How A Group Of College Students Stole The Famous 'Coexist' Symbol, Got Rich, And Got Away With It

We've all seen the Coexist bumper sticker—it has become synonymous with the liberal-minded and the back bumper of Priuses. Although it is essentially a symbol of religious tolerance and acceptance, the Coexist logo has been at the heart of ugly legal battles and corporate greed. The design was created by Polish graphic designer Piotr Mlodozeniec, who submitted it as an entry for a coexistence-themed competition in Israel. After it went on tour with a collection of the best entries, Mlodozeniec's art took off as graffiti artists recreated it around the world. 

Although the design began with good intentions, a group of college students from Indiana decided that they wanted it for themselves. They essentially pulled off an epic heist, ripping the design from Mlodozeniec and using it without permission to sell $50 shirts. Over the years the design has morphed and taken on a life of its own.


  • The Theft Of The Logo Was A Lucrative Move For The Indiana Students
    Photo: Sonny Abesamis / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    The Theft Of The Logo Was A Lucrative Move For The Indiana Students

    In 2003, a group of college students from Indiana incorporated a company called Coexist, LLP. The aspiring designers sent Mlodozeniec a letter in 2005 from aspiring designers asking for the artist's permission to use the logo he created.

    The shirts the college students sold went for over $50, and a rumor spread that Ashton Kutcher wore one. The brand had grown significantly since its founding, hence the need to copyright a logo that wasn't even theirs to begin with.

     

  • Although The Founders Claim Otherwise, The Original Designer Never Gave Them Permission To Use The Logo
    Photo: zeevveez / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    Although The Founders Claim Otherwise, The Original Designer Never Gave Them Permission To Use The Logo

    The founders of Coexist, LLP, took the liberty of using the design for two years before reaching out to Mlodozeniec for permission. However, the students claim that they had approval from the start of their venture.

    Mlodozeniec says that their claims aren't true; he says he had never heard of the group and didn't know what they were doing with his original work. Although the company implied that they received his blessing, he made it very clear in subsequent interviews that he did no such thing.

  • The "Coexist" Symbol Was Used As Graffiti Throughout Europe
    Photo: elPadawan / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

    The "Coexist" Symbol Was Used As Graffiti Throughout Europe

    Once Mlodozeniec's design was selected as one of the top 20 in the Museum of the Seam's coexistence-themed contest, it went on tour with the collection around Europe as a 3-by-5 meter poster. It was a standout in the group of entries.

    Once the poster had traveled through Europe, it quickly became a popular form of graffiti. It was supposedly after the graffiti spread to America that both students in Indiana and Bono noticed the design.

  • The College Students Wanted The Rights To The Design So They Could Sue Other Companies
    Photo: Yanksox / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

    The College Students Wanted The Rights To The Design So They Could Sue Other Companies

    Mlodozeniec made it very clear that he did not approve of the college students' use of his modified design. He believed that their motivations were financial and did not match the spirit of the design itself, especially since they made it known that they wanted permission to use the design so they could sue others who were using it. He stated in an interview with a blogger that, "the company promotes a feeling that they are idealistic and for the peace, but they are only interested in the money. They are dishonest people." 

    He also added that, "They phoned me. They tried to ask me to give them permission. I told them I don't like it and I want them to stop doing this... They make the suggestion that I have approved what they are doing. The truth is, I am strongly, strongly against them... As it is not enough, they are suing other people who use this design. So I do very strongly oppose that."

     

  • The Original Design Has Morphed Into A Confusing Mess
    Photo: GDJ / Pixabay / Public Domain

    The Original Design Has Morphed Into A Confusing Mess

    The original "Coexist" symbol consisted of three very clear religious symbols, acting as a visual representation of peace between Muslims, Jewish people, and Christians. However, once others got hold of the image, things got a little more convoluted.

    The company added more symbols to the logo—a peace sign for the "O," male and female symbols fused together for the "E," a pentagram as the dot in the "I," and a yin and yang sign for the "S." What was once an image that advocated three historic and conflicting religions existing at peace with one another has become a confusing collection of symbols that barely relate. Some represent religions and some represent ideologies, while others represent gender.

  • Piotr Mlodozeniec Has More Of A Problem With The Look Of The Design Than The Legal Issues
    Video: YouTube

    Piotr Mlodozeniec Has More Of A Problem With The Look Of The Design Than The Legal Issues

    Piotr Mlodozeniec comes from a long tradition of Polish poster making and graphic design. The Polish poster tradition is highly regarded and remains a unique aspect of Polish cultural identity. Piotr's father, Jan Mlodozeniec, was a very well-known poster designer. 

    Mlodozeniec didn't have as much of a problem with the legal aspect of the use of his design as he did with the aesthetics. Traditional Polish poster art, including his own personal work, involves a lot of color and "organic" looking images. He says that the new symbol, with its plain lettering and icons depicted simply in black and white, doesn't represent his style.