only followed the laws I endorse and you only followed those you endorse the system would break. And if enough parts break the result can be catastrophic. To me, whether you steal a car or a software program makes no difference in the scheme of our voluntary system. Undermine the system and ultimately you will suffer the consequences. I can think of countless reasons I don’t like follow this law or that. The only thing that I would like less is every-man-for-himself. Chuck
“Chuck: I am not an advocate the piracy of programs or software under any conditions. What I’m looking for is some way to get young designers with no budget a chance to somehow make use of this. I still get a lot of files produced on PhotoShop 4.0 and PageMaker that are difficult to put into today’s electronic formats. I’m semi-retired now, but have tried to keep myself educated on whats going on around me. I still consult for a number of small and/or young designers who are not equipped with the latest in software and it makes it difficult in some cases to get what I want in raw files to a printer. I’m for some way to get these kids software that they can purchase and build on.
“My knowledge of all that goes into that isn’t on a par with most younger guys. I come from the days of copper plates for color reproduction and film negatives. Further, my Dad, a small printer, hand set most of his work. I know the gains made. I just don’t want to see young talent held back by their inability to be able to buy the needed programs. I know it’s a licensing nightmare, but how do we get kids in high school graphics classes the tools they need? I know I can’t afford them anymore and really don’t need them, as I can get buy with what I have. I really enjoy reading your takes on what’s going on in the business today and when I compare it to what I did 30 years ago, it’s almost unimaginable. I know my Dad, who passed away at a young age wouldn’t know where he was at, if I could show him a print shop today.
Last week my son purchased Adobe Creative Suite 3.3 Design Premium for $600 using his student discount. Seems like a deal considering you easily could have paid $600 to create the plates for a single print job 25 years ago. Doing a quick search, I found a release in the Adobe archive titled: “Adobe Systems Contributes $5.9 Million In Software To Educate and Empower Underprivileged Youth.” Sometimes (I fear), the excuse of “it costs too much” translates to, “taking it is easier.” Chuck
“These last three articles ‘preach’ the same messages I have been trying to get across to my twelfth-grade graphic design students. But you weren’t too ‘preachy,’ as you originally feared. In fact, you worded your essays so well that I would like to use them as classroom handouts so that the students would have a permanent reminder of the ideals they should strive for. But, of course, I wouldn’t do that without your permission! If you would rather I didn’t print the pages for the students, I would at least like to require read them to read them online, and prove that they have done so by either passing a quiz or filling in one of the dreaded worksheets so universally despised.”
“I have been telling them that to be a good designer requires humility, because their product must not be primarily a vehicle for their own self-expression. The job of the designer is to solve communication problems. They must understand the client and the client’s target audience, and connect the two, by making sure that the audience receives the client’s message. The less the audience is aware of the design, the more effectively they connect with the client.”
“This principle was encapsulated neatly by the great calligrapher and type designer Rudolph Koch: “The calligrapher is the servant. The master is the text.” Jonathan B.
Nicely said Jonathan. Chuck
“I own a printing company and also write a newsletter (called Printips) available by subscription for printing company owners to send to their customers. In the past I have written newsletters on copyright (because customers of printing companies sometimes copy images from Internet sites believing they are in the public domain) and stressed the importance of paying for and/or getting permission to use intellectual property. In addition, we do not provide fonts with our newsletter files as that would violate Adobe’s rights.”
“Your comments on ‘design without deception’ is very pertinent to another dilemma printers face: customers who ask us to provide a font we have used when we are designing so they can use it to produce files inhouse. I would like your permission to excerpt from your comments (with full attribution) for the Printips newsletter.”
“Thanks for keeping us all ethical.” Nancy D.
Thanks for that Nancy. I’ve gotten several requests from folks who want to re-use the three articles in this series. Here is a limited permission for reprinting these three articles only (not other material on ideabook.com): How to design without deception, Commercial graphic design is not self-expression, or The suicide of design. Terms: Please do not edit the text, include the entire text of the article, and attribute the articles as follows: Chuck Green is the author of numerous books on communications design and host of www.ideabook.com — a popular center for the exchange of print and online communication ideas. Chuck
“As usual, really well articulated. Just like I wrote previously, commenting on an earlier installment of this series, I’m again encouraged that you and others share a moral compass for professional conduct when so often “cutting corners” is viewed as acceptable. Thanks for writing these.”
“I especially appreciate the very lucid observation ‘A free society is dependent on voluntary compliance with the law. If we ever get to the point that we must rely on enforcement for compliance, the game is lost.'”
I’ve had discussions with my son about why it’s wrong to illegally copy digital music files. Since he’s also is a musician (who has done a little garage recording), I used that same argument with him ‘Minimizing the value of other people’s work minimizes ours.’ I said ‘One day you may invest your time and money in recording a CD and put it out for sale, would want others to illegally copy it?'” Jerry S.
“I wanted to add a bit to the discussion specifically about students. Adobe and other software manufacturers sell student licenses at a fraction of the cost of the professional licenses (and it’s exactly the same software) in order to meet those cash-strapped students halfway, not to mention encourage them to buy and use that software later in their professional careers.”
“Students, especially college students, may also have access to computer lab facilities with legally licensed software (and fonts), like the ones at the university where I work. There are also freeware fonts made available on the web by their designers (though of course those may not be the same quality as a purchased font). So for students, there are some perfectly legal alternatives to piracy.” Sarah K.
“I think it is the same thing we see when we ask people if downloading music, movies or TV is stealing. Dr. Steven Covey who wrote the 7 habits books has a test he uses with college kids. He asks them to think of something they have done that others would consider wrong and then to close their eyes and really ask themselves if it was wrong even though they have hundreds of reasons to justify what they did. Thankfully, most of the time they admit that their inner voice believes (deep down) that what they did was wrong. Your line ‘A free society is dependent on voluntary compliance with the law. If we ever get to the point that we must rely on enforcement for compliance, the game is lost.’ is OUTSTANDING.” Jim B
“I have a hard time believing that any person involved in design (at any level) doesn’t already know that asking someone to copy a font is stealing. An explanation about the skill necessary to develop a font etc. only gives them the excuse to say, “Gee, I didn’t realize that.” They know darn well they are stealing.”
“It is the same in the music industry. I remember once designing a textile design and before our customer got it on their retail floor–another very large retailer saw it being woven in India – reduced the design and had it on their floor before our customer!” Lynn E.
I think there are many people who choose not to think about it. And many relativists who believe their personal circumstances justify a disregard for the systems that govern the world within which they operate. Chuck
“Oftentimes, I have no use for a font other than to match the clients’ existing collateral. You get into a sticky issue wherein the client has paid for the font already. I could buy the font to use it for the client’s work, and then have the client reimburse me, but then the client would be paying for the same font twice.”
“I certainly wouldn’t want to eat the cost myself for a font I probably won’t ever use again, particularly if the font I need is only available as part of a family that costs $200 or more. How would you suggest handling this situation?” Tomas R.
Hoefler & Frere-Jones at www.typography.com puts this succinctly: “Freelancers, outside contractors, advertising agencies, and other suppliers are independent entities, and each needs its own font license. Keep in mind that when it comes to licensing, fonts are no different than any other kind of software.” Agreed. Chuck