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Weblog Entry

Dealing with Ripoffs

January 14, 2005

At one time or another, most designers will have to deal with the realities of a creative profession: people rip you off.

Shaun Inman recently made the unpleasant discovery that someone else had re-used his design on another site. So he did something about it by making the offense public.

Reactions to Shaun’s method varied, but many were willing to overlook the offense if the person in question was simply learning from Shaun’s work. A typical comment in that vein:

“OK, I can understand the fury if this was on a public site (yes I know it is viewable publicly - but maybe it was his test platform?), but shouldn’t you get in contact with the dude first and see what the deal is before opening him to the anger of other developers?”

And indeed, much of the time this is all that’s needed when you’ve found someone has used your work. In my experience — and trust me, I’ve had a bit with this issue — nine times out of ten, a quick email to the offender will reveal that they’re simply learning by studying someone else’s work, or saying they are because they got caught red-handed. (The other popular excuse to look out for is that “a contractor” or “an employee” took the work without their knowledge.)

Shaun didn’t have that luxury in this case due to a broken contact form, and besides, I don’t necessarily think it’s bad form to not drop a warning email anyway. If the offender was simply using the work for educational purposes, then two things should have happened. First, they should have emailed the original designer as a courtesy. Second, the work should never have found its way to a public server. When neither of those things happens, the intent of the offender must be more closely scrutinized.

Any assumptions about their purposes are useless, and no matter what the state of the work is on the server when it’s found, the simple fact that it has shown up elsewhere, without permission, is enough to cast considerable doubt on the individual’s intentions. There’s a reason the law is blind to intent. You still get traffic tickets, even if you don’t know what the laws are. Actions are what counts, and when the action is posting someone else’s work publicly and claiming it as one’s own through copyright notices or otherwise, there’s little room for interpretation.

In most cases, making the offensive site public is enough reason for anyone to quickly and proactively respond by taking it down. It doesn’t involve the designer going into a back-and-forth email exchange with varying excuses from the offender, it only takes a little bit of time to write up the violation and hit that post button, and most importantly, it usually works. When someone’s work is re-used, they should not be forced into an enormous time-wasting inquiry into the legitimacy of the ripoff. The burden of proof, or even the burden of educating someone, should not be on the designer.

In a perfect world, a quick email asking them to take it down would work. And again, 90% of the time it does. But I’ve had cases, and I kid you not, where the violator has ended up threatening me with a lawsuit. Starting off polite might be a courtesy toward the 90%, but it gets you nowhere with those who have decided your opinion doesn’t count.

I’ve also had situations where posting a link to a clear ripoff has resulted in a very quick response which, more than anything, sounds like a desperate plea to stop the incoming email. That makes me feel bad. Most people are inherently well-intentioned, and the thought of their action (or, it is possible after all, the action of an employee or contractor that they had very little to do with) being morally questionable never crosses their mind. I’d rather not inflict that on someone when it’s a genuine lack of knowledge, or a genuine mistake. But is it really my responsibility to consider someone else’s feelings, when my own weren’t?

This whole debate is easily avoided when a simple request for permission is all it takes. I like to think I’m quite generous when someone simply asks if they can do something. When the relationship starts with mutual respect for each other’s wishes, there’s no issue. If that doesn’t happen though, then we have a problem.


/pd says:
January 14, 01h

Shaun got ripped off. He had every right to do what he did. I would do the same. Copyleft does not mean, take my design/css and publish it as your own.. ..thats grand theft ..in no uncertain terms.. will you manage a court case in this event.. I doubt it.. legal issues are such a headache… its better to play coy and persude the perps !!

January 14, 01h

Thanks for putting this out there so diplomatically Dave. I get the feeling you don’t agree with my decision (and I respect that) but you nailed all the points that drove me to make it.

Regarding the CSS, I can still see it. I must have cleared my cache about 10 times now and revisited the individual CSS files and there all still there for me.

January 14, 01h

I really love the way John Serris dealt with his pirate [ http://phonophunk.phreakin.com/news/?p=40 ], but of course intellorippers linking directly to other people’s CSS are of a rare kind.

Markku Seguerra also reacted to a ripper ina nice and kind way [ http://rebelpixel.com/archives/2004/10/10/imitation-flattery/ ].

The reason I’m posting these links is because I can hardly imagine me being so… <em>good</em> to a thief. Of course, both John and Markku, as well as Shaun and you, Dave, are pretty well-known on the web, but for people like me a friggin’ pirate could easily mean a nightmare. Especially in cases “where the violator ends up threatening me with a lawsuit”. I mean, of course my designs aren’t even half as good as those four mentioned, but IF something like that would happen, would I be able to prove I’m the victim? It worries me.

Alvin.W says:
January 14, 01h

When i decided to use matthew buchanan’s dragen zen garden submission for my own blog page, i did the following things:

1.) Emailed him to get his permission (which he gladly say yes)
2.) Put link back and credits in my colophon and link page.
3.) Put comments on index and css source code file to state the original writer of this css file - matthew in this case.
4.) He dropped by and said well done :).

It shouldnt be so shallow and ugly and disgusting in the realm of web design. How can they just rip it off and think that its an OK thing to do? Dave is dead right in this entry that there’s certainly little web desingers can do but to see the brighter side. Sad, but true *sigh*.

I am pretty confidfent about my ability to create a whole new css sturcture on my own but when i saw matthew’s submission, i just grasped and stared at it for like 10 minutes without blinking. I knew i wanted to study the css codes right away, i know i might wanted to use certain element of it but it had never occur to me to even touch that codes without his approval. Putting on a site just for educational purpose (temporary so called) is not an excuse. Open source emphasizes the paradigm of ‘Code is poetry’, but even every poetry has its own original writer.

January 14, 01h

This brings to mind a recent Malcolm Gladwell article for the New Yorker: Something Borrowed: Should a charge of plagiarism ruin your life? (http://www.gladwell.com/2004/2004_11_25_a_borrowed.html)

He takes a look at a playwrite who “borrows” material from not only an eminent psychologist’s work, but also from Gladwell’s own article about said psychologist. The difficult part was that both of them knee-jerked and called the playwrite on it, and ruined her career. But Gladwell later came to realize that not only was the play excellent, and that the playwrite had not plagerized them intenionally, but that there are many levels and complications to the issue, with examples from the Beastie Boys to Andrew Lloyd Webber, but espeically among intellectual property rights.

6
DemonicPuffin says:
January 14, 01h

I think Inman did the right thing…and what anyone faced with that should do.Publically slander the duplicating creativity-less idiot.”Use For Educational Purposes”..to me..never meant “download and upload as my own”…whenever I use work to “educate” me…I view the source and find out “how”…not “copy” what they did.For example…I’ve looked at several of the past MezzoBlue designs source-wise…but in any css design I’ve made you won’t find a single line of code that resembles anything tracable to Mr.Shea’s (admittedly brilliant) design/layout work.

Lee says:
January 14, 01h

I fear that in this case the “ripper” was merely using the material to learn. Perhaps with todays interconnected web it’s too easy to jump to conclusions regarding such activity. If it were my work I might have at least waited to see what he presented live before taking this one to the masses.

8
Philip says:
January 14, 02h

“But is it really my responsibility to consider someone else’s feelings, when my own weren’t?”

I’d like to think, Yes, it is.
While I came here after reading what happened at Shaun’s site, and I can see where both sides could come from, and I agree with most said, I _don’t_ agree with the implicit answer in your question.

If you can’t consider someone else simply because they didn’t consider you, how will anything on the Web, in technology, or in the world ever get better than its present state?

Malarkey says:
January 14, 03h

Not meaning to SPAM your comments Dave (delete if you wish), but this just happened to me. http://www.stuffandnonsense.co.uk/archives/copy_copy.html

:(

Trent says:
January 14, 03h

Posting a rip-off with text saying “Hey! This is my site!” to a live server, if the intent is innocent, is just plain stupid.

Publicly bringing a potential offender to task is a good line of defense in our developer community—but unfortunate if it’s just a noob trying to learn your code.

My complete thoughts on the matter:
http://ad.hominem.org/log/2005/01/pirates_and_sla.php

11
Jim says:
January 14, 04h

> Copyleft does not mean, take my design/css and publish it as your own.. ..thats grand theft ..in no uncertain terms..

No, it’s not theft, grand or otherwise. It’s copyright infringement. The US Supreme Court decided this definitively in Dowling vs US, 1985.

I’m not saying that what he did wasn’t wrong, but you can’t go around calling it “grand theft in no uncertain terms” when it isn’t theft.

January 14, 08h

I had a look at my referrer log back in June of last year, and found some pretty interesting stuff. Rather gleefully, myself and a friend concocted a scheme to exact revenge, knee-jerking into action:
http://dave.antidisinformation.com/archives/2004/06/02/dont-rip-me-off/

Turned out the guy was a 15 year old kid.
http://dave.antidisinformation.com/archives/2004/06/04/sometimes-im-an-asshole/

Obviously someone who rips off a website has done wrong, but there’s no need to compound the situation by knee-jerking and making things worse.

That’s not what’s happened here, but I know that knee-jerking is always a risky and dangerous thing to do, and I’m afraid that others may miss this (I know I did).

When you discover a rip-off, whatever action you decide to take will have consequences, so be sure to think them out. A calm head and clear thought should be the order of the day.

Dustin says:
January 14, 10h

==========
And again, 90% of the time it does. But I’ve had cases, and I kid you not, where the violator has ended up threatening me with a lawsuit.
==========

Boy are you kidding? I mean… it’s em ‘your design’ that’s in question (and whether the they can use it), and not how they have rights to do what they want with it.

Right when you thought developers and designers all lived in the same geeky world, there are the one’s who cheat.

I remember from that problem you had from before with the creative commons lisense issue… and to think that would have solved the problem right there.

What happened with Shaun is that they were pulling stuff right off his site. Granted, they might have made their own images in photoshop…but how hard is it to match an icon pixel per pixel? Get a life and be creative.

There are of course, many design elements that I will like from other websites and I will take the same idea and at least alter it to a point where it takes on a different originality. My current design was taken from a GAP t-shirt that I own…

Anyway, I agree that being nice can largely help, but like you said, that extra 10% that are foolish just makes life a pain.

Is there any place written on the net where you can copyright your designs? Or are there better copyright plans that the CC lisenses?

Josh S. says:
January 14, 11h

You said: “First, they should have emailed the original designer as a courtesy. Second, the work should never have found its way to a public server.”

I agree with the second one, but not with the first. Would you really like it if everyone who used your “work for educational purposes” emailed you? I think it would be a whole lot of email!

Dustin says:
January 14, 11h

If we had a forum of weblogs, I’d merge this spool of posts with those @ inman’s right now
->
http://www.shauninman.com/mentary/past/your_trial_has_expired.php

Jarrod says:
January 14, 11h

I think in this case, it wasn’t meant for anyone to find it, and you could see he started with Shaun Inman’s, and wasn’t finished changing it. I think it was intended to learn from it…. none-the-less it shouldn’t have been posted to his server. XHTML/CSS can all be tested from your local computer so there is no need to post it to a live server.

I think his intentions were only to learn, not to claim it as his work. If he plans to claim it as his own… then that is definitely wrong….

Dan Mall says:
January 14, 11h

Josh, I don’t agree with your disagreement (um…) of Dave’s suggestions. In the case where it’s not laziness, plagiarism is a form of respect. That doesn’t excuse the act, but I think an email stating your admiration for someone’s work can go a long way. I’m sure a designer, no matter how much email he/she gets, will be grateful for a note of appreciation. It also serves to notify him/her of your intent and will save everyone trouble in the end.

Dave S. says:
January 14, 11h

“I mean… it’s em ‘your design’ that’s in question (and whether the they can use it), and not how they have rights to do what they want with it.”

I should be clear, the lawsuit threat wasn’t directly over ownership, but rather harrassment about a design that was clearly “not a rip off”. Interestingly, the guilty party changed the site the very next day.

“Is there any place written on the net where you can copyright your designs? Or are there better copyright plans that the CC lisenses?”

Nah. Really, even if you do have a license, the only thing that gets you is some form of ‘proof’ that they weren’t allowed to use your work to begin with. Since 99.999% of design ripoffs will never see a day in court, it’s not much to fall back on legally. It can be effective when trying to convince someone through old-fashioned persuasion they’re not allowed to use it, but that’s about it.

“I agree with the second one, but not with the first. Would you really like it if everyone who used your “work for educational purposes” emailed you? I think it would be a whole lot of email!”

Perhaps. Some do already, and I usually reply quickly. At the very least, the knowledge of someone’s intent (in written form, naturally) is something I’d prefer to have.

“I think his intentions were only to learn, not to claim it as his work. If he plans to claim it as his own… then that is definitely wrong…”

Sure, I agree, in this case it looks that way. But like you said, he’s not done yet. No indication of intent on his part means we can’t really judge one way or the other, since it’s a matter of interpretation.

Peter G. says:
January 14, 11h

———————————————
But is it really my responsibility to consider someone else’s feelings, when my own weren’t?
———————————————

Yes, I believe it is. I would like to think that it is our responsibility to consider other’s feelings, even when they haven’t considered our own. At very least, it would be nice if we did.

But, I must admit, I’ve never had someone rip off my work (and probably never will), so I don’t know how it feels.

Tony says:
January 14, 12h

Perhaps those who want to learn from others’ designs and see them in action on their favorite blogging applications would be better suited to install Apache, MySQL, and PHP/Perl on their personal computer. There are a plethora of good WAMP packages for installing on Windows. I like XAMPP, from Apachefriends.org.

January 14, 12h

There’s no excuse for this (as I said at Shaun’s site) because there is a page live on the web that he is claiming is his work. If it’s work in progress than that should be explained, and there should not be a list of other sites he ‘has’ designed, nor a request that if you </em>’have interest, please do not hesitate to contact Lucid|Matter.’</em>.

I found this site before reading Shaun’s post, what was I, or anyone else, meant to think.

However…

I do understand the point of view that it is not yet a fully fledged ‘website’ and that he probably didn’t yet intend for anyone to see it. I wonder how far he would have gone with it though.

Funny that only recently I was worried about the latest redesign of my personal site; concerned that someone would liken it to Shaun’s work (the influences are plain). Looks like I got away with it though!

January 14, 12h

I had exactly the same thing happen to me recently where my employer’s public site that I coded was literally stolen, page for page, and used by another site. My comments were still in the code! They didn’t change any of the HTML or CSS, just a few colors and graphics. Changed the copyright notice to their site, like they knew what a copyright meant.

I wrote a nasty e-mail to their director regarding this theft, and maybe because I was livid at the time, posted the transgression on a local webmaster’s listserve of which we were both members.

I got a response from a member suggesting a direct contact with the other party before giving them a “public ass whoopin’ in front of their peers”.

I agree now, this is probably the better choice, but guess I wanted others to be as outraged as I was at the time.

Dustin says:
January 14, 12h

Maybe this guy was like the complete newbie. I mean, maybe he thought xhtml and css can only work on a live server? lol.

There are several folks who still don’t know that you can put apache on your own PC…maybe this guy was just one step below that??

As of right now, the guy who ripped Shaun ( http://www.lucidmatter.com/trial.html ) is without a style sheet. Heh, maybe his css server crashed. rofl

nick says:
January 15, 01h

there’s a saying that says ‘if you want to protect the source of content published on the web, then don’t publish it on the web’. :)

but if you spot that your design is ripped off (which is much easier when using css) and publicly viewable without your awareness, then i think you have the full right to ‘punish’ the cyberthief by writing about this in your own web log. it is not rude, or unpolite — it’s your work, and someone just used it without asking.

25
John says:
January 15, 06h

Maybe Matt was trying to fix the problem with Shaun’s site that makes Firefox Mac freeze so that it must be force quit?


Okay. Probably not.

Mike D. says:
January 15, 10h

I won’t post the URL here because there is no need to draw more attention to it, but the thief who stole Shaun’s stuff now has an “explanation” page on his site saying that he intentionally ripped off Shaun’s design *with the sole purpose of getting traffic to his new site*. And according to him, his plan worked. Ha! Now that’s a good one. I don’t believe it for a second.

In all likelihood, the kid spent the entire day trying to think of an excuse to justify what he had done and that’s the best he came up with.

So, Dave, I think you were absolutely right to take a conservative stance towards this guy until we knew more, but clearly we know all we need to know now. This is definitely Wall of Shame material at this point.

Isofarro says:
January 15, 11h

Dave wrote: “But is it really my responsibility to consider someone else’s feelings, when my own weren’t?”

Absolutely not - unless you want to take the higher moral ground. I think you’ve resolved the problem well each time its happened to you - I commend you for that, you certainly have far more patience than me. I do feel you may want to consider stamping your foot down harder on some cases.

Diverting slightly off the current problem:

Whenever the excuse given is “the contractor”/”an external agency” did it without “our knowledge” - I think these organisations should be asked to name the agency/contractor concerned, or suffer the indignity of being publically named themselves.

The main reason for getting the details of the “external agency” is to detect whether there are agencies continually ripping off other people’s designs. The other is to offer a modicum of protection to other web designers.

You may have allowed an external agency to get off the hook lightly and remaining unnamed - my opinion is that this doesn’t help or clarify the next time another designers design is ripped off by the same agency. We probably won’t see the pattern.

January 16, 10h

Those who steal can’t design themself.

dan says:
January 17, 07h

Shaun did the right thing. A thief is a thief no matter what. if you read the text on the thiefs site, it is definately geared at taking credit for that page.

Shaun is Shaun, because he works hard and he is an amazing designer. If I could get his fame by stealing his designs without any repercussions, why shouldn’t I.

All this to say Shaun a good guy who got ripped off, and no matter how he replies to that, he is right.

30
Jeremy says:
January 18, 06h

I’d just like to point out that there are plenty of methods for taking pages offline for study, as well as tools like the Web Developer extension for Firefox that make it possible to dissect / experiment on an existing “live” site without impacting that site in the least. Given that, I find it generally reprehensible to hear the excuse “it was a private test page” - particularly from someone purporting to make a living from web development. The fact that this wasn’t taken offline (and no, a non-published link on a live site doesn’t constitute “offline”, unless said page is in a protected directory).

That doesn’t mean I’m not advocating sympathy for those that make honest mistakes, but a little guidance (i.e. a couple links to tutorials for setting up a dev environment, or a reminder to password protect development directories on a live server, for example). But at the same time, I think there’s nothing wrong with a public scolding as well…