Copying Plagiarizing Stealing

Crece Agency illustration*

Creativity is copying. So says Toni Segarra, one of the most renowned advertising creatives of all time. Observing what benchmarks do and copying their work is part of the creative process. 

To begin to unpack this statement, which may seem bold at first, we need to clearly understand the meaning of certain concepts: copying, plagiarizing, and stealing. 


We know that the definitions from the RAE (Royal Spanish Academy) are often not as objective as we would like to be, at least from our point of view, but in this case, they can serve as a starting point for what we want to explain. According to the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, one of the meanings of copying is “to servilely imitate an author, an artist, a work, or their style.” In this sense, copying acquires the meaning of reproducing an idea or design by following another as a reference model. 

From a creative perspective, when we talk about copying, we refer to imitating what inspires us, using one or several sources of reference to create something unique and original. And here is where a very interesting new concept comes into play: originality. 

Can one be original by copying? The answer is yes. This statement may sound contradictory at first, but it has its explanation. Originality understood as a divine gift that has been granted to a few is utopian. An advertising invention that has been romanticized throughout history and therefore has achieved the recognition it has. However, no one romanticizes that the style that makes a genius original stems from previous inspiration, and what did we say was inspiring an idea in a reference? Copying. 

In the book Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon, the author mentions something that writer Jonathan Lethem once said: “when we think something is original, it’s simply because we don’t know its sources.” 

You might be thinking at this point: Are we saying that nothing is original, and everything is a copy? Does originality not exist? Where is the creative work then? Well, it lies in the ability to gather in one piece everything that has inspired us and express it to the rest of the world using our own language. 

Copying is not bad, quite the opposite. As we mentioned at the beginning, it is the basis of the creative process. Originality (the real one) is the fruit of the research work of references and models to follow. The true creative is the one who has extensive prior training that allows them to develop their own language by cutting out and using resources from other great artists, who in turn were inspired by others, and so on.

Toni Segarra describes it this way: 

The more personal voices to admire, the more imitators. And consequently, more new personal voices emerging in the long run, seeking their space, and building an increasingly rich mosaic. […] I’m talking about style. Achieving it, being able to explain what humanity has always explained, but with a voice of one’s own, is, in my opinion, the highest expression of creativity.


Once the concept of copying has been dissected, it is time to do the same with another term that will help us understand the meaning of the first one much better. We refer to plagiarism. The RAE defines the verb to plagiarize as “to copy substantially the works of others, presenting them as one’s own.” Here we can see the clear difference between copying and plagiarizing. While we have defined copying as “to servilely imitate,” plagiarizing is “to copy an idea presenting it as one’s own.” 

“When an author copies another author, it’s called plagiarism. When an author copies many authors, it’s called science.” (anonymous, cited in Winter 2004: 88, translated).

Plagiarizing means to reproduce, to trace the original idea of another under your own name. In other words, plagiarizing is lying. Even a child knows that lying is wrong but, in the adult world, plagiarism can have much more serious consequences than a scolding from your parents. According to the Organic Law 10/1995 of November 23 of the Penal Code, Art. 270, and the Intellectual Property Law (regulated by the Royal Legislative Decree 1/1996 of April 12), “plagiarism involves the violation of intellectual property rights, which is a crime.” 

Besides being a crime, being able to plagiarize someone else’s work shows a person’s lack of judgment and ethics. The design and art sector is very competitive in general, which is why we professionals have the responsibility to work to prevent plagiarism and, above all, we must commit not to participate in projects where this idea is suggested. 



Taking advantage of someone else’s ideas and merits, in addition to plagiarizing, could even be considered stealing. But here we would like to add a small nuance that for us makes the difference between both concepts when we use them to talk about plagiarism/theft of a graphic, photograph, and/or design. In these cases, plagiarizing would be reproducing the idea or concept of another person in a piece of your own making, while stealing would be taking directly the piece generated by the other artist and presenting it under your own name. 

It’s evident that the case of artistic theft can be easily recognized if the victim artist is considerably famous. No one would think of presenting Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans as their own creations. However, what happens when a company, agency, or renowned designer steals a design from a lesser-known local artist? That’s where the real fraud lies. A minor author doesn’t have the necessary resources to defend themselves against artistic theft, while the large company can afford to take whatever it pleases, as it can bear the consequences (should there be any) without breaking a sweat. 

One of the clearest examples of this phenomenon is Inditex plagiarizing designs from small independent brands. In 2016, American illustrator Tuesday Bassen accused Zara of stealing her designs without authorization or financial compensation. In 2019, other local artists like Quique Vidal (founder of Becomely) or Patricia de la Llana (creative director of Flaman Atelier) pointed out the exact same case, and like them, hundreds more artists have suffered from plagiarism and theft of their designs by this fast fashion giant over the last years. Unfortunately, in most of these David versus Goliath cases, the large company has gotten away with it while the original designers could do nothing more than protest the injustice on their social media. 



Copy, plagiarize, or steal. That is the question. At this point, it has become more than clear that neither plagiarizing nor stealing fall into the definition of being creative. However, inspiration, copying with one’s own style, seeking references and models to follow are indeed indispensable elements in the formation of a creative artist. 

Creativity is a mechanical process consisting of general steps that each person adapts to their needs. Revisiting what we’ve discussed at the beginning of the article, the basis of this creative process is copying, or in other words, the compilation of already conceived ideas and other materials of interest with which we mentally work to convert them into a piece of our own creation. 

When we present creativity to a client, the first point of the presentation must show our sources of inspiration, the idea from which that design starts. Only in this way can we show the value of our work. 

Ideas cannot come out of nowhere. It’s imperative that a new concept is developed in a context recognizable to the audience we are targeting. A somewhat peculiar but very illustrative example of this can be found in the episode “Anou” from the show “Pesadilla en la cocina” by Alberto Chicote, a Spanish TV program where the chef boasts of having invented “intuition cooking,” a type of cooking that no one apart from her understands. To defend herself, Teresa argues that she wants to do “something different without losing the originality of being originally original“, a phrase that’s hard to say without laughing, but which perfectly illustrates the romanticized conception we have of originality as a divine gift. Just as the chef’s statement sounds ridiculous, it’s also ridiculous to think that originality and creativity have an abstract “origin.” 



In summary, good creatives express their originality through the development of their own language, their own style. That is the element that transforms plagiarism into copy and copy into art. The key factor that adds value to the creative process is having one’s own voice to explain what has already been explained before in other languages and styles. That is, undoubtedly, the most complicated task of the artist. 

“When inspiration comes, may it find me working” (Pablo Picasso) 

To find your own style, it’s important to have enough reference sources to understand the context in which you will develop your personality. Education and research of past and present works are fundamental. Keeping an open mind, stepping out of your comfort zone, and engaging in activities that stimulate your senses will awaken your creativity. Interpreting what Picasso once said, inspiration is useless without great work behind it. 


The illustration shows three fonts: Helvetica (1957, original), Microsoft’s Arial (1982, copy), and Google’s Open Sans (2010, copy). 


Kleon, A. (2012). Steal like an artist: 10 Things nobody told you about being creative. Turtleback Books. 

laSexta [lasexta]. (2014, febrero 11). Chicote en Pesadilla – “Si esto es una coca que venga Dios y lo vea”. Youtube.  

Mémesis. (2016, julio 20). Una ilustradora independiente acusa a Zara de plagiarle estos dibujos. Vozpópuli.  

¿Qué es el plagio? Definición. (2018, enero 6).  

Sanchis, M., Botta, L., Núñez, J. M., Sastre, J. C., Beltrán, I., Sansón, M. P., Payarols, P., & Mosquera, N. (2019, octubre 16). Cuando INDITEX (volvió) a plagiar sin piedad a jóvenes talentos del diseño: BECOMELY y FLAMAN ATELIER. COOLTURIZE MAGAZINE.  

Segarra, T. (2021, julio 20). Creatividad es copiar. La Vanguardia.  

Real Academia Española. (s.f.). Copiar. En Diccionario de la lengua española. Recuperado el 19 de mayo de 2022, de  

Real Academia Española. (s.f.). Plagiar. En Diccionario de la lengua española. Recuperado el 19 de mayo de 2022, de