Singapore "Fail Whale Bus" public transit posters


Looks like whoever designed these Singapore Mass Rapid Transit posters either thought the Twitter Fail Whale was a cute, edgy icon, free for the co-opting -- or they're trying to impart a cautionary message about the bus service.

A bad month for SMRT: All aboard the Fail Train!

(, thanks, Sean Bonner!)


  1. This brings up something I’ve always been curious about. I feel like plagiarism is fairly well defined when words are involved. I’m not sure where the dividing line is with images. The OP accuses the designers of plagiarism. If this were words, I’d say no way. Rushdie didn’t plagiarize Grass’s The Tin Drum when he took large parts of the structure and made it his own in Midnight’s Children. Yet the original poster has a picture of the artists at SMRT claiming they were inspired by the fail whale and explaining their concept, then getting accused of plagiarism. Clumsy co-opt of something? Sure. Inspiration? Sure. But plagiarism? Does this mean that anyone who has an image of an animal being lifted by animals is now a plagiarist? Didn’t someone somewhere do that before the fail whale? Is it the art style similarity (though I don’t think it’s that close) that makes it plagiarism in their eyes? The color pallet? Are all still life paintings plagiarism? What is the line you cannot cross in the graphic arts?

    1. @Bottle Imp

      It’s not just what the image is depicting, it’s the style; the colour palette (which is near identical). It’s INSTANTLY recognisable.

      The question here is if it is plagiarism, or satire.

      However if you’ve clearly mimicked the style and subject matter of another designer/artist, then yes, it’s copyright infringement; in the same sense as it would be with any other medium; photography, illustration, film, music and writing.

      It’s rare for Photographers and Illustrators to get caught up in the whole thing, but that doesn’t mean the laws aren’t there, defined, and with precedents.

    1. I hafta say, yeah, I thought of the peach when I saw the pic. But then, I don’t use Twitter.

      But if I had used twitter, I’d have thought their idea was a rip of the peach anyway. Or of various legends of stuff being borne aloft by swans and whatnot.

      Looking at the twitter one and this side by side, I don’t see a direct rip, and I’m not convinced by the “pattern of cars” argument either. There might be a reference there, but that’s it. Certainly no copyright issue.

      FWIW, I’ve only stayed in Singapore a month, Dec/Jan 2000, but I found both the SMRT (clean, modern, uncrowded, cheap, punctual, everything you want from public transport) and Singapore itself (delightful mix of old and new, and of four markedly different cultures getting along without noticeable friction) to be very, very far from fail.

      As a place to live and work, I’d put their public transport a little better than Amsterdam, and the city somewhat worse. Both are infinitely better than London on both counts.

  2. Since Singapore’s public transit (at least IME) is as far from fail as you can possibly get, I’m inclined to believe the former.

    Granted, I only took the train everywhere I went. I don’t think I took a bus.

  3. Right. Because before Twitter’s “fail whale”, no one ever drew a picture of birds, butterflies, or other flying creatures carrying large objects.

  4. The public transport system isn’t too bad, but it can be fairly overcrowded during rush hour.

  5. It’s clearly based on Twitter’s “Fail Whale” (originally created by Yiying Lu). Not only is the style very similar, but it uses almost the same colors, and the pattern of the cars along the bottom edge parodies the pattern of waves along the bottom of the original.

    I think it’s also pretty clearly a parody, rather than plagiarism.

    Using an image most people associate with failure might not have been the best idea, but I think they were trying to imply that the big traffic jam is the failure, and mass transit can lift you out of that failure.

  6. Ahem.

    Parody, we haz it. Many of us parody the Fail Whale. Hell, on my blog when Muni (aka the Opposite of Singapore Transit) has a hella bad day, we call it a “FailWhale Regatta.”

    We even parodied it at Zazzle. Oh and guess what? We ain’t the first – someone parodying DC Metro did so long before us.

    Fair Use. It’s what’s for media dinner.

  7. Or maybe they don’t know much about or use twitter. It’s not in everyone’s zeitgeist, you know.

    I’ve never been there, and am not tempted to. The only way I know about the whale is because its designer spoke at a web conference I attended.

    Being “INSTANTLY” recognisable to some, even many, != all.


    1. That doesn’t change the fact.

      Or all copyright cases would get thrown out when the defendant claims they’ve never had exposure to the original.

      Ignorance doesn’t exempt you from (most) laws.

  8. Oh, hey, cool, thanks for linking chrisbachmann! I actually made that graphic well before that tragedy – as I’m sure you know, WMATA has long been full of fail. I was very torn when it started getting passed around again after that incident… I guess people need something to make light of a situation, though…

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