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Weblog Entry

Graceful Blame

January 06, 2009

Yes, it’s bothersome when my work is ripped off. I spend a lot of time crafting custom code, designing what I think are great layouts, illustrating or writing copy. And then some random person out there on the internet grabs my work and claims it as their own.

If it hasn’t yet, this will happen to you. Many times. My favourite advice ever on the subject came from Jeffrey Zeldman:

“Don’t worry about people stealing your design work. Worry about the day they stop.”

But you’ll probably still want to let the person know they’re in the wrong. This is how I handle it.

First, I wait until I’ve cooled off some. Acting immediately is a bad idea, no matter how tempting.

Second, I send a non-accusatory email. Sometimes I’m polite, sometimes I’m terse, but I avoid appearing angry. I tell them I’ve noticed some similarities. I ask for an explanation. I sometimes provide reference screenshots or URLs of the original material.

There are two sides to every story, and they want a chance to tell theirs. It was probably an honest mistake. A shady contractor did it. An intern didn’t know any better. They used my design or copy or code on a mockup that was never meant to see production.

I may not believe that. In most cases the story probably isn’t true, but it doesn’t matter. What does is their next action.

Nobody likes to be accused of doing something wrong, but I started the dialogue by giving them the benefit of doubt so we avoided that. Chances are they’ll be willing to own up to their guilt, then take any action necessary to remedy the situation. In most cases, this is exactly how it happens.

And when it does play out like that, I thank them for handling it properly. It was a learning experience, and I’m willing to bet they won’t be caught doing it again.

(Of course when it doesn’t, then it may be time to call in the lawyers. Or internet mob justice squad. Linking, Twittering, serving notice, public shaming etc. should only be a last resort.)

January 06, 13h

I’ve found that if I prevent myself from immediately lashing out, things generally go well. An offended person is going to be less likely to be respectful (duh). However, I make sure they’re aware that I take the situation very seriously. Allowing perpetrators to get away with an inch is a crime; plagiarism produces a chilling of good design, photography, or any other art. I don’t want to sound accusatory, but I don’t want to sound light hearted either. Great advice, Dave!

Neal G says:
January 06, 13h

I’ve actually had people copy my site’s design with the Google Analytics tracking code still intact! The worst part is their ripoff website starts polluting my stats and the ironic part is I catch the sites much quicker since they leave traces all over GA.

January 06, 13h

I’ve always wondered if a company that copied one of my designs (the “shady contractor” scenario) could be a potential new client. I mean, who better to redesign their site than the person whose design was stolen, since they obviously liked my aesthetics? Alas, I’ve never been ripped off, so I’ve never tried it.

Also, Dave, what would you consider to be an appropriate course of action on the part of the person/company that copied you? An immediate take-down of the site in question? If they gave you an assurance that they’re working to redesign the site, would you be OK with leaving the ripped-off design online in the meantime?

January 06, 13h

This happened to me too; the person who stole my site’s design simply hotlinked my CSS file in his site and started stealing my bandwidth. When I realized this, I quickly edited the CSS code, ruined the design and wrote that the “author” was a thief.

However, there are some cases when many designers follow a certain pattern or a trend – in that case there would be many sites that have a similar look.

Dave S. says:
January 06, 14h

@Andrew Noyes - I’m not sure if I totally buy into the chilling effect argument (I’m not going to stop being creative because people like my stuff enough to rip it off) but I agree that being too friendly would be a mistake. The only reason I’m having an exchange with these people in the first place is because they’ve stepped on my toes after all, it’s not a requisite to make them like me after we’re done.

@Guillermo Esteves - “Also, Dave, what would you consider to be an appropriate course of action on the part of the person/company that copied you?”

Immediate takedown, nothing less. Leaving my work up while waiting for the substitute that will eventually take its place puts the burden on me to check, when it ought to be theirs to remove the plagiarized material.

January 06, 14h

@Guillermo Esteves - I think that you first point, is very interesting, and to be honest I’ve never thought about that angle before, even though I’ve had a couple of those “shady contractor” scenarios regarding some designs/websites made for clients.

I have though been using the method in some cases where companies had “copied” texts and images from me. Simply by writing them with a nice and gently, but serious tone, telling them that it isn’t okay to copy/grab others databases, and then made them and offer, if they were interested in keeping the content on their site.

I found those websites a bit the same way as Neal, just here, they copied images including watermarks and links to my site, and then, when their users click the image, their site shows in my stats.

Tom says:
January 07, 01h

I’ve had people steal my work, but upon approaching one guy in a similar manner that you’ve outlined he recently came back to me apologising again and asking for an honest opinion of his own work!

Makes you feel like some kind of evangelist!

January 07, 04h

The devil in me would be tempted to ask them politely who did their design because I’m interested in commissioning some work.

Then mail them some dog poop… with a picture of the design they stole on the packaging.

January 07, 08h

In regards to trying to work with a shady contractor who must love your work because they stole it…who wants to work with someone like that? You’d never trust them, and since they got paid for work they didn’t do, they will probably end up scamming you out of work or money (or both) somehow. I agree that immediate takedown is the only option, because otherwise it gets drawn out into a long affair and only increases the potential to get ugly.

January 07, 08h

@Dave - I agree, those who are passionate about design don’t just drop it, but they do start working in a “diving behind a revolving bookcase” kind of way. Plagiarism has led to several of my Flickr contacts setting all of their photos to private.

January 07, 12h

Vincent, I didn’t mean working with the shady contractor, but with their client. They might not have known that the design was stolen, and they *will* need a new website once they take down the plagiarized one. Sounds like a perfect opportunity to offer them your services.

Yiannis says:
January 08, 04h

Well the thing is *how* you can find the stolen design. Even more, how you can find the stolen code.

I often see posts about stolen web work and I really don’t realize how a web designer/developer can detect the rip-off. Please share your experience.

Dave S. says:
January 08, 12h

@Yiannis - well, some of the previous comments have mentioned ways they’ve discovered it. Sometimes you stumble across a site that looks familiar, sometimes other people notice and tell you about it, sometimes the site shows up as a referrer in your stats.

If you’re wondering how I find every site that has taken my work, I don’t. I just catch a few here and there. There are probably a bunch more for every one I find out about.

January 09, 13h

@Guillermo: Ah, of course…that makes a whole lot more sense, my bad!

@Everyone: I have a friend who writes blog copy for a number of different websites and he gets ripped off all the time. To combat this, he started putting a two-word nonsense phrase below his text when he posts articles and then does a google search every so often to see if any hits come up that aren’t his doing. I’ve considered putting something like this into my site, you could easily find a way to hide it from view - perhaps a crazy text indent like many use for image replacement.

January 11, 11h

I will be brave and confess that I did the samething you’re talking about. I used someone’s else work and manipulated it someway to use it on one of my projects. I changed the look of his work but still that’s not an excuse.

Few months later the original owner contacted me and I lied “I’m sorry I got someone to do it for me, didn’t know it’s similar to your work”

I apologized and close the website temporary. 4 days later I made a totally different design and re-opend the site.

Trust me I’m still feeling some guilt and I hate what I did.

Bert says:
January 12, 08h

I am more of the “the internet will change the way we perceive intellectual property” kind of guy.
I have had a design “stolen” once. But frankly I couldn’t care less. I don’t mind others using my work. I do mind it however when they state they made it themselves. I asked the person who “stole” my design to remove his copyright notice…and he did. As far as I am concerned, that closed the case.
Personally I hope that one day we will no longer feel the need to copyright stuff, but simply create because we want to and not care about what happens with it.
But I guess I am a minority.

Dave S. says:
January 12, 10h

@Ahmad Alfy - thanks for being brave, I’m glad to hear what it’s like on the other side of the fence.

@Bert - I’m wagering you don’t have people paying you to create the work you’re not fussing about. When money changes hands for creative work, there’s a much stronger sense of ownership.

January 13, 02h

I always contact people who rip off my code without permission, and usually adopt a direct and firm approach to the email/contact.

I sometimes contact people who rip off my designs but usually only if they are very similar to my original concept and colour scheme.

The reason I’m more relaxed about my design being ripped off is that it’s very difficult to prove that your idea was original in the first place.

I’m also influenced by many websites that I interact with on a daily basis, and borrow thinking and methods to shape my designs for projects. It’s this referencing that makes my design belong to me, but not necessarily unique.

If however, the design has been ripped off with very minimal change (like they swapped the logo and company name), I see this more like a slap in the face, than maybe being flattered by being copied. And usually email people requesting an explanation by reply.

Anyway - it’s nice to be ‘referenced’ as it does confirm what you do is respected by a wider audience, but blatant ‘ripping-off’ is something that needs stamping out.

With face recognition coming to iLife’09, surely someone can invent something similar for the piracy of website design!!?

Joey W. says:
January 13, 03h

@Stuart Davison - I was about to mention copying/influence points but you did a nice job and I agree with you on them.

Before remembering how tineye works, I thought I would be clever and take a screenshot and do a search to see if anything would come up but I didn’t get anything. It would be interesting if tineye not only did images but also took snapshots of websites it crawled for this kind of thing. Not saying that finding a bunch of copycats would be a good thing, but I find it quite interesting to follow on twitter and see how things unfold. Unless I’m mistaken I remember at least one time you tweeting about a stolen design and more recently someone tweeting about a stolen tagline.

Bert says:
January 14, 05h

True, but then when I create something for someone who pays me, they get the copyrights…so in those cases they have to take action if they wish to challenge the copy-cat. It says so explicitly in my contracts.

stephen says:
January 20, 20h

I feel like I am in AA. I would have to confess also that my experience from this first came about when I was just starting to get into web dev. I, without hesitation, snatched quite a bit a one man’s hard work. It is just easy to do on the internet..(thought process “who’s watching”). And boy did I get caught. I ended up reversing about 2 weeks of “work” (i guess you could call it) in about 8 hours once I was hit with an email that said I was being taken to court with a hefty fine if it wasn’t fixed. My excuse “I had hired an independent contractor for a short period of time who was a fault”.

The hardest thing about protecting your work online (copywriting it) is that if you do not enforce it to everyone than it is null and void. Now that I am more matured and little more aged, I make it a point share my uneasiness from when I was first caught with those who steel my work. I write an email and sit on it for a day, then edit it, remove the emotion and send it out. If there was only an easier way of protecting your work online…but I do have that quote (above) written on a sticky note hanging off my monitor. Great write and fun comments on this one.

Gregory Stringer says:
January 21, 21h

I’m not sure if this will even get posted since I don’t even qualify as a novice, but I am a student majoring in Web Design and I have to say that these issues seem alarming. It never would have occured to me that the issue of piracy would come to play in this field. I guess the term “professional” is relative.

January 25, 15h

When I find someone who ripped one of my designs , I usually email his hosting company and provide them screenshots etc etc . This usually solves the problem .

MT Web Design says:
January 26, 09h

This is so annoying. We find websites out there all the time who have not only copied our own web design site, but have also copied the designs we have built for our clients. Sometimes we will see parts or ideas lifted from our site, but other times we will see design, text and image rip-offs! Does anyone understand any laws in place about stealing code though? If I wrote something for example from scratch, what is to say someone else with coding knowledge could not do the same? Mike.

rob stathem says:
March 06, 11h

Hmmm…this has me thinking. Is there anyway to prevent users from right-clicking and stealing code? Much like the process of preventing people from right-clicking to save images.

Or, is this just not possible?

March 22, 13h

No, as long as it is on the internet, it can be copied in some way.
You can’t prevent right-clicking. The methods out there are done by JavaScript and can easily be bypassed by disabling it. Also, it causes a usability issue as the context-menu has meny more functions other than ‘copy’ or ‘view source’. You’ll annoy more legit users and prevent ill-intended users.
Also remember that websites isn’t just accessed by browsers. You just need to do a HTTP request to be fed the HTML/CSS/JS file.
You waste more time, money and effort trying to prevent anyone viewing your source code than just leaving it as it is.

Mir says:
April 02, 06h

We often noticed, that most of people stealing designs or content, are the ones, wo do not pay so much time in their own webdesign or someone else does it for them…Most of them, really do not have the knowledge in how far they copy and can copy…I think, how Dave explained his way, thats quite the best way to do…
There was one day a guy, who started to argue with us and thought, we were telling jokes…but after a while, he noticed, that he was talking to the real owner and professional and suddenly went quiet..and he wants to talk to his webmaster;) that was nearly sweet ;)…giving a little hint, they change their design/content fast i think…