An anti-spec work parable?

When taking a look at the Stock Art hullabaloo from last week, I think the immediate lesson to be learned is that in today’s Web 2.0 world, with its instant internet echo chamber, mob mentality can be a very dangerous thing. An equally important lesson involves our old buggaboos – logo design contests, spec work and it’s newly approved corporate label “crowdsourcing”. I’ve tub-thumped that issue for years now (my first anti-logo design contest screed dates back to 2002) and all along I’ve warned about the possibility of business owners selecting a design that’s been ripped off from somewhere else as their new corporate identity. I wondered aloud about how long it would take for a very high-profile incident to occur that would illustrate exactly how dangerous spec work, logo contests and design “crowdsourcing” really are.

Well folks, here it is.

Winning entry in logo design contest

Turns out the vs Jon Engle episode, after all the twists and turns have been investigated, is a powerful anti-spec parable. If we take a look at the artwork and illustrations in dispute, we’ll see that many of the stock images were entered into logo design contests on a website called Design Outpost, a spec driven contest forum that bills itself as “A Different Kind of Design Firm” (you can view some contest vs. Stock Art comparisons here – the original posts and artwork are beginning to disappear from Design Outpost’s contest forums).

If the overall plagiarism issue wasn’t big enough, it now turns out that several of the submissions were selected by the contest as “winning entries”. That means the contest holders used them for their company logo. And now (in some cases years after the contests were finished), those firms are receiving pretty heavy letters from a well-heeled legal firm, asking them the all important question – “You’re using our client’s artwork in your logo. Do you have the license to do so?”. And if they don’t, a sizable bill is probably on the way. Or worse. Trouble is, there are instances when the disputed designs have found their way onto products, book covers and packaging. Doesn’t matter if the companies involved change their logos now – the damage has already been done. Let’s not mention being connected to this public relations nightmare, as half the internet tries to untangle the story of Jon Engle and his self-proclaimed David vs, Goliath battle.

Stock art illustration added to design contest entry

If, as Stock Art claims, Engle used their artwork without proper licensing and entered it into design contests, then the companies now using that work are on the hook. If, in the increasingly unlikely event, but as Engle claims, Stock Art “stole” his designs, then there’s some companies whose logos are now available as stock art and being used all over the internet and quite likely, the print world too. Either way, it’s a bad scene for the companies involved and in both scenarios, the inclusion of the artwork into logo design contests allowed it to happen.

Crowdspring design contest screengrab

Lest we be tempted to believe that this is an isolated case, on an isolated website, let’s also take a look at this contest on Chicago-based design “crowdsourcing” platform Crowdspring. While the entries are now ghosted out (the contest closed in February), we can still see that 32 of the contest entries (from two designers) can be tracked back to iStockPhoto, a stock photography and illustration website. Problem is, iStockPhoto strictly prohibits the use of their illustrations as logos. How am I familiar with this contest? When Crowdspring very loudly hit the scene in February, it was one of a few contests that I decided to follow, selecting it from a random link on the Crowdspring home page. I noticed the injection of what appeared to be iStock designs early on, and quickly searched the stock site using obvious keywords. Sure enough, the vector images had been culled from iStock’s rather large collection.\r\n

Yet another istock image

Not wanting to jump the gun (there was a possibility that the original illustrator was a ‘creative’ in Crowdspring’s community and may have entered their own work), I found out the name of the original illustrator, and contacted them directly via e-mail. They had no knowledge of the work being entered, and wrote the Crowdspring management regarding the issue. The images were deleted, and then resubmitted throughout the contest until eventually, one of the ‘creatives’ was banned. Trouble is, there was another iStock image from the SAME illustrator, that nobody noticed until I notified Crowdspring, and the other designer, about that one too.

Rather than allowing an ‘ah-ha’ moment to play out (and as much as it would have made great blog fodder), I informed the powers that be (staying mum to the buyer), saving Crowdspring, and their ‘client’ a lot of grief (they can thank me later). It looked like one of the iStock images stood a pretty good chance of winning (as much as one can interpret the goings on of a design contest) and I didn’t want to see some young talented designer get his work misappropriated. I also didn’t want to see a small business owner get hung out to dry because he had decided to farm out his logo to a spec-driven logo contest and picked a winning design that he couldn’t legally use.

Twitter conservation about istock images

None of this is a secret. The staff on Crowdspring know this is a problem, even addressing the issue as a blog post and on their forum. Trouble is, that was 9 months after launch and after God knows how many iStock submissions later (whether the iStock issue I was involved with had any bearing on this sudden interest remains to be seen).

DNA of the spec work business model.

Unfortunately, this is all part and parcel of the spec design model, and a subject that Crowdspring themselves described with a fairly blithe statement – “it does happen” – when asked about it. Yes it does, but it shouldn’t. And it’s why a logo design contest is an extraordinarily risky way to ANY small business to farm out their corporate identity to. Design contest sites will blather on how their sites are self-policing and what-not, but in the examples we’re talking about, nobody realized about the iStock submission until I – a Crowdspring critic – started the ball rolling. In the case of Jon Engle, he had been submitting logos into contests that allegedly feature Stock Art material as far back as 2007. So much for self-policing.

And in other news..

Interestingly, as the vs. Jon Engle issue sucked the oxygen out the internet for a few days last week, Mallesh Bonigala, the CEO of Logo Design Works, issued this missive via his Twitter account. Alas, it was more-or-less lost in all the Stock Art noise.

Logo Design Works Twitter Feed

According to the linked post, a ‘creative’ on 99Designs had helped themselves to a crab illustration from the Logo Design Works mascot portfolio, and entered it into a contest on the Australian based 99Designs website. It didn’t win, but it could have. And as this incident happened in the same week as the Stock Art fiasco unfolded, I think it’s safe to say that none of these are isolated events.

99Designs screengrab

Logo design entered in 99designs contest

Happened to us too, as early as 2004 when several designs ripped from our portfolio ended up in Sitepoint logo contests, with one being selected as the winner before being identified by other ‘creatives’. Who’s Sitepoint? They happen to be the company and website that spawned 99Designs.

And it’s not just Sitepoint, Design Outpost, Crowdspring or 99Designs. There’s also this incident. And this one too. How about the boat logo? I think it’s safe to say that logo contest and design “crowdsourcing” submissions are rife with copied, stolen and unlicensed artwork.


All of this begs the question – when copied or unlicensed artwork gets entered into spec logo contests (and in some cases, even wins), how liable are the design contest sites themselves? What legal exposure do they shoulder for their ‘creatives and to their ‘buyers’? Oh sure, they’ve got disclaimers that tell us they’re not responsible for what goes on in their forums, and that they’re not liable should purloined artwork get passed off on their site. I think the fact that all of these design contests collect money – either as a percentage of the designer’s winnings, a contest fee or a service charge tacked on to the overall prize money, would certainly expose them in some way. I’m not a lawyer, but I do know that even though most coat-check services feature signs that tell us that they’re not responsible should your coat get stolen, the fact that they collect five bucks to watch your coat renders those signs impotent. And finally, what about design “crowdsourcing” sites’ liability to the original designer whose work gets ripped and entered into contests that they’re hosting, promoting and earning revenue from? I think ‘legal quagmire‘ just about covers it. Should also point out that whatever legal protections are being claimed, they only cover the asses of the “crowdsourcing” websites and NOT their buyers, self-labelled ‘creatives’ or the designers who happen to get their work lifted.

In terms of this discussion I do know that The Intellectual Property Group, the legal firm representing Stock Art have tried to contact Design Outpost, but have yet to hear back. Other than that “statement”, any further questions I had were met with “no comment”. Guess we’ll have to wait and see how that plays out. It’s also worthwhile to note that any post featuring Stock Art artwork starting going down the memory hole yesterday afternoon, being yanked en mass from the Design Outpost website. Other than the examples I did manage to find, we’ll never really know the extent of the damage. artwork entered into logo contests

If it turns out that he was pilfering Stock Art’s website to enter their illustrator’s work into design contests as his own, while I’m hesitant to call Jon Engle a victim of spec-work (though I do have some sympathy for him), it certainly looks like spec work might have been a motivating factor. Why spend time developing concepts for a company logo when there’s a high likelihood that the design won’t get picked, nor the ‘creative’ paid for his efforts. Pick an obscure website, incorporate their art into spec logos, enter them into as many contests as possible. They probably won’t win, so no-one should be the wiser. And it they do win, the companies purchasing the logos won’t be in business very long, or will remain small enough, and the internet large enough, that nobody will ever connect the dots. The events of the past week have proven that this is demonstrably not true and a very large issue when the dots eventually do get connected.

If I owned a design contest or logo “crowdsourcing” site, I would quickly be searching all the previous contests to see what unlicensed and ripped-off artwork had already be entered, trying to head off any issues before they arise (though disappearing threads and images is often interpreted as a tacit admission of guilt). I’d also be getting a little more attentive to the frequent IP violation e-mails that are often slagged off by administrators.\r\n

Another TLF design entered into logo design contest

If I were a client or ‘buyer’ at one of these sites, I’d be seriously re-evaluating the wisdom of farming out my company logo to a gaggle of unknown designers, many of whom aren’t getting paid and some of whom have zero motivation to actually design original work. On a website that’s legal disclaimer actually tells me that ripped off (or unlicensed) design work is a very real possibility. Is saving a few bucks, or getting a few more poorly crafted logo options, worth what is obviously a very bad risk? If it were my company, I’d know the answer.


If I were a designer on one of these sites, it could break two ways. If I had uploaded material that was, ahm, influenced by someone else, I would be deleting the work as fast as humanly possible, closing up my account and starting anew. If I were one of the seemingly fewer and fewer legitimate designers trying to make a few bucks on spec work or “crowdsourcing” websites, I would seriously reconsider the kind of business model I was supporting. If I were still expending the kind of energy and time required to develop original work, I’d have to keep this in mind – many of the designers I’m competing against, aren’t. While we’re talking about “leveling the playing field and all that”, supposedly the raison d’etre for these “crowdsourcing” websites in the first place.

Lessons learned?

As far as the hapless Mr. Engle goes, I think regardless of which way his tale eventually plays out, this much is certain – spec work, “crowdsourcing” and logo design contests are at the very heart of it.