One of the most oft repeated adages in our field is: Good designers borrow, great designers steal.
In Issue 3′s “Ditching Their Free Ride,” Jeffrey Schox points out that international property rights issues are largely a matter of us versus them; for the governments of Korea and China, the decision of whether to promote the spreading of ideas over their protection is about providing the maximum good to their own people.
Within our society, however, how shall we decide what is maximally good? The groundswell around the intellectual property rights debate has recently motivated the introduction of a new political party: The Pirate Party. What I find most interesting is that the name of the party concedes that theft or appropriation may be occuring, and asks, so what?
What is the designer’s stake in these intellectual property battles? On one hand, we have a vested interest in protecting the objects of our invention, so that we might reap the fruits of our labor before some copy cat does. On the other hand, our ability to work fast and free is hampered by the persistent possiblity of litigation. What’s more, it is usually the corporations that employ designers that stand the most to lose or gain from these protections, and often we designers find our attempts to improve the world thwarted by the need to maximize profit.
This ownership of ideas is a recurring issue in our community. From the perspective of property law, we designers are an immoral bunch, justifying the appropriation of ideas, technology and aesthetics if the theft is performed well, to good effect and with aplomb. But perhaps the design community should make an attempt to define its own sense of morality: to articulate whether, and why we value being great over being first, to strike a balance between the reaping of fruit and the tending of soil, and to reconcile difference between being philosophically right and pragmatically better.