I spend a lot of my life in the carry world. While it’s generally the innovative and original bag designs I dig, there are times when a classic ‘dome’ backpack feels like the right bag to rock. Dome backpacks are made by loads of great brands. It’s a heritage shape that is reproduced in thousands of versions with only tiny variations between them.

Hang on, isn’t that copying?

When did an individual brand’s design enter the public domain? When did it become OK to copy this backpack shape, and stick your own brand name on it?

The dome backpack is certainly not alone as a ‘public domain’ format. In bags, you have the adventure duffel, the square schoolbag, and all sorts of heritage carry forms.

In footwear it’s a similar story. You see boat shoes and brogues, vulcanised canvas sneakers and all sorts of widely copied forms, with the copying brands often very highly regarded. Yet there are other times when a design is still too ‘owned’ to be copied, and scorn will follow. Or if you are also copy the branding and artwork, then you’ve definitely stepped over to the ‘not OK’ side of the ring.

So that’s in fashion, how about in other creative industries? Copy a paragraph or sentence and you’re plagiarising. We also know that copycat furniture feels dirty – owning a ‘fake’ Eames can feel like being a closet Bush supporter. Ripping a CD is no biggie these days, but get inspired by a Queen riff (we still love you Vanilla Ice) and you’ll be scorned and sued. Oh, but it’s cool if you just cover it?

I’m stoked designers copy the car steering wheel and airbag. I’m stoked that play and pause buttons around the world look the same. I’m really stoked that everyone copied Simon Anderson’s 3 fin set-up for surf boards, because it just works better.

So when is it OK to copy?

How about when it doesn’t feel like you’re trying to pass it off as your own?

Everyone in the bags world knows that the dome shape has been around forever, so it’s fun to have your take on a classic shape. Sneaker freakers know the Nike Air Force One shape so well that when Bape has a play with it, no one thinks they are trying to pass it off as their own.

The steering wheel designer at Hyundai doesn’t pretend to have invented the steering wheel, so she can design away, borrowing ideas that have evolved over a century.

Interestingly, the more knowledgable a tribe, the more self referential it can become, as the tribe devotees know who originates what and they will understand the references. But that’s starting to get into fashion wank…

This is not a license to knock designs off at will. If you are looking to get inspired by something, it’s important to understand whether people will think the idea originated with you, or if you are merely borrowing from a rich library of ideas that have gone before. But it is a call to relax on the idea of being totally original. After all, one of the greatest graphic designers of the last century was known to say:

“Don’t try to be original, just try to be good”– Paul Rand

While common sense can have one understanding of copying, the courts can have another. In their world, we are playing in the world of Intelectual Property (IP). This is a world where Disney can ‘steal’ fairytales from the Brothers Grim, then throw thousands of lawyers at anyone that gets even a little inspiration from any of their ‘IP’. It’s a world where massive corporations pay senators and lawyers billions to extend protection rights ever further, while seemingly parallel worlds like fashion do just great without any real protection, instead relying on customers knowledge to find and avoid the frauds.

My personal views on IP have been massively shaped by Lawrence Lessig and a (free) book of his called Free Culture. It’s an amazing read, that shows up the degree of contradiction our courts have in this area. It helped me realise that patents and legal forms of IP are mostly a crock, that seem to do more harm than good. But that’s another essay entirely…