On Tuesday, a former student of the graphic designer Mike Joyce sent him an e-mail congratulating him for the design of Yahoo’s News Digest iPad app. The look and feel of the section landing pages of the app, which curates news stories, was classic Joyce: midcentury, Swiss-inspired shapes, patterns, and color blocks.
“I wrote back and said, ‘what do you mean?’ said Joyce, the founder of Swissted.com, a website that takes music show flyers and reimagines them in the modernist Swiss style. “And he said: ‘Oh man, Yahoo totally ripped you off.”
It was, Joyce said, “like I was kicked in the stomach.” As he scrolled through the iPad app, he could name the posters he designed that Yahoo had copied. The Sports screen had elements from the “Refused” and “Gangrene” posters, he said. The “Entertainment” poster had shapes and colors from his “Samiam” and “Iggy Pop” posters. “All of my designer friends were shocked.”
The people at Yahoo, which launched this version of the app in September 2014, see things differently. “For the iPad app, the Yahoo News Digest team was inspired by the famous 1950s Swiss modernism movement and drew from its typographic style, principles of color, restraint, and geometry,” said a spokesman via e-mail. “We felt applying that aesthetic to news was a great place to celebrate that influence.” In other words, Yahoo and Joyce were inspired by the same movement. No big deal.
To the lay person’s eye, the designs are unnervingly similar. But interestingly enough, numerous design industry professionals agree with the technology company. “Yahoo seems to clearly reference Swissted in their app,” says Michael J. Walsh, director of design and digital media for Visual Arts Press, the design studio for School of Visual Arts, and an instructor in the school’s BFA program. “But Swissted did the same to others, too. Appropriation has gone on for some time now.” Just because Swissted was there first, Walsh says, doesn’t mean that Joyce can lay claim to an entire design language, no matter how similar Yahoo’s might be to his own work. “When you’re talking flat surface design, there aren’t many options to make it something new,” Walsh says. If it’s drawn from the same stylistic reference, “it’s going to be very similar.”
Paula Scher, a New York partner in the design firm Pentagram, echoed Walsh’s sentiment via e-mail. “Most designers and other young artists begin by copying something,” she wrote. “That’s how they learn. It’s hard to really know what the source of the Yahoo thing is, as Helvetica Swiss Modern revivalist style has been popular with youngish people since the end of the 1990s.”
But Joyce isn’t having it. “You can say that you’re inspired by the International typographic style, and that’s fine, so are a lot of people,” says Joyce. “But Yahoo was lifting the exact shapes and colors from my posters,” he continues. “They even use my vintage white, which proves they weren’t just “inspired,” simply because Swiss modernism didn’t use vintage white.”
To Joyce, the matter is clear cut: Those shapes, those colors, and that layout aren’t similar to his work; they are his work. But to Walsh and Scher, that distinction doesn’t matter. Everyone, they say, copies. “Sometimes designers develop their own visual language, sometimes they continue to follow what’s contemporarily fashionable,” writes Scher. “Real innovation is rare and hard.”
The only people who try to draw firm lines between inspiration and intellectual copyright infringement, says Walsh, “are lawyers.”
Even for lawyers, however, the case is far from open and shut. “Is there a problem? Yes. But is it a problem that would be actionable? Probably not, unless someone had really deep pockets,” said Frank Martinez, a patent attorney who specializes in artists’ rights. “So this issue is, is the issue worth fighting? Maybe, maybe not, but I wouldn’t give a high percentage of success. Is it worth it? I don’t think so.”
So: Is Yahoo’s app illegal? No, says Martinez. Was it even unusual for the industry? No again, say Walsh and Scher. And yet. “Anyone with one eyeball can see that they took my exact elements from my exact posters,” says Joyce. “That’s not inspiration, that’s lifting straight up.”
Walsh, the design professor, says that everyone’s missing the point. “If they were copying for a good reason, it would be smart,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s that smart, because I don’t think it really works for what Yahoo’s trying to do. It’s sort of like it’s an easy way out to present news, because they couldn’t think of a better way.”