Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, except when it involves breaking federal and international laws.
It happens. Today, when pretty much everything is digital and even your six-year-old cousin has easy access to the necessary tools, intellectual property infringement is a fairly common occurrence. We’ve all heard countless tales of RIAA lawsuits, stolen logos, and family photos being used on national television and in advertising campaigns without permission.
Since we launched our site redesign in late November, we’ve gotten a ginormous amount of traffic. People seemed to like our site enough that it was featured on most of the major design galleries. That means it got a lot of exposure with people who would have otherwise never stumbled upon it. Somewhere along the way, a few people — at least three that we’ve found so far — liked our site a little more than the others and decided to take it for themselves. Nathan wrote about one such situation a few days ago.
If you’re a web designer, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve saved a copy of someone’s entire site in order to deconstruct it and figure out how they did certain things. I certainly have. Studying a master’s work is one of the best ways to learn. If you’re just learning from a site, that’s perfectly fine by me. No harm, no foul. However, if you take the next step and use that site for yourself or your client, you’ve just broken the law. It doesn’t matter if you’ve changed the color scheme or renamed some of the CSS classes or rewritten the content a little bit. You’ve still violated the copyright of the original site’s owner.
Why people steal website designs
Honestly, there are probably several reasons why people rip off sites. Here are just a few that come to mind:
- The thief doesn’t know any better
- The thief doesn’t think he will get caught
- The thief doesn’t have the money to hire a real designer
- The thief is a terrible designer and can’t do the work himself
- The thief thinks the original designer won’t mind
- The thief says the original designer should be flattered
- The thief claims that he was just “inspired” by the original designer
For people who fall into one of these categories, Greg Storey has some great recommendations.
Seriously, if you’re not a good designer, just hire someone who is. If you can’t afford to hire a professional design firm or a great freelance designer, there are plenty of free and low-cost website templates available online.
Inspiration vs. plagiarism
I am 100% in favor of looking at the work of other designers to find inspiration. I do almost every day. Whenever I’m starting a new project, I hit a handful of my favorite design galleries to see what people are doing. I take screenshots. I sketch things. I keep a little folder of page elements that I like. But when it comes to doing the actual design work, I fire up Photoshop and start with a blank canvas. I lay out my own grid lines. I pick my own colors. I draw my own shapes. I may end up with a nav bar or a button that looks similar to something else I’ve seen out there, but I created it myself from scratch. I infused it with my personal style. It certainly isn’t an exact copy of the original.
Cameron Moll wrote a great article on using the work of other designers as inspiration. He presents a great example about using Nike’s site as the basis for a project he was doing. Looking at the two sites side by side, I can see how he got from one to the other, but the finished products are definitely very different. That, my friends, is inspiration. Copying Nike’s site and simply changing the logo is not.
Why you should care about your site being stolen
To be frank, I’m not terribly worried about someone stealing our design itself. No, they shouldn’t do it, but it really doesn’t hurt us. In most cases, the thieves are amateurs who can’t design their way out of a box, so they just end up trashing the design when they start replacing images and trying to figure out what’s going on with the CSS.
I am, however, worried when design theft causes problems for us as a business. In one recent case, the individuals who stole our design apparently weren’t bright enough to remove our Google Analytics tracking script from the source code. That means that all of their website traffic is showing up in our reports alongside the data for our site. It’s not a huge problem, but it is a big irritation.
In the more extreme case that Nathan wrote about in his previous blog post, the offending individual allegedly (my attorney says I have to say that) copied our entire site — all the code, all the images, and most importantly, all the text. Why am I worried about the text? If you’ve been around the SEO world for long, you know that Google HATES duplicate content. Now theoretically, their system is smart enough to figure out which site is the original and just penalize the ones doing the stealing, but I’ve seen at least one story about the original site having problems with Google because of their site being duplicated by proxy servers. Most of our prospective clients come to us via search engines, so needless to say, I’m very concerned about any activity that may affect our rankings.
What you can do about design theft
To the point at hand, there are a few steps you can follow when you find out that your site design and content have been plagiarized.
- Contact the offending party. In many cases, all it takes is a polite email to the site owner informing them that their design was ripped off from yours. If they paid someone to create their site, they may not even know that the design was stolen. If they did the stealing, hopefully they will cooperate and just remove the infringing design and content.
- Contact the offending party’s hosting company. Just do a quick WHOIS search on the domain name and you should easily be able to tell where the offending site is hosted. Most hosting companies have fairly strict terms and conditions, and they aren’t going to be happy that one of their clients is using their service to break the law. Just check their Contact Us page for a good email address — typically something like abuse@ — and shoot them a quick note letting them know what’s going on. Once the host gets involved, things will usually be resolved fairly quickly.
- Issue a formal DMCA takedown notice. If someone has stolen your site’s design and content, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is your new best friend. You just need to grab a template of the takedown notice, fill it out, and forward it to the offending party’s hosting company. They will most likely spring into action and shut down the thief’s account, mostly because if they comply with the DMCA, they are protected from litigation.
- Get your attorney involved. As a final effort, call your lawyer and get them on board. Some people may suggest doing this earlier in the process, but as I said, most hosts will immediately take down a site when you send them the properly-completed DMCA notice, so there’s no need to pay your lawyer to send it for you. Of course, if you get to the point of litigation, you’ll definitely need a lawyer, but hopefully things won’t ever get that far. If they do, you’d better have deep pockets.
In an effort to convince the design thieves not to steal again, we always suggest a healthy dose of public humiliation. There are a number of sites and forums online that serve as a Hall of Shame for the world to see, several of which Nathan noted in his previous post.
And finally, in case you’re wondering how to find out if your site has been stolen, check out CopyScape, a search engine that helps you protect your content against plagiarism.
I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. Only take my advice with a grain of salt. Please consult your attorney for professional advice on dealing with intellectual property infringement.
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