Dispute Over Apple Image Shows Internet’s Reach

October 14, 2011 1:27 PM14 commentsViews: 25

HONG KONG — Few personal journeys can shed as much light on the age we live in as the one traveled by Jonathan Mak in the past week.

Mr. Mak, a university student in Hong Kong, went from being an unknown, aspiring graphic designer to an Internet sensation after an image he produced spread rapidly across digital platforms following the death of Steven P. Jobs, the co-founder of Apple.

Mr. Mak’s design of a silhouetted profile of Mr. Jobs in the Apple company logo was shared across the Web and reported by news media. The actor Ashton Kutcher posted the design on his Twitter account.

And then, nearly as fast, Mr. Mak found himself being vilified.

With a speed fitting for the technological age that Mr. Jobs helped usher in, Mr. Mak became the subject of derisive Internet postings and negative news media reports. His design, it turned out, closely matched one produced earlier this year by Chris Thornley, a British graphic artist.

“It’s been a very overwhelming experience,” Mr. Mak, 19, said by telephone between classes at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University School of Design. “I still attend classes and lessons as usual. But as far as following my assignments, it’s been difficult.”

Mr. Mak said he had developed his design in late August — a white Apple logo on a black background, with a black silhouette of Mr. Jobs indented in the apple — as a tribute to Mr. Jobs after he stepped down as chief executive of Apple.

Mr. Mak said he had searched across the Internet both for inspiration and to ensure he was not copying another design. He said his searches had not uncovered Mr. Thornley’s design.

He then posted the tweaked Apple logo on his blog . Mr. Mak also asked the public to alert him if they spotted similarities between his work and others.

The design lay quietly on his blog for weeks until Mr. Jobs’s death on Oct. 5.

“Overnight, my Web site went from getting 80 responses to tens of thousands,” he said. “At first I was very happy.”

But by the weekend, Mr. Mak said, people began informing him how similar his design was to Mr. Thornley’s, which featured a black Apple logo on a white background, with a white silhouette of Mr. Jobs at a slightly different angle.

Mr. Mak said he had received notification Sunday night from Mr. Thornley’s wife, Julia, about the similarities of the two designs.

In the world of graphic design, similarities between images are quite common, said Juliette Cezzar, director of the communication design program at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City. But Mr. Mak’s case shows how easy it has become to unearth similar images or outright copies.

“If we were living in a different age, it would take weeks, maybe months to discover copies,” Ms. Cezzar said. “Now it can take 24 hours. That is a good thing.”

In a statement released to the news media, Mr. Thornley said he had followed the controversy while receiving treatment for a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He said he had first developed his design in May “because I wanted to celebrate the fact that someone who had cancer was still working, still driving forward and still thinking positively about the future.”

Mr. Thornley, a 40-year-old living in Darwen, England, acknowledged the dangers the digital age presented to creativity.

“The Internet can be a double-edged sword,” he said. “You need to use the Internet in order to promote yourself, but in order to do this you are making yourself vulnerable to these situations.”

Mr. Thornley said he hoped to speak with Mr. Mak soon about the two designs.

“J. Mak has been as honest as he can about the situation, I think,” he said. “It is important to have the debate about this, and J. Mak has to be credited for opening up the debate and not hiding from it.”

Such an environment “is really stressful for designers,” said Ms. Cezzar. “You don’t want to be called out in front of the world and called a copier.”

For his part, Mr. Mak said the past week had provided a lesson he could apply as a graphic designer.

“It really taught me to be very careful about what I say and do,” Mr. Mak said. “With all the negative publicity I received in Hong Kong, it taught me to be very careful. At the same time, I need to stay true to my sense of aesthetics.”



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