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What to do when your web site gets ripped off?

Example of a ripped off web site

Spot the difference

Last week, Steve, one of our designers, discovered that his personal re:create web site had been duplicated for use by a similar mentoring programme in Australia (for lawyers, ironically). And when I say duplicated, I mean ripped off in it’s entirety: word-for-word, icon-for-icon, markup-for-markup. Suffice to say, Steve wasn’t best pleased.

Duplicating web sites without permission is nothing new and I’ve personally encountered it several times in the 10 years I’ve been working in the web industry. Frankly, given how easy it is to do and how hard it is to protect both markup and design assets, I’m kinda surprised it doesn’t happen more often. Although, having said that, I’d hazard a guess that given the immense size of the Internet, we likely never know about the majority cases and have no clue as to the full scale of the issue.

Ripping of sites can vary from “borrowing” individual components or assets to literally downloading the markup and re-uploading it in it’s entirety. This is what happened with re:create and how we ultimately found out about it as whoever set up the offending site was too incompetent to even change Steve’s Google Analytics code. So not only blatant plagiarism but a poor attempt at covering it up too.

So what did we do when we found this all out? Well, exactly what any self-respecting bunch of web enthusiasts would do: we took it to Twitter. After that massively suffocating peer pressure campaign, Steve then followed Jeremy Keith’s advice and gave the chap behind the offending site a call to hash things out.

The result? Well, pretty positive actually. As we had suspected, the guy running the business had no idea the site had been ripped off and told us it must have been issue with the developer who supplied it for it. Although he declined to give Steve the name of the person responsible, he did apologise and then promptly took the site down.

Comparing analytics

A few days later a heavily modified version of the site was then relaunched. Whilst the new site still ‘borrows’ heavily from Steve’s original design, enough has changed that it’s no longer a carbon copy (even though some of the text content still remains identical) which is as least something. So not a completely perfect result as Steve’s original work has still knowingly been stolen and butchered but it’s better than nothing.

Legally, the matter won’t be pursued, partly because re:create isn’t actually associated with Primate, partly because none of us think it would get us any further without huge expenditure and partly because the changes to the original work are probably sufficient enough to avoid infringement claims. It does, however, raise a big question about what what we can do about copyright infringement in a legal sense.

My oh-so predictable answer to that is to go and speak to a specialist lawyer because, honestly, it’s very difficult to find a black and white answer online. I did some research into it for this blog post and it still seems like a murky subject that boils down to having enough money to get your lawyers to shit on theirs – or at least that’s my interpretation of it all. Technically, whilst the creator of a web site owns it copyright, enforcing isn’t necessarily an easy task, particularly if the culprit is operating in a country far, far away. Equally, proving straight up infringement versus ‘fair use’ (i.e. copying a small snippet) isn’t easy. Fortunately in Steve’s case, the plagiarism was so extreme that the law would’ve been firmly on his side.

The value of Intellectual Property – and the rights one has to their own work – is something I personally take very seriously and is the main reason I so harshly condemn acts like piracy and illegal downloading. Whilst many argue that downloading movies via torrent, for example, is a victimless crime and that no physical objects are “stolen”, it’s still an immoral transgression of utilising the output of someone else’s mind without permission. And when more and more out of our creativity is taking the shape of digital offerings, it’s becoming more important than ever to ensure that we protect our work and the rights we have to it.

Anyway, that’s a ranty blog post for another day.

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Author: Gordon McLachlan

Gordon is uncomfortably good looking.

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