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 StockArt.com 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.

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).

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. Logo 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.

Interestingly, as the Stockart.com 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. 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.

StockArt.com 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.

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.

Chef logo

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.

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.




Related Posts

  1. Yet another anti-spec work initiative
  2. SXSW “Is Spec Work Evil?” panel transcript
  3. Defending crowdsourcing & design contests. The platitudes of spec work.
  4. SXSW ’09: Is spec work evil?
  5. Spec work hackery redux. More of our work copied & entered into 99designs logo design contest

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70 Comments to “The Jon Engle vs. Stockart.com story – an anti-spec work parable?”

  1. Audree says:

    Hi Steve Douglas,

    Sorry, I just now saw your lengthy response to my post. You make a lot of great points. Yes… I am the “creative” you suspected I was.

    There is no question about it – the copy catting and posting of existing logos is a problem. I know that crowdSPRING has a policy of banning creatives that are caught, but there are always newbies who will show up and do it again.

    As someone who works hard to create quality original work, I get frustrated by it. I have found that by picking the right projects, I can bypass many of the problems.

    I have no answers for you about your frustrations and how the contest sites can take on responsibilities. I know I will not be participating forever – it is just a great fit for me right now while I am home with my young son. I am curious to see how everything unfolds with cases that come to the forefront. I would truly like to see there be consequences for stealing someone’s work.

    This issue aside, I think a lot of great stuff is created on contest sites. I see amazing original work every day. Perhaps one day they will need a vetting process. But for now, I am loving that I have a place that can connect me with creative projects I would never have access to otherwise.


    • @ Audree – no need to apologize at all (we all get busy and commenting on my blog is way down there in terms of importance). Thanks for your comments and sharing your opinions. I certainly understand the appeal of site likes Crowdspring, on a theoretical level anyway (but ultimately believe the idea works better on paper). I’ve always been loathe to criticize any designer participating as I have no way of knowing about people’s personal motivations, nor to be honest, is it any of my business. When it comes to spending time with your son, I have nothing but profound respect for any decision that you make to accomplish that. As a father who struggled through a few years trying to juggle work and family (especially during the start-up years of The Logo Factory) that is something I can truly relate to. If the tables were reversed, I would probably tell me to go piss up a rope, so I appreciate your pleasant comments greatly.

  2. [...] 04:40 Joseph Fosco writes in on audio and The risk of crowdsourcing your logo [...]

  3. Fred K says:

    I think it could be worth remembering that (a) Lucy Charles has a point — copycatting isn’t something that by nature only happens in contest environments or on crowdsourcing design sites. Even ‘quality’ freelancers, big design firms, renowned ad agencies etc sometimes present copies as their own ‘brilliant’ work. While I get that the discussion here is restricted in scope, it’s still worth remembering. Nobody’s perfect. It’s a proven fact. And (b) there’s a bright side and a dark side to everything, and a lot of gray stuff in between. This applies to sites like crowdspring, 99designs, logotournament etc. These sites not only means greater exposure for stolen designs –thus making it easier to catch them– but also providing various levels of ‘designers’ with access to clients that they would never get a chance to work with otherwise. In my country (I’m not American), there’s very little chance of making first-hand contact with ‘good’ clients unless you work for an Agency (With A Name) or know The Right People. So, sites like cS, 99d etc provide great opportunities for people like me to show off skills, make direct contact with otherwise inaccessible clients and occasionally rake in some dosh in the process. On the other hand, they do provide a large repository of ‘designs’, ‘art’ etc for the lazy b*tards to steal.

    I’m not arguing that crowdsourcing and design contest enterprises like the aforementioned are fundamentally bad, or fundamentally good, but instead that they are a little bit of both. Because they rely on the integrity and standupness (which isn’t a word, I know) of their participants. And, let’s face it, ‘designers’ on all levels borrow steal and copy. We always have.

    Personally I used to play at crowdspring but decided to stop, partly because of all the copystealing that goes on and partly because buyers were getting exponentially worse at communicating with the ‘designers (yes, even the big names like BBH and DoubleDay). But that’s my choice. That doesn’t automatically make the services bad, in my opinion.

    Fred K’s last blog post..Design From Sthlm

    • @ Fred – thanks for your well-balanced comments (I tend to be a little reactionary, so some level-headed opinions are always welcome). You’re absolutely right – logo contests aren’t the only places were work get’s re-purposed and passed off as original. Last year, some of our work ended up being misappropriated by a rather large advertising agency, for a national campaign, bankrolled by a Fortune 500 company. That ended up with some very quickly negotiated usage rights, significant payment for the use, as well as a few design gigs thrown our way for good measure. Over the years, we’ve also seen our work lifted and placed into online logo company portfolios (as examples of their work) more than a few times.

      Having said that, I still believe that design contests are rife with copied material due to the inherent risk vs reward ratio, the extremely low chance of earning a living, the negligible penalties of getting caught (who’s really responsible after all) the complete lack of participant vetting, ombined with relative anonymity. There are risks in dealing with intellectual properties in all avenues true, but design contests, and the sites that host them, maximize ALL the risks for designer and client alike.

      I also appreciate you sharing your thoughts about participating at Crowdspring. You have a unique perspective that adds greatly to the discussion.

  4. Fred K says:

    @ Steve – You’re welcome. The discussion is necessary. Unfortunately it’s easy to dismiss things by just stating “I’m right, you’re wrong, begone” (I’m not suggesting that’s what you’re doing, on the contrary, but many pundits in the bleachers do. That’s another kind of laziness, btw.) It’s also good to see from time to time that being vigilant and protecting one’s IP rights pays off — that is absolutely one of the big shortcomings of crowdsourcing and contest sites like the ones we’re discussing; there’s not enough accountability and certainly not enough transparency regarding the IP protection process, to toss out a few O-words. ;)

    You’re also right that there is a lot of copystealing going on at these services, both of actual designs and of concepts. The part that makes me really sad though is that so many ‘buyers’ (contest holders, clients, what ever name you want to call them by) actually ask of designers to copy, steal and borrow from each other.

    Anyway, a good discussion. Cheers.

    Fred K’s last blog post..Design From Sthlm

  5. nug says:

    Steve- as a designer who has worked on cS I always intend to be original and unique with my work, I have to say you articulate the pitfalls well. I am starting to lose interest in the site due to many of the things you mention particularly the increase in copying and nasty undertone amongst the ‘creatives’ that seems to have taken hold lately…not too surprising I guess when you bear in mind the model. However the increase in work that the site is seeing means I don’t suppose the owners are too bothered, and I’m sure, not that concerned about it’s impact on design as an industry….it’s all a bit fast food really, gives you a quick fill but none to satisfying ultimately.

  6. @ Nug – welcome. I feel for honest designers like yourself trying to carve out a living on sites like 99Designs and Crowdspring, only to be hampered by people who aren’t above participating in less than good faith. Unfortunately, it is part and parcel of the model itself and as the number of participants increases (several sites boast between 20K and 30K members) the problems increase exponentially.

    You make a good point about the increase in work – at 15% (or $30 listing fee) these sites can only operate by a constant rise in the volume of projects, while each individual project becomes relatively unimportant towards their overall ‘bottom line’. For a $200 logo design contest, for example, the host site is only making thirty dollars. How much hand-holding, monitoring, answering questions, addressing IP complaints and tussles would $30 feasibly cover while remaining profitable to the host company?

    The owners of these sites aren’t terribly interested in the impact of their services on the design industry itself, but then again, other than designers themselves, who really is? Most of the people behind these sites have backgrounds other than graphic design so I wouldn’t expect them to be terribly altruistic. In fact, harming the industry probably works to their favor, if more experienced and talented designers find themselves without work and need to turn to entering contests just to survive professionally.

  7. Turquoise says:

    Steve, has there been any resolution of the situation between Jon Engle and StockArt?

    I’m inclined to think Jon Engle ripped off StockArt’s designs and claimed harassment to try and tarnish StockArt’s reputation, and take the heat off himself. I believed him at first and even complained to StockArt. But Engle’s claim that StockArt ripped him off doesn’t make sense because he is supposedly churning out all these logos on spec, while StockArt charges realistic prices.

    Have you heard anything?

    • Steve Douglas says:

      @ Turquoise – I’m not aware of any new developments on the Engle vs. Stock Art (or Stock Art vs. Engle) situation. Most of the related websites have been taken down, Design Outpost has removed Engle’s design contest submissions and Stock Art (probably due to legal reasons) have remained ‘mum’ on the episode. There was some talk of a ‘private’ forum on Logo Pond, created so that Engle could give his side of the story to a select few members, but after it was set up (and according to site owner statements) no statements were issued.

  8. Turquoise says:

    Thanks, Steve. After I left here I read a thread on Reddit and it seems the tide is turning on Jon Engle.

    I feel bad because I initially believed what he said. I wrote StockArt and the owner first sent an email without much detail. After I asked for evidence he sent the list naming the illustrators and their artworks, which is the basis for him billing Engle for using those images. I’ve since seen this list published elsewhere.

    That convinced me that it was Engle who ripped off multiple artists from this one site so he could slam stuff out for these spec sites. Obviously is wasn’t what Engle is claiming, that all these artists ripped him off. Their artwork has been online in some cases for years before the spec sites even showed up. Your evidence is compelling as well.

    I think the owner of StockArt has been hurt by this in several ways, and I hope he recovers and maybe even benefits from all the extra traffic. There’s some nice work there.

    Meanwhile, Engle seems to be scurrying for darkness. I hope he gets stepped on hard enough that other digital thieves get the message about the danger of ripping off real artists. It’s Engle’s own fault for stealing and then crying lies to the internet. Someone on Reddit suggested Engle should take the money paid into his fund (because he probably already has) and change his name.

  9. [...] one hell of a read. If you don’t know who Jon Engle is, then you can read about him here, and here and a million other places. To summarize what those links are saying, Jon Engle used to be a [...]

  10. Tim says:

    …and now he is back in business. http://www.relevantstudio.com/

  11. @ Tim – thanks for that. I hadn’t noticed. Apparently, Engle’s also opened a new Twitter account, and is currently featuring this missive on his profile

    I owe the design and twitter community a huge apology. My website is back up, just trying to make an honest re-start.

    I guess people can make of that what they like.

  12. Benjamin Falk Says:

    @Benjamin Falk “It is very easy as a designer — especially if you are just getting started — to use istock photo and other stock photo/vector places for logo design work.”

    No, no it isn’t easy. This is not a designer (young or otherwise) issue; this is an ethics issue. If you don’t have them, you will get work any way you can – steal it, copy/paste it, you name it. This is bigger and deeper than the graphic design industry – this is a question of character. People without consciences work in all sectors and get what they deserve when they steal or cheapen their own dealings. I have clients that cut corners without my approval and the best I can do is raise my hands and say ‘it’s your business, if you want to use that garbage for print material.’ In the same way, if these indiscriminates cannot pay real money for real branding, and someone finds out, it’s their brand that suffers, not mine. I’m making original work without a single template in sight.

    Media Designer’s last blog post..You Don’t Need a Website …

  13. [...] the SXSW 09 Is Spec Work Evil? debate from March. A little late getting around to posting this (The Jon Engle vs. Stock Art flap knocked it to the wayside), but still worth a read it you’re into such things. [...]

  14. [...] Store « Sci Fi Channel morphs name and logo The Jon Engle vs. Stockart.com story – an anti-spec work parable? [...]

  15. David Airey says:

    I see you’re already familiar with Jon’s re-emergence. First time I’ve seen an apology. Something I suppose.

    David Airey’s last blog post..Measuring the success, and failure, of branding

  16. Paul says:

    great write up

  17. Mark says:

    It gets better, he’s written a book called ‘Freelance Dream‘.

    PS: You won’t be disappointed! If I had something like this in my early days as a freelancer I could have avoided costly mistakes and made so much more money in the beginning. I guarantee you’ll make the cost of this book back many times over in a very short amount of time.

    Jon Engle – Freelance Dream Author

    Sweet Jesus.

  18. Tom says:

    Well then what about fonts? If a company decides to brand a font in their logo is it then off limits to the rest of the world?
    Unless everyone starts creating their own for every project then everyone has done this.

  19. [...] organizations, crowdsourcing is not a good option. The legal liability of hiring a designer who may or may not be plagiarizing others’ work is great, and the burden of proof too large to bear. Any cost saved in cheaper asset production is [...]

  20. [...] is it’s a lose-lose scenario. You can read about shady contest holders just as much as shady designers trying to pull a fast one. The point is, Where’s the love? where is that thing called [...]

  21. This is bigger and deeper than the graphic design industry – this is a question of character. People without consciences work in all sectors and get what they deserve when they steal or cheapen their own dealings.

  22. [...] in legal trouble. Sadly, there have been several instances of individuals submitting art they have no permission to use. Sometimes they are misusing art they could legally use for other types of projects. Other times, [...]

  23. [...] The more designs someone enters the better their chances of getting picked and getting paid so what happens is you get people submitting ideas that they’ve essentially stolen from other sites and then you as a business are left holding the bag when word gets out you’re using a ripped off logo. If you don’t believe me I suggest you read this post. [...]