Art Is Hard: When Cover Art and Merch Designs Seem a Little Too Familiar

October 11, 2010 by Luke O’Neil

Art Is Hard: When Cover Art and Merch Designs Seem a Little Too Familiar

“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” That quote, often attributed to Pablo Picasso, has gradually edged its way into the collective wisdom through sheer force of repetition. What he meant, or what we've come to understand as his meaning, is that influence is the fuel of artistic creation; learning through imitation—or copying—is how any artist learns the trade. Young art students sit in museums for hours sketching old masters displayed before them. Musicians learn an instrument by playing their favorite artists’ songs. But stealing—taking something of someone else and making it your own—is something different.

When cover art was revealed for HIS NAME WAS YESTERDAY’s self-titled album, the design—featuring a man in a black suit staring into a dingy bathroom mirror at an altered vision of himself—seemed somewhat familiar. That’s because it looks a lot like the cover of SENSES FAIL’s 2004 album, Let It Enfold You.

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This isn’t the first time this has happened. AFTER MIDNGHT PROJECT's 2009 album, Let's Build Something To Break, features artwork of an astronaut in a field, much like that of BRAND NEW’s 2003 full-length, Deja Entendu. BAND OF HORSES' Cease To Begin (2007) and its green moonlit seascape brings to mind the cover of BOUNCING SOULS' Anchors Aweigh (2003). ELECTRIC OWLS' Ain't Too Bright (which came out in May 2009) seems to be a carbon copy of IN FEAR AND FAITH's Your World On Fire cover, which was released a few months earlier. The list goes on and on.

For their 2008 album Rotation, CUTE IS WHAT WE AIM FOR used a design featuring the same concept and approach from a piece of art created around 2004 for COUNTING CROWS.
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On the design website YouThoughtWeWouldntNotice.com, design studio Alphabet Arm details how CIWWAF’s management contacted them to commission a design based on the Counting Crows imagery. A representative for Alphabet Arm says on the site, “After some back and forth over pricing, we were informed they were going to concentrate on the merch design in-house and [would] contact us later. We never heard anything back.” When the album artwork later surfaced, Alphabet Arm couldn’t help but notice a striking resemblance to their design.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to album covers. Old-school metal heads might notice a strong similarity between OVERKILL’s skull and bat wings logo and AVENGED SEVENFOLD’s. But that begs the question: is that really plagiarism? It's been held up time and again in musical plagiarism court cases that you can't claim ownership of a musical idea, just the execution of it. In other words, a band can't own the notes A-minor or D. They can, however, own their recording of themselves performing those notes. By that definition, you can't own the idea of a skull with bat wings or a butterfly collage.

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But there's a big difference when one artist copies another piece of art, changes a few things and uses it in a different way.  For example: An image inside the booklet for Owl City’s Ocean Eyes is clearly an altered version of a picture of Chicago by photographer Ben Eubank.

BREATHE CAROLINA were also taken to task over the original cover art for Hello Fascination, which appeared to be a poorly altered version of a piece done by artist Ann Om. After Om contacted the designer of the Breathe Carolina cover, Hello Fascination was released with different artwork.

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The degree to which artists take offense vary. JAMES RHEEM DAVIS, the designer of the Senses Fail, cover hadn't seen the His Name Was Yesterday artwork until contacted for this piece. But he says, “I would agree it's definitely influenced by the cover I did.” Instead of getting angry, Davis says he’s flattered that something he created “influenced someone” enough to make something similar. “Sometimes you see artwork and think, ‘That's what I want to do,’” he says. “You may try to replicate that style until you find your own.” That's probably fine for young artists who aren't exhibiting their work or selling designs to record labels—but it can’t last. “I think it's when you can't eventually branch off and distinguish your own style that it may become a problem for some,” he says. “If an artist continues to blatantly rip off other artists—especially with technology allowing more communication throughout the world—you will eventually be called out.”

His Name Was Yesterday drummer MIKEY KAUFFMAN says he's aware of the similarities between his band’s album art and that of Senses Fail, but that it's a fairly common practice for bands to borrow from one another's visual representations. “Many artists have had similar styles of artwork without stealing anything or paying tribute to the artist who had a similar design before them,” says Kauffman. “Some of our favorite artists like Killswitch Engage, the End Of Heartache, 36 Crazyfists, A Snow Capped Romance, Sevendust and Cold Day Memory all have similar imagery on their covers at first glance.” The differences, he believes, stem from coupling the image with the music inside “When you listen to [an album with similar art to another] and return to that image on the cover for a second look, that picture is its own reflection of that band's heart and soul. That's what we were trying to accomplish with the artwork—it’s the best representation of what's to come from the music inside.”

After Midnight Project frontman JASON EVIGAN says there wasn’t any intentional correlation between his band's cover and that of Brand New. He says the imagery came from a dream he had in which an astronaut was walking through a field of poppies. “He moved slow and calm while heading toward complete destruction,” says Evigan. “I think it was a city in flames he was walking toward. I told the guys in the band the idea for the album art and did a mock up version. Right when the album came out, people were instantly accusing us of ripping off Brand New. To be honest, it never crossed our minds.” Evigan says he doesn’t recall ever having seen the cover of Deja Entendu and had a much more innocent reason for including an astronaut. “In reality, spacemen are just awesome.”

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Some similar scenarios haven’t always gone down so peacefully, however. Guitarist RAMIN NIROOMAND of In Fear And Faith (who, incidentally, took their name from a Circa Survive song) says his band went to great lengths to make sure their album design for Your World On Fire would stand out. “This sleeve was intentionally different and very elegant and classy, yet simple,” he says. “A couple months later we saw a couple posts about our album artwork being stolen [by Vagrant’s Electric Owls] or vice-versa. But keep in mind that our album had already been released.” Niroomand says the reason for these types of incidents comes from there simply being too many bands. “The music industry in its current state is over-saturated with bands and lacking in the creativity department.”

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