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Weblog Entry

CSS: Copyrightable?

December 18, 2003

Yesterday’s post began with a soliloquy on the relative ease of theft that comes along with standards-based design. This is an issue I’m deeply concerned about, for obvious reasons. I’ve had to tackle some hard questions head on when it comes to CSS theft. I still don’t have any answers, only opinions.

Some excellent discussion ensued on both topics yesterday, but there was some confusion between them. Let’s free this topic from the specific case, and move along to the more general issue at hand.

CSS is a design language. It’s the foundation of a site layout, just as much as PostScript is the foundation of a poster or brochure. Can the code itself be copyrighted?

Views expressed yesterday covered the whole spectrum. Here are some of the more interesting thoughts:

“I’d bet there haven’t been many lawsuits about this yet, and once they start happening at least we’ll have the precedents set by music sampling and remixing to go off. It’ll be tricky to define exactly in what sense one owns a design and its code. After all, there are lots of 2-column, main content + sidebar pages out there, but each designer should be able to say that they own their particular implementation.” §


“A layout has no visible parts. It’s just how you use the space in the window. If I build a layout with a two-column header, a three-column content area and a two-column footer then there’s no way for me to tell someone else that they can’t do the same thing.” §


“It’s an analogy that’s been used before, but CSS is nothing more than the ‘grammar’ of web design.” §


“Of course you can’t copyright one <h1> selector, or one <p> selector… in music, I can’t really copyright a G or an A, or even a C Major chord… (though John Cage’s estate insists that all silence is under his copyright)

“It is the combinatory effect of notes that make music, words that make poetry, selectors that make CSS.” §


“…to raise CSS implementations from tech grammar to a copywritable collection of language will require a test in court to recognize it as such.” §


And I’m just going to quote this next one in its entirety, since I find it brilliantly well-reasoned. Thanks Raena!


I took a photo of a sculpture in the city once. I didn’t make my camera, the sculpture I photographed, the film in the camera, or the paper it was printed on. I didn’t come up with the theories behind use of light or composition. Other photographers use all those same tools all the time. There have to be thousands if not millions of photographs of sculptures, and undoubtedly there are plenty of other photographs of that very same sculpture.

Yet I have every right to copyright that photograph.

You say that a CSS file lacks originality in the sense that CSS and XHTML are the ‘grammar’ for a Web design and everyone else can use the same tools. What you’re ignoring is that it is the whole, the end product, that is original work. Thought has been put into the composition of the CSS file, even though the designer doesn’t happen to be the inventor of the CSS spec.

“You can copyright a slogan, but not the sentence structure or the words that go to make it up.”

Actually, you can’t generally copyright a slogan, just as you cannot copyright a title, name, or short phrase: it’s too small. You can protect your slogan with a trademark if it’s connected to a product or a service, but there is a minimum amount of authorship.

In most cases, copyright cannot be placed on something without sufficient originality. What cannot be copyrighted:

  • anything that isn’t fixed (ie written, saved to disk, recorded)
  • an idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery (that’s what patents are for)
  • “useful articles” (objects with a utilitarian purpose and, interestingly, clothing)
  • small works, like a really short phrase or a few words
  • a compilation of works, unless some original thought was put into the arrangement (no to the phone book, yes to World’s Greatest Beer-Drinking Songs)
  • it cannot simply be a mechanical reproduction of something (I can’t copyright that Chemical Brothers CD I just burned).

All else is deemed to have sufficient originality to be considered copyrightable. I’m not convinced that a CSS file with the complexity of the Fleshbot spec doesn’t count. It is an expression, done in a particular way to create a particular result, even if that result is similar to other works.

“Let’s face it — a CSS file is an hour or two and a text-editor.”

Bzzt, wrong answer. That photo I mentioned earlier was a thirty second snap-decision to go stand someplace, squint through a little window and press a button. How much effort is required for original work to deserve protection? Three hours? Twelve? Ten minutes, but only if it’s really really really hard?

In US caselaw, the ‘sweat of the brow’ argument was rejected several years ago in Feist Publications v Rural Telephone Co. As well as pointing out that a phone book isn’t creative or original enough to constitute a copyrightable work, the 6th Circuit ruled that the amount of effort one puts into creating something has no bearing on the originality of the end result.

“Well, in that case i think it might apply to cases in which CSS is used in unusual, innovative, original ways…”

So it’s only the unusual, innovative, original, oh-my-god type stuff that deserves protection by copyright? Oh-oh, there goes the protection for about half of today’s pop music.

A work doesn’t have to be any good to be protected by copyright. It just needs to have an element of original authorship.


But what about you, Dave Shea? What do you think?

The community surrounding web standards and CSS particularily thrives on sharing. I can easily pick apart the latest Jon Hicks or Dan Rubin masterpiece, figure out how they produced those amazingly tight layouts, and learn from their trial, error, and experience. Would I ever try to duplicate one? Hell no.

A layout is an element of the overall design. Obviously two people can arrive at two very similar layouts independently. A couple of 18px #FFCC00 headers aren’t going to cause anyone’s eyes to blink. But there are cues that a layout has borrowed more than it should — recognize any of these, for example? You can run through a laundry list of reasons why you do, even though they have been changed dramatically. (I’ll give you a hint: 1, 2, 3, 4)

There really is no legal precedent at this point to say what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to web design. CSS files are low-hanging fruit; they are out there for public consumption, they’re easy to use. Does that make it right to use them? You know the answer to that.

I’m all for the spirit of sharing, within limits. One who chooses to use another’s work should always grant the original creator the respect they deserve, be it monetary, or just simply ensuring they have authorization to use the work in the way they wish. If you ask me nicely, you might just be amazed at how kind I can be.

That’s the way I believe the world should work. Pity that it doesn’t.


Reader Comments

December 18, 02h

I’m not quite ready to give my dissertation, not having truly formulated my opinion, but there is one glaring problem with “copyrightable” CSS: there just isn’t enough differentiation from one style sheet to another, and the proverbial line is very thin.

Back in the days of table-based design (or today in a backward-thinking corporation’s offices), ten people could come up with ten ways to lay out the same design. With CSS, there’s just not enough substance and there aren’t enough ways to accomplish things to justify ruining a company’s reputation for using CSS that’s just *similar* to someone else’s.

I would be pretty upset if some random person accused me of stealing the CSS from a random site, even one that I’d never visited. But the likelihood is pretty high, I must say; there isn’t sufficient differentiation between style sheets.

Sure, people shouldn’t be ripping. But I think we have to consider the honest coincidences before condemning people.

2
Tim Austin says:
December 18, 02h

You must admit though, the Yatisweb (sp?) site that Dave Shea mentioned in his post aren’t mere coincidences. They do go so far as to say that they are ‘Zen Children’ and ‘Inspired by Zen Garden’. That is no coincidence, but instead is a deliberate act that shouts out, “Yes, I took your design made a few little tweaks and said it is my own”. I mean.. Even the shapes of the graphics that they put onto their site are very very similar to those found in the CSS Zen Garden.

3
Wilhelm says:
December 18, 03h

I think people who get concerned when their CSS copyrights are violated need to step back from the brink.

If programmers took this miniscule, heavily parsed reading of ‘copyright’ to heart, then the first person to write a ‘for’ loop would own the world right now. What would we do without Duff’s Device, the Schwartzian Transform?

CSS is babytalk instructions for how to get a browser to put things in the right order. That is all. Anyone who needs to argue that the utter triviality of the work is no bar to copyright has already lost the point.

December 18, 04h

Rather than talking about whether mark-up or CSS can be copyrighted in general, why not talk about DESIGN. Designs can be copyrighted – if the overall look-and-feel of a design is recognisable as a spawn from the original AND this is backed up by recognisable portions of unique CSS or mark-up shared between the two works, then IMHO, this is a breach of copyright and/or intellectual property.

Can a column layout be copyrighted? Doubt it – too generic. Can a column layout, combined with recognisably similar type and object styles (look and feel) be copyrighted? I’d hope so!

I wonder if the W3 has considered a HTML/CSS compiler? If I’m concerned about others sneaking a peak or appropriating my PHP code, I can compile it.

This problem isn’t new though – people could have ripped off my table based layouts just as easily as my CSS based layouts.

5
Andrew Gray says:
December 18, 04h

Dave, you say: “I can easily pick apart the latest Jon Hicks or Dan Rubin masterpiece, figure out how they produced those amazingly tight layouts, and learn from their trial, error, and experience. Would I ever try to duplicate one? Hell no.”

I assume that what you mean by duplicate is use the masterpiece’s style definitions verbatim/wholesale and just “plug in” your own content. You vehemently say that you would not do this.

But what precisely do you mean by “learn from their trial, error, and experience”? Do you mean: look at the style definitions; absorb some of the CSS idioms; maybe create a local xhtml file and play around with some of the style definitions to see their effect? Having done that, you would obviously incorporate the idioms and techniques in your subsequent original designs.

If you repeat this learning process enough times, eventually *all* of the techniques will be second-nature to you and your own style definitions may be extremely similar to those of the “master”.

So in some ways, the only difference between using the stylesheet verbatim (not allowed) and using the stylesheet for learning (allowed) is that in the second case, the person has put in more effort and learned how the stylesheet works and is able to generate it anew herself from scratch/first principles. I’m not sure that this is a real distinction.

December 18, 04h

> CSS is babytalk instructions for how to get a browser to put things in the right order. That is all. Anyone who needs to argue that the utter triviality of the work is no bar to copyright has already lost the point.

I disagree. The stylesheets (along with the graphics files, HTML, etc) are the fixed representation of the design of a website. The representation is what is copyrightable, not an elusive concept like “look-n-feel”.

Your example of “for loops aren’t copyrightable” is inapplicable because they are a basic building block of programming. The equivalent in human languages would be words. The equivalent in CSS would be a selector or property name. Nobody is arguing that such small pieces of CSS are copyrightable - they aren’t original. The way an author chooses to assemble a particular stylesheet, however, from the massive number of choices available, should be copyrightable. It’s a creative work, even if it is relatively easy to do compared with some other creative activities.

Furthermore, writing a high-quality, complex stylesheet *isn’t* trivial. It takes somebody who is already skilled in the art, a knowledge of the type of content it will be applied to and how those elements interact, design skills, and of course experience in the current state of the browsers in use and their vast arrays of bugs. This is work which I feel should be protected by copyright.

December 18, 04h

> So in some ways, the only difference between using the stylesheet verbatim (not allowed) and using the stylesheet for learning (allowed) is that in the second case, the person has put in more effort and learned how the stylesheet works and is able to generate it anew herself from scratch/first principles. I’m not sure that this is a real distinction.

I think it’s an important distinction. Apply the same argument to writing plays. Would you say that there is no distinction between studying Shakespeare and applying the same principles to your own work, and simply copying portions of a Shakespeare play outright?

ste says:
December 18, 04h

I agree completely with the comments in favor of CSS being copyrightable, but I think that technically the photo of the statue can’t be copyrighted unless the statue is already in the public domain. If the statue was created at any point in which the copyright still holds, then I think any photograph of it would be a derivative and/or reproduction and thus would be violating the copyright of the original element… except, of course, if the photographer gains the sculptor’s permission. Likewise for photographs of buildings, artwork, and anything else in general that is copyrightable…

NOT that I’m necessarily in accord with that thinking, but well, I’m pretty sure (hearkening back to my multimedia copyright law course) that such precedents have been set in court. Personally, I’m a big fan of the idea of Creative Commons Sampling License (that allows anyone to use a work under said license to create derivatives from samples of an original work).

I have to say that I disagree with David Clain - sure, there’s only so much that CSS can differ between two like-minded designers, but yet there are. For copyright infringement to be proven, there are two necessary factors: access to the work (easy, if it’s on the Web - access is pretty much a given) and substantial similarity.

For substantial similarity, let me put it this way, two authors can write practically the same story but unless there is substantial similarity *beyond* the overall human experience of the story (names are the same, exact events occur in the same sequence, settings are identical, you get the gist), there is no copyright infringement. Now look at a CSS file. Classes and IDs can have fairly diverse names, elements can appear in vastly different orders depending upon how the designer likes to arrange them, comments can be interspersed for helpful guides, heck, even whitespace can (and will) be different between two files. If two files are substantially similar despite all of those potential differences, it’s pretty darn easy to prove copyright infringement…

beto says:
December 18, 04h

CSS -the syntax- is no more copyrightable than HTML is. As HTML, it is just a means to an end - define a structural web page markup in HTML, add design to said page in CSS. Rules, selectors and the like by their own sake mean nothing; together in context, they form a result in form of web design and structure - something that *can* be subject to copyright.

Therefore, the designs of “yatienesweb” (Spanish for “you got web?”) even if they are marked as “inspired”, they just borrow a little too much of the original sources to think they are not stepping in the toes of someone else’s copyright. But then again, we’re talking about design here, not code syntax. It’s more along the differences between tools and the product than can be done with them.

10
Andrew Gray says:
December 18, 05h

> I think it’s an important distinction. Apply the same argument to writing plays. Would you say that there is no distinction between studying Shakespeare and applying the same principles to your own work, and simply copying portions of a Shakespeare play outright?

Yes, I agree with you there, depending on the portion sizes :-). I think it is OK to use *words* and *phrases* from a Shakespeare play in my own writing. Many of Polonius’ phrases from Hamlet have entered our language as standard phrases. And the plots have been re-used and adapted as well (although is that because they are in the public domain?).

I’m having a lot of trouble getting my head around the analogies, and trying to find the right analogies to help me understand this CSS issue.

Disclaimer: I come from a computer programming background, not a visual design background; finding analogies for software is not easy, either (eg. try to explain programming to my grandmother). Also: I do not dismiss CSS (or visual design in general, to be sure) as “baby talk” etc.

I think the problem that software people have with this, especially “open source” oriented software people, is that for the last 10 years (with HTML, anyway) HTML and Javascript have basically been there for the taking (view–>source) and most software academics and professionals have expected people to take as much of their HTML and javascript as they like for use in their own sites.

Also, it is much easier for me to make the “visual design == literature” leap than it is for me to make the “HTML == literature” leap. And for many people “XHTML+CSS+graphics” is equivalent to “HTML”.

11
chriscooper says:
December 18, 05h

I would like to agree with Justin French, and maybe take it a little further, because it is design that matters.

Back in the ’70s or so, there was an ad agency - i forgot the name - that pioneered a new magazine ad layout commonly called the picture window layout. Some of you might have heard of it. It’s formal name is Ayer #1. Volkswagon and Absolut Vodka ads are good examples of a picture window. Anyhow, the construction method of these ads is not copyrightable, only the design and content of the ads is.

The method of building this layout involves code, however since we are going to build this layout using Quark or InDesign we never have to see this code, in fact we cannot see this code, and we cannot copyright this code. We can copyright the content though.

The fact that a web designer is almost required to work with the code that powers his design does not change the precedent that has been established above. The code is merely the method of assembling the layout, and in a number of years no one will be editing code directly because the industry of web design will most likely have sanctioned and enforced standards. And I am very inclined to venture that by then we will also have layouts that have been time tested to be effective, and we will all use them as templates to a certain extent.

Copyrighting of CSS is not what ultimately matters, it is still the copyrighting of content. I am a designer as well as a fine artist and I understand what it’s like to spend ridiculous hours fine tuning a design or piece of art only to watch it get stolen. We must turn to the precedents already established in the field of graphic design and typography. If something has been changed 10% or more then it is in the clear. What exactly constitutes 10% is questionable though.

Bad designers will always steal designs, no matter what graphic design medium they are working in. Without doubt, design theft must be addressed and dealt with, but I’m not sure that copyrighting CSS is going to be an effective way of doing that. Besides, in the near future, it might not even be an issue anymore.

12
dan says:
December 18, 05h

hummm….

I think whether it’s css, xtml or whatever you create should not be copied. I didn’t feel that strongly about this until someone ripped off one of my sites entirely. I don’t think I’m that great but I do work my butt off and I’d like it if noone stole my work. I admit that it is flaterring that a few people have asked if they can use my css file from the zengarden but come on, learn!

I literely took me 2 hours but that’s not the issue. And as for copyrighting css, ya whos’ gonna pay a lawyer to pursue it when it’s never a done deal. I love open source but people come up with your own :)

December 18, 05h

ste, I still think that there’s not enouch “substance” in the typical CSS stylesheet for it to be copyrightable. There’s undeniably access; that’s not the problem. I don’t know how “substantial” similarities would be defined in this case, but I will say that the bar has to be either so low that many innocent people are infringing because of the nature of CSS (i.e., we’re all working with the same basic tools) or so high that essentially no good is done with copyright laws.

If you’re saying that changing ID and class names and moving around elements in the HTML source can cause sufficient difference between two files, copyright doesn’t solve anything – I could steal any stylesheet and rename a couple of classes or move around a couple of divs.

December 18, 06h

“If the statue was created at any point in which the copyright still holds, then I think any photograph of it would be a derivative and/or reproduction and thus would be violating the copyright of the original element.”

You’re probably right, and this was a dumb example. However, in Australia where I live, it’s usually accepted that a ‘sculpture or work of artistic craftsmanship’ which is publicly displayed ‘other than temporarily’ may be photographed without first obtaining permission. It also seems to help that I never published the work or have any intention of doing so.

It should have occurred to me to pick something a little less ambiguous, especially when discussing US copyright law in the same breath, and I’m sorry.

“Personally, I’m a big fan of the idea of Creative Commons Sampling License.”

I dig Creative Commons.

I do agree that debating the copyrightability isn’t really the point, but it’s been bugging me to hear people say “Oh but it’s just a bunch of declarations and they’re not original!” Of course they are.

15
Lemon says:
December 18, 06h

Frankly, I doubt that this discussion would be going on at all if it weren’t for the threat of not getting paid.

In considering both sides of the issue, individuals seem to fall into one of two camps. The first camp believes its important to get paid for hours of work, and sees copyright as protecting that, while the second, rather less pragmatic camp, sees it in more abstract terms, considering whether CSS constitutes content or not. It’s ironic that for all the insistence that content should be separated from structure, for purposes of getting paid, some are arguing that structure IS content.

I agree with chriscooper, that in the near future, this will cease to be a problem, just as it is not a problem in the print world. Truth be told, the price of CSS work is too high, both in money and time. Is it really reasonable to spend as much time and effort as we do to get three columns to line up next to each other? And then charge our clients for it? Compared to the print world, its really quite ridiculous!

At the heart of the matter is the injustice that is felt when you work your ass off on something for hours, days or weeks only to have someone else profit from your labors. Perhaps it is, but consider the fate of someone who goes through life cutting corners wherever they can - I don’t think a person like that can really be successful as an artist, as a web developer or at life. Whatever motivations (e.g. laziness, lack of interest, self-absorption) they have for stealing your work will eventually be their undoing.

Yatienesweb may have liberally borrowed from the Zen Garden, but they haven’t arrived at anything you could call great design. It has the same lack of subtlety and attention to detail that one would expect from novice designers. The same is true for Gawker, and I’m sure that their morally questionable business decisions will come back to haunt them.

Niket says:
December 18, 06h

Is there any person here who hasn’t been told (when he was getting started) that the “best way to learn HTML is to look at the source code” of a site with cool design. Thats the way we learnt, thats the way HTML design evolved.

Now there is a new baby - CSS, that makes it just so easy to copy. Hell, I don’t even need to “copy”; I can prepare the HTML document similar to Zen Garden’s and just use the style sheet at http://www.csszengarden.com/036/036.css to use the “White Lily” design.

I do wonder, are the ghosts of our past coming ahead to haunt us?

Dris says:
December 18, 07h

Hmm… On the sculpture issue, it’s my understanding that you can photograph what you want unless explicitly told *not* to. For example, a gallery can request that no photos can be taken, and a model agency requires release forms to use your own photos of the model in advertising. However, the paparazzi have copyrights on the photos they take of celebrities, and there’s not much the celebrities can do about it.

But that’s besides the point. I think that analogy still holds steady. Just change it to a photograph of a waterfall, or something non-controversial like that.

I agree that CSS is the fixed representation of the design. After a certain point, copying someone’s CSS becomes copying their design.

Obviously, at least 1000 designers a day say, “Well, I’m going to float those columns into position.” This has become a simple means to an end. The same goes for visual design techniques, such as translucency effects and drop shadows. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about for loops, phrases, the use of soft drop shadows, or even Apple’s shiny plastic interface (which has been copied innumerable times). We’re talking about the collective of all these elements, the way they are arranged and brought together. Just as someone said you can’t copyright a chord but you can copyright a song, it’s the end result of the CSS that we’re really concerned about.

Somebody was talking about Quark and InDesign files. They contain what is essentially these programs’ CSS. If someone were to copy these files, they’d have a copy of the design. The creators can’t copyright the bytes in the files, but they can copyright what they represent. Same goes for CSS.

Steve says:
December 18, 08h

This, to me, is all about branding and it’s dilution. CSS and HTML are the building blocks to a unique identity, and as many of you are aware, brand dilution is a very big issue in the corporate world - Xerox and Kleenex will be more than happy to tell you their tales of woe.

When you visit this particular site, you know where you are not because of the address in your url bar, but because of the visual representation of the site itself. When someone comes along and “borrows” the building blocks of that identity, they are hi-jacking that brand.

Regardless of how they did it, stealing the .css file or photo-copying the corporate logo and placing their name under it where your’s once was, it all comes down to the same thing - copyright infringement and, ultimately, brand dilution.

So while I don’t think that those building blocks are copyrightable, their end results most certainly are.

ramin says:
December 18, 10h

Jukka Korpela has written quite a bit on copyright issues. I suggest you take a look at http://www.cs.tut.fi/~jkorpela/webcopyr.html .

Pictures are a bit of a problem in comparison as photographs have slightly different copyrights depending on whether they are perceived as a work of art or not.

The main issue is that copyright does not require volume to be effective. For copyright to hold, a object (work of art, article, web design etc.) needs to have some effort from the author. A web design typically is something that can be copyrighted as the designer has put considerable effort into it. The ideas of the design cannot be copyrighted.

What this means is that a basic design (set background to white, change font to something, set margins sitewide) does not have a copyright as no real effort was put into it. But the designs in Zen Garden do have copyright (as do most of the designes available).

Naturally, none of this discussion gives any right to copy content. But even then, some effort must be expended so that the copyright would hold.

The end result is that any discussion on violation of copyrights must evaluate the merits of the stolen work. No clear-cut rules can be made. However, when considering one’s own actions understanding the princinples behind intellectual property will help in understanding what to do.

David S says:
December 18, 10h

First off, the style sheet at (http://www.yatienesweb.info/corporativo/css/YTW_principal.css) is indeed a copy of (http://www.csszengarden.com/036/036.css) minus the changes of images. However, the yatienesweb site’s css file does link to http://creativecommons.org/licenses/sa/1.0/ as required and both the original and derivative include in the comments the statement “The CSS itself may freely be used for anything you wish.” That last statement seems to make the copyright argument a moot point.

I have very mixed feelings about the whole HTML/CSS copyright issue. I taught myself HTML, Javascript and now CSS using the wonderful view source command (A point which Andrew Gray hits on above). The ability to see the underlying structure of how a website is built has no doubt helped designers all over the web. After looking at enough designs and code, you can determine all the intricies of different browsers and their interpretations of the code.

Technically, once a design is in a fixed medium (i.e. saved files) copyright is automatically granted to the creator. For two sites with more copyright info, check out (http://www.bitlaw.com/copyright/obtaining.html) and (http://www.expertlaw.com/library/pubarticles/Intellectual_Property/copyright_law.html)

I do respect the time and effort that it takes to create and perfect a design. While it is not the amount of time put into a work that creates the copyright, it is the fixing in a tangible medium that distinguishes a work as copyrightable. So from a legal perspective (I am not a lawyer), it sounds like the css code would be copyrighted, and you would have some legal grounds to go after a ripper, it would be a difficult case.

When I step back and look at this issue from a computer programmer perspective, the problem becomes much clearer. It is generally not acceptable to copy code unless it is expressly released under an open source type license, and in almost all cases the copyright holder retains rights to the original code and should be cited. An exception to this would be software in the public domain, where copyright is expressly revoked. (http://www.hyperdictionary.com/dictionary/public+domain) It could be argued that HTML and CSS may be in the public domain if the author does not cite their copyright.

What it really comes down to is a moral and ethical issue of taking someone else’s design and trying to pass it off as your own. From my perspective, the ability to view the source of a website is a great teaching tool, along with the growing number of sites like this. As I read more and more design blogs and css articles, it is hard not to want to grab bits and pieces from each to form a new design, and most likely my next site will brings the pieces that I have picked up along the way and put into my own creation, similar to sampling music to create a new song. As I look back at my previous designs and think about future designs, they are all influenced by the many sites and artwork that I admire and also those that I dislike. I believe this is true of any artist, writer, musician, etc. The key is to combine these influences into a new creative and unique expression.

December 18, 11h

Just to muddy the waters a bit, there is a real question as to whether it is the visual appearance, or its implementation in CSS that you are hoping to protect via copyright.

Obviously, radically different code (say, a table-based designs and a CSS-based one) could lead to the same visual appearance. But, equally, substantially identical code could lead to radically-different looking designs.

As an example, consider a new blog I just set up for some young colleagues:
http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/string/
It is a near perfect clone of my own blog:
http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/~distler/blog/
99% of the code is identical. But the visual appearance is quite different.

If it’s the visual appearance we are hoping to protect, then there’s no issue. The new site does not much resemble the original. If it’s the code we’re trying to protect, then there would be an issue, as the code for the new site is *almost* a verbatim copy of the old site.

22
Wilhelm says:
December 19, 01h

People have noted that ‘for’ loops are a basic programming construct, and thus ‘not protectable’.

Oh yeah?

How do you think for loops became a basic programming construct?

Someone invented them – out of careful hardware-level programming, which was at the time very difficult and very primitive, much like CSS – and put them out there in the world.

Other people came along, saw that for loops were a good idea in general, and decided to add them to their own computers.

Same thing happened with floating point numbers (at one time, believe it or not, a very strange thing for a computer to have), strings, jump tables, von neumann architectures, stack architectures, ‘goto’, functions, classes, programs, and so on. Each of those concepts was first invented by someone after months if not lifetimes of grueling effort.

Now, I’ll wager that there are two contradictory forces at work in the heads of the people who want CSS to be strongly protected. First, most of them recognize that trying to protect apparently silly, basic things like for loops is patently ridiculous, because obviously the computer world would suffer if such a niggling level of granularity were applied to all intellectual property. And second, they want CSS to be protected because Dreamweaver and the .com crash have all but destroyed their previously great livelihood as web page designers.

I sympathize, but be serious. CSS at the end of the day will be obsoleted or subsumed into the invisible technology layer just like HTML pretty much has – you need to find a new skill if this is all you have.

December 19, 02h

Regarding Raena’s photograph of a sculpture…

Yes, she has the right to copyright her photograph.

BUT

If she publishes it without getting the display rights of the sculpture from whoever owns them she could be sued for infringement.

This is a bit simplistic, as public buildings and other works can be exempt from that rule, but it’s better to check before publishing her photo than risk a lawsuit.

(can you tell I just took an IP Law class?)

Tom T says:
December 19, 02h

> BUT
>
> If she publishes it without getting the display rights of the
> sculpture from whoever owns them she could be sued for
> infringement.

I have to ask: does this apply if the sculpture in question is the primary focal point in the composition of the photo, or does it apply if the sculpture appears in the photo at all?

…and in response to Wilhelm’s post, my immediate reaction was to think of the Onion’s article way back when that announced that Microsoft had patented ones and zeros. To say that people need to learn a new skill because “CSS at the end of the day will be obsoleted or subsumed into the invisible technology layer” seems a bit extreme to me. I don’t care how well the MM team doing Dreamweaver does, there will be (at least for the next 2 years, probably more) plenty of demand for those who can use CSS with skill…especially given the fact that the most used browser will not be substantially updated in that time frame.

jgraham says:
December 19, 03h

>To me, itís easier to compare the CSS to being an algorithm as the CSS is the method for achieving a layout (which is what an algorithm is, a method for solving a problem). Thusly, you could copyright your layout, but not the CSS used to get it done.

Well an algorithm is rather more abstract than just a set of steps for producing a result. One may have two seperate representations of the same algorithm which are distinguishable from the point of view of copyright law. This allows the Numerical Recipies authors to assert copyright on particular code implementations of well known algorithms. Given this, I can’t see how a CSS file (a single implementation of a particular design) is more like an algorithm than it is like a code file (an implementation of a design in a particular langauge). In fact, I can quite happily see CSS as a programming langauge which runs inside a virtual machine (‘web browser’). I don’t think there’s anything magical with respect to CSS just because it happens to work in the particular way it does.

Wilheim:You seem to be arguing against copyright law in general rather than making any relevant points. Sure, having concepts freely avaliable often helps to advance the state of the art. However, my nonexisant grasp of law suggests that the examples you give are more representative of the problems with /patent/ law not /copyright/ law. As I understand it, patent law affects your ability to implement a particular concept (e.g. I cannot implement a 1-click-shopping function on my website without getting a license from Amazon), whereas copyright limits the abilities of others to copy your work (e.g. I cannot make copies of the latest Radiohead album*). In fact, copyright law seems to be very specific about the fact that you cannot copyright an idea, only an implementation of an idea. I would consider a CSS layout to be an implementation of an idea, but the layout itself to be an idea which might be patentable but not copyrightable (see http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-protect.html for the source of these statements).

Oh yaeh, and the last part of your comment appears to be trolling (even though I agree that IP law in general doesn’t work to protect the interests of society as much as the interests of the creator). People who design web pages have a legitimate right to claim copyright in the same way that people who write pop music have that right. Both disciplines make heavy use of past work for inspiration but there is sufficient originality in both cases for the work to fall under copyright.

*Local fair use laws notwithstanding

December 19, 03h

In regards to Wilhelm’s post about the ability to ‘protect’ programming constructs such as ‘for’ loops. It sounds like you’re touching more on the patentability of a specific invention, as opposed to the ability to copy a for loop in an application.

With programming constructs, it would be counterproductive to develop a language and restrict the use of the constructs within it. Like if the W3C decided to copyright the tag. People would stop using it, browsers would stop supporting it and it would defeat the purpose of including it within the language. So while it’s /possible/, I don’t think we’d ever see anybody ever do it.

And that’s where the dilemma comes into play. I think we can all agree that a design as a whole (CSS + HTML + layout) is copyrightable but what portion of that design can be copied and maybe more importantly, where do we WANT to draw the line?

December 19, 04h

[edited - DS]

Part of this problem is that we are part of a community that openly shares techniques, and when we interact with someone who doesn’t understand that code of ethics, we are easily disturbed by their behaviour. But is that their fault or ours?

To look at some of the analogies made above, here is my take:

The sculpture photo. The copyrightable element here is the compostion. Anyone taking a photo makes a unique decision about how to frame the content, exposure, etc and when precisely to press the button. The result of that is a copyrightable work. The subject in itself is not important. If you go to galleries who prohibit photos, they do so not because by doing so would give up copyright in the original work, but because they want to control the artists ‘brand’. Poor quality photos would not be good for the artist and so they restrict who can do it.

‘Celebrities’ can’t claim copyright for their face, and they can’t claim rights to pictures if they are taken in a public place. That’s why you get court cases where photographers have invaded someones wedding or the like, because that was deemed to be a private affair. It’s one reason why long lenses can get away with that. the celeb might be on private land, but the photographer isn’t. The onus is on the celeb to make sure they cannot be seen from a publicly accessible area if they wish to protect their privacy. At the end of the day, it might not be a copyright issue, but just one of privacy.

As for CSS and whether is can be copyrighted, I don’t see why it can’t be copyrighted anymore than any other written work. You can copyright source code (and that’s what CSS is). the selectors and attributes are the ‘language’ (which is not copyrightable), but the sequence and affect is. You can’t copyright an algorithm, you are meant to patent something which is a novel technique. ‘for’ loops can’t be copyrighted, as they are language constructs. If the loop compresses data in particular way, that is only copyrightable if it is substantially the same as a prior work, but we can protect it further by patenting the compression technique.

Regarding prior art, lets look at the shakespeare example. Given enough monkeys, typewriters and time, it is said they will create the works of shakespeare. Probably true, but has that infringed copyright (aside from whether copyright applies to the works anymore)? Given the technique employed, the work is not a copy or facsimile of the original. It is an original creation that happens to bear a likeness to the original. I doubt we could argue that the monkeys had read and therefore been influenced by shakespeare.

Therefore, its possible for two designers to independantly conceive and produce seperate CSS files that look identical and acheive the same purpose (ignoring the use of images), without infringing each others right to copyright in their work. If we believe in the monkeys, we must believe in this as well.

[edited - DS]

28
Levin says:
December 19, 04h

You cannot copyright a _concept_. Only a _specific work_ is protected under copyright.
Concepts can be protected with patents (In germany it must be technical and nontrivial and it cannot be an algorithm to be patentable)

I think that it is rather pointless to protect a stylesheet. One can rip of a “look and feel” without even looking at the CSS. And I believe that stealing the look and feel is the problem here.
Who cares if the CSS is 99% the same for two sites that look and behave radically different?

I would not want it to be illegal (even if it would only be illegal in certain countries) to use a three column layout technique I just found, only because someone else used it first.

December 19, 04h

I’ll raise a point (you decide if it’s valid or not)… How is a user to know where to draw the line? Especially if we, the “professionals”, don’t know.

Like grammer of a language, the CSS syntax cannot be copyrighted. But further to that, the CSS syntax is much less flexible than the English language. CSS is like saying, “I ran to the store.” but you can change the (pro)noun and that’s it. Now take the book harry potter, and change the name to “joe schmoe”. Have I infringed upon the copyright? The differences from one CSS file to another are very small once you remove the syntax.

If the final design is the ultimate goal, what if I keep the same CSS file as another site but completely revise all graphics, thereby removing any visual similarity between two sites except for layout (which may be a 3 column layout – which undoubtably has been posted publicly on some blog somewhere).

(okay, I’m all over the place but I hope it makes sense. :))

December 19, 05h

Copyrighting Css is a non sense to me. This is just a technology used to create an interface for a web site client. Make the css a proprietary protected technology and no one will used it (in that case patent law should apply, and you should be willing to act as Microsoft, which I understood is not your preferred business model). Make it an open web standard and everybody will used it. The people that best know how CSS are working will certainly make the most of it. Stealing a Css will not make a guy make money. He still need to find clients, prepare a web interface (graphics, hmtl, css, flash, etcÖ) and satisfy the clients need.

The trade off is:
How many people will act badly versus what do I gain if more and more people use Css, resulting in more and more clients being aware that best web site are Css web sites. Negative thinking (PROTECTIONISM) versus Positive thinking (SHARING SCHEMES). My answer is clear: The opportunity is much bigger than the possible damages of some individuals stealing Cssís.

Final web sites are copyrightable. And actually they are copyrighted. All designers know that, because they are including legal clauses in their contracts. This is part of the business model, increasing customer exit costs. What would be the need to furthermore copyright the CSS itself ???

But, in the case of the Css Zen Garden, it is a even less justified to me. The gardenís success is based on a community sharing scheme. The key point is the CC Share Alike licence. Well, this licence is clear, derivative worked are allowed (including distribution) under a similar licensing scheme. All designers that has submitted a design to the garden knows that. And should accept that…because that’s the deal.

Dave your assets are:
-Your Skills
-Your Experience
-Your Intellectual capital
-Your name, Dave Shea, that clever guy that has created the Css Zen Garden
Önot a list of Css in a sharing show case that you would possibly have the duty to protect from evil.

Jens says:
December 19, 06h

Being one of the designers whose csszengarden design was used by Yatienesweb, I feel I need to let everyone know that I do not feel taken advantage of or stolen from in any way.

I realize that Dave had some bad email exchanges with the owner of Yatienesweb, but I can only say that he very politely asked me for permission before using my design. He also checked back with me again before actually using the modified layout on his site.

Perhaps this goes against the idea of csszengarden, but I don’t personally have a problem with it. I know of one other, fairly high profile, site that uses my design for inspiration, and I gave my permission for that too.

Yatienesweb is pretty much reusing csszengarden the css file, the other site uses a different css file to create a similar layout. Both asked me first and both give what I think is due credit, which is what I think is important here.

32
Chris K says:
December 19, 07h

This is an area I’ve thought about as well. It’s the same issue in print design as well. If I see a cool brochure design in Communication Arts, can I take the exact layout (fonts, colors, etc.), just changing the logo, copy, and maybe a few photos to work for my client? Am I “ripping off” the original designer? When is the line crossed? I worked for a design firm where a designer used the same layout of a firm’s client for one of his own (he didn’t do the original design) and was promptly fired for it. When does ediquette and respect for others creative work need legal backing?

December 19, 08h

“When does ediquette and respect for others creative work need legal backing?”

The law isn’t really a substitute for professional ethics. You might be able to argue successfully in a court that a ripped-off brochure was not infringing, but you’d still be a scumbag.

34
Andrew Gray says:
December 19, 08h

> Justin French:
> I wonder if the W3 has considered a HTML/CSS compiler? If I’m concerned about others sneaking a peak or appropriating my PHP code, I can compile it.

I don’t think an HTML/CSS compiler is really possible if its goal is to obfuscate the original source such that it is difficult to reverse-engineer.

Some of the reasons that “decompiling” a binary program is difficult are that the compiler throws away the programmer’s variable names, unrolls loops, optimizes away variables in certain cases, does complex re-ordering of assembly instructions for pipelining reasons, and does other optimizing transformations which all retain the original semantic behaviour. These transformations taken as a whole are not easily (if at all) reversible if your goal is to get something that is understandable/modifiable at a high level.

The complex transformations a compiler does are possible because both the source language (eg. C) and target language (eg. x86 machine) are complex.

I think the important difference with HTML/CSS is that both the source language and any target language are relatively simple. Also the id and class names in the CSS must be referenced explicitly in the HTML, so any “compiler” must preserve them (thus elimenating many avenues of obfuscation). Add to this the fact that multiple “virtual machines” (web browsers) for the target language would exist in source form: it would be simple to modify a browser to save a parsed/interpreted version of the CSS and HTML to an ASCII text file.

Anyway, I personally find the idea of obfuscation to make sharing/learning more difficult distasteful.

jgraham says:
December 19, 08h

Well I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t claim to understand copyright law. On the other hand, I get the impression that very few (none?) of the other people commenting are lawyers either, so domain expertiese doen’t seem to be a requirement to pitch an oar in.

The first question is: what are you trying to protect? I suspect that trying to protect a particular layout is going to be hard or even impossible. This statement is based on the observation that there are a large number of layouts widely used in various media and apparently few copyright cases relating to ‘stolen’ layouts. Not conclusive proof, I agree. Interestingly, the case with CSS is a little more complex here as, unlike print, the layout depends on the user agent of the person viewing the page - CSS is essentially a set of suggestions that the UA is free to ignore or override. However that is a side issue.

If you are trying to protect the CSS file itself, I think you probably have a case. Let’s argue by analogy with a similar case - the copyright applied to the Numerical Recipies - The Art Of Scientific Computing books, which publish implementations of various numerical algorithms in a variety of programming languages. The copyright statement for the algorithms is located here: http://www.numerical-recipes.com/com/info-copyright.html and in a nutshell, it says:
We can’t copyright the algorithms themselves
We can (and do) reserve copyright of the particular expression of the algorithms in the form they are presented in the book, and we retain the copyright on derivative works (including the reexpression of the algorithms in a different language).
The analogy with CSS is pretty clear:
You can’t claim copyright on a particular layout
You can claim copyright on a particular implementation of that layout (i.e. on your CSS file).
Note that the ease of reproduction never entered into this - the fact that CSS is avaliable for all to see is irrelevant, just as it’s irrelevant that the Numerical Recipies book presents all the algorithms in an easy to read fashion. Note also that the distinction between what can and cannot be claimed is simply a case of authorship - if someone takes your CSS file and uses it, they have violated your copyright even if there are hundreds of other files which produce similar layouts. On the other hand, if they reimplement your layout exactly without ever looking at your code, there’s nothing you can do about it.

The difficulty then is establishing which type of copying went on - code level copying or design level copying. In practice, this should be possible (though perhaps not easy) because of all the arbitary descisions that are made when creating a layout from big stuff like whether to use floats or positioning, through the type of image replacement you use and the hacks you employ to make the file work in various browsers, right down to the names of classes, the ordering of the rules and the comments you add.

jgraham says:
December 19, 09h

Oh and, as an aside, I thought we’d previous agreed that the Creative Commons License on the CSS Zen Garden does specificaly allow anyone to use the CSS without asking for permission, so long as they retain the same license in the future. Having chosen to license the work in that way, you can only really complain if someone breaks the terms by using the graphics without permission or by failing to retain the same CC license.

Dris says:
December 19, 09h

>We canít copyright the algorithms themselves
We can (and do) reserve copyright of the particular expression of the algorithms in the form they are presented in the book, and we retain the copyright on derivative works (including the reexpression of the algorithms in a different language).
The analogy with CSS is pretty clear:
You canít claim copyright on a particular layout
You can claim copyright on a particular implementation of that layout (i.e. on your CSS file).

To me, it’s easier to compare the CSS to being an algorithm, as the CSS is the method for achieving a layout (which is what an algorithm is, a method for solving a problem). Thusly, you could copyright your layout, but not the CSS used to get it done.

Tom T says:
December 19, 10h

Such an interesting discussion…allow me to describe a similar experience, albeit in a different medium.

I have been (and still am, although I haven’t really done much in the medium for a few years) a composer, and I did a work for a group called the Minnesota Contemporary Ensemble back in 1997 called “watch…wait” (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B000006A88/qid=1071856672//ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i2_xgl15/103-8509423-9596628?v=glance&s=classical&n=507846, if any of you are interested).

In the work (about 16 minutes, for tape and chamber ensemble), I used a bit over 1 minute of a recording of Alban Berg’s opera “Wozzeck”. The idea behind the inclusion was quotation; in no way can it be mistaken as derivative…it was used in the “dream sequences” (best way to describe it) to give the impression that the opera was going on in the background, and the parts quoted were deliberately chosen to help the listener gain clues about the dramatic context going on in the work.

Is this “stealing”? Can the piece I wrote be construed as a “derivative”, even though the inclusion of the opera samples are very deliberately intended to be recognizable as such?

The owner of the copyright (I don’t remember the firm’s name, based in Austria) at first thought that they owned my work because of the inclusion of the samples, and tried to claim all proceeds. We worked out a deal (basically I don’t get any royalties outside of performance royalties, which in this particular medium amounts to nothing).

Does this apply here? I think so. I am of the opinion that those who are arguing that the composite whole (i.e. CSS + HTML + images) are copyrightable are correct, regardless of the semantics of code vs. whole…but at the same time one has to wonder if using a portion of the whole in a work is a violation.

Once again, I think that those who are arguing “yes” are right; if the derivative is obvious (i.e. close to being a “mechanical” reproduction)…

39
carl says:
December 21, 03h

wilhelm said:

“And second, they want CSS to be protected because Dreamweaver and the .com crash have all but destroyed their previously great livelihood as web page designers.

I sympathize, but be serious. CSS at the end of the day will be obsoleted or subsumed into the invisible technology layer just like HTML pretty much has – you need to find a new skill if this is all you have.”

———————

I can’t imagine anyone actually being worried about this. Dreamweaver is only a tool. I can create a page full of paragraphs in Word, but that doesn’t mean I am a writer, nor does it mean that the writing will make any sense.

Web designers will continue to be hired as long as clients want well designed sites (no matter what tools they use).

I still see plenty of job opportunities for experts in that “old” HTML language. Not just those that can use Dreamweaver, but even people that can hand-code!

Sorry for the tangent… As far as copywriting CSS: I don’t believe anyone is suggesting that the language itself be copyrighted, or even specific techniques (such as no one would want to copyright a for loop).

However, I believe a case could be made for someone who writes a computer game (say, Quake) and then without permission someone uses the same game engine and code, but just changes the images, names, and level maps. Most people would say that is a violation.

This is the same as someone using the same CSS code and only swapping out images and content.”

jgraham says:
December 21, 03h

I think that it is rather pointless to protect a [pop music score]. One can rip of a ď[sound]Ē without even looking at the [score]. And I believe that stealing the [sound] is the problem here.

AkaXakA says:
December 21, 09h

As other people have hinted at, webcode is generally openly viewable (‘view source’), the exceptions being server-side code (php, asp, etc…).

As I understood it, the client side webcode (html, JavaScript and now css) is not copyrightable _on it’s own_ And the server-side code is, to a certain extent, copyrightable, and follows the same rules as other computer languages (java, c++).

However, design of course is!
Think of it this way:
Somebody ripped off your css Zen Garden design. Not only that, they made a table based layout of it, using no css whatsoever *shudder*.
Did they copy your css? no.
Did they violate your copyright? yes.

Point is, even if stealing css isn’t nice, it can’t be helped. It’s just easier to know if they violated your copyright if they did.

And, on a final note, if you do find someone stealing your code, giving them a friendly (!) reminder is allways rather helpfull in getting your design off their site.

tl2003 says:
December 22, 02h

How ironic. Waferbaby just posted about how the design of his site http://waferbaby.com/ was stolen by a *web design company* for their site at http://www.force36.net/. Read his post at http://waferbaby.com/archives/2003/12/22/postku/.

43
Bardas says:
December 22, 05h

Interesting stuff, and a few posts made me think of this situation.

Let us say Person A is a CSS god, and Person B does not know CSS exists. B sees A’s site, and decides that they want it.

So B builds an exact replica of A’s site, except that is all done in tables, gif spacers, image maps, etc.

Has B infringed on A’s copyright? There is no CSS to concern oneself with, and we are disregarding A’s copyright on each of the individual graphics. Of course, the answer is yes, B has infringed on A’s rights, but only because B copied a whole work that consisted of an arrangement of images to which A retains a copyright.

Thus, should we think of a webpage design as the equivalent of an anthology of images? If this is the case, A would be able to copyright the images and any anthologies of those image that he happens to create.

However A could not claim a copyright of the format of the anthology. (A could try to patent it, though.)

CSS is the format of the layout, so unless a person uses the same graphics or unique font designs (and no, you don’t have the copyright on Arial …) they are creating their own original anthology, having simply borrowed the format used by another.

So, in many cases, attempting to copyright the CSS alone is equivalent to trying to copyright the format of a book. If my book has a preface, TOC, chapters, footnotes, an epilogue, and an index, it does not mean I can claim all books with a preface, TOC, chapters, footnotes, an epilogue, and an index are derivative works of what I hold in copyright.

The same would apply to an art exhibition in a gallery. No gallery can copyright the method by which it displays its work. Can you imagine if someone held the copyright on a single image placed on a wall next to another image 1 meter away?

I believe you cannot copyright CSS on its own, as it does not constitute a complete or ‘whole’ work. In any case, I’d love to hear feedback and critiques of this approach.

Tom T says:
December 22, 08h

“I have to ask: does this apply if the sculpture in question is the primary focal point in the composition of the photo, or does it apply if the sculpture appears in the photo at all?”

I’m sorry, this was a real question (i.e. not rhetorical)…any thoughts?

45
itchi says:
December 24, 05h

Wow, alot of good comments here.

The one situation I dont think I see here. However, I havent read every comment throughly. It is possible to have two completely different CSS files that would both achieve the same layout. So if CSS is the definitive line in the sand for copyright abuse how would this situation be resolved.

As has been said, I think the design is what is copyrightable.. not the CSS. I fear the day when I use a snippet of CSS and get sued because someone already else has used that same snippet copyrighted.

46
Tony says:
December 24, 11h

My basic rule of thumb: when in doubt, ask. About a year ago, while I was buried deep into several books trying to learn the in’s and out’s of CSS, I was tasked with converting the existing site at work to a “better” design. The existing design sucked not only from an aesthetic point, but it had tables nested 9 deep and thousands of font tags (some of which didn’t wrap around anything at all.

I was a fan of the devedge CSS redesign, so I shot off an email asking if I could “borrow” the basic layout (in the interest of time.) I got a response from none other than Eric Meyer himself, saying he would be thrilled if I used their design. In fact, I could downright steal the whole thing!

I ended up modifying it a bit, but the basic tableless layout is right off devedge. Never in a million years would I have considered using their stylesheets without asking. Same goes for original graphics, music, or anything else I may stumble upon. Why anyone would think this is ok is beyond me…

On a side note, I’m still working on the conversion. That’s what happens when you’re the only person trying to convert over 1000 crappy pages while at the same time developing an Intranet. You can see an example of the redesign here: http://www.sanjuan.edu/programs/accelerated/

47
bard says:
December 25, 06h

“Your example of ‘for loops arenít copyrightable’ is inapplicable because they are a basic building block of programming. The equivalent in human languages would be words. The equivalent in CSS would be a selector or property name.”

I do not think a “for loop” is what you think it is. The applicable analogy isn’t “words” to “language” at all (nor selectors to CSS). A “for loop” can be expressed using a multiplicity of symbols (“words”) in any number of languages.

No, a “for loop” is an /expression/ of a process. While in some languages, there may be many ways to express such a construct, the number of ways is most likely finite.

The same issue applies to layout and CSS. For many layout tasks, there is a finite set of ways in which to express the construct (just look at css-d) – a few of these ways may be very common and most share common characteristics.

You /might/ have a leg to stand on in terms of someone reusing your _overall work_ – but certainly not because someone happens to use one of a finite set of techniques for accomplishing a clearly noncopyrightable task that you also use (whether taken directly from you or not).

48
Hasan says:
December 25, 12h

Why don’t you figure out how much money someone made copying your code, then you can sue them for infringement of it. You’ll make a lawyer happy.

jim says:
December 27, 10h

When others copy your layout or other design ideas it isn’t half as bad if they at least give you credit. I also think it makes a difference if they have made an effort to adapt/improve the code instead of just cluelessly creating a clone (try to say that 3 times in a row lol)

I think a lot, if not most of us, learned html/css from taking code that is already on the web and adapting/experimenting with it. Would extensive copyrighting of code essentially prevent future design students from doing the same?

I think you can only really have ownership of visual design elements and certainly any exclusive content, but stylesheets and construction mark-up need to remain public so that we can all benefit from the collective learning process. Unfortunately there are a few bad apples who don’t want to learn, who only want to steal, but copyrighting css isn’t the right way to solve the problem - not when perfectly legitimate people want to view your work and can’t.

Interesting subject, I suppose we could all ramble on about this one.

Crystal says:
December 30, 08h

I’m 17 and I’ve been webdesigning for a little over a year now. I visited the CSS Zen Garden and I was inspired. If you look at my site it is completely CSS Zen Garden inspired, and you might even think ripped off since it looks very similar to Jeff’s “I Dream in Colour” layout. And the page make-up is very similar, so did I steal it? You can be your own judge on that.

Most of you I assume come from some sort of background in programing. I haven’t. Everything I have learnt to date I have done by picking appart tutorials and people’s coding. I am now begining to understand true CSS design, not because I bought a book or took a class but because I have painstakingly gone through several pages of css and worked backwords through people’s designs to find out how they accoplished certain aspects of their layout. As of right now my CSS design skills are limited. I have looked through 5 different layouts and I have only started understanding how to code using this method. So, yes, my design skills are limited to those who have inspired me.

As for my feelings on CSS copyright. No I don’t think CSS alone should be copyrighted. Instead the entrie desgin and layout should be copyrighted. Without the images, ids, and classes, the CSS is little more than internet code. Do we copyright the film in a camera? The notes of a song? The words in a play? Or the moves in a ballet? No, instead it is the entire structure that can be copyrighted, and even then it is only when the idea is completely original that it is able to be copyrighted.

James says:
January 02, 12h

“Do we copyright the film in a camera? The notes of a song? The words in a play? Or the moves in a ballet? No, instead it is the entire structure that can be copyrighted, and even then it is only when the idea is completely original that it is able to be copyrighted.”

Um, no. Yes, works are copyrighted as a whole, but the protection extends to fragments as well. Hence the many lawsuits over music sampling, for example.

And the idea doesn’t have to be completely orginal; ideas aren’t copyrighted, only implementations.

That said, your point about CSS being less valuable (or less worthy of copyright) without the images and markup is interesting.

Imagine writing music by notating the pitch separate from the duration, then claiming that either one of them can stand on its own as a copywritable work of art.