Is it OK to Steal Someone’s Design?

UPDATE: This issue has been resolved thanks to the quick action of the owner of the sites in question and apologies have been made. I have no interest in creating an enduring public record of this. So I have deleted the details in order to bring this to an end.

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  1. First off I know personally how much time and effort Chris puts into his design and how much effort you put into your sites.

    This to me is unacceptable. I await the apology to Chris and you from b5media and Jim Turner’s team.

    Until it happens I can’t see through the clouds on continuing to speak highly of either party as far as anything.

    It’s like my ball of silly string known as my brain just broke folks. I literally hate design theft especially when you have access to the server files.

  2. The theft came as a shock to me too. Rest assured that this IS being addressed and will be fixed. It’s inappropriate for our content to be stolen, and it’s inappropriate for a trust to be violated by stealing a template from you, Brian, us from our servers and Chris as the designer.

  3. Way to go Aaron. Good to see you taking charge.

  4. Thanks, B.

    I’ve seen quite a few breaches of the Cutline Creative Commons License lately, and to be honest, I can’t even harass them all anymore. It’s so abundant that I’d literally have to make it a part time job.

    That said, this is certainly a unique instance because I’ve never encountered (or really heard of) a case where someone knowingly had access to the core template files of a commissioned design.

    And then to go and make minor modifications (full of holes, I might add) without attribution…

    I dunno, this one confounds me.

  5. If I had access to ObO or BFH, the themes would already be down.

  6. I am totally, totally sorry.

    Suffice to say we are all on board dealing with the b5 side of this NOW.

    This is totally unacceptable. Chris, brian, I am so, so, so sorry :-(

  7. Perhaps I’m from the MySpace generation, but it seems like this happens all the time, and in different incantations. We’re taught in school that when in comes to artistic creations, so long as someone modifies an original design by about 10% then it becomes a “mash-up” of the original (like song sampling for DJs and some print, billboard and online Flash ads). While it’s socially uncool, isn’t code sharing as really an extension of what’s going on in society? I can definitely understand how a person might feel if someone looks just like them, especially if they paid a pretty penny. Think: Oscars and designer dress vs. a Ross Dress-for-Less clone, but really it’s the person in the dress that is the belle of the ball. Your content rocks the house, Copyblogger. You’re an original. ;)

  8. The threat of blacklisting from Google is apparently more powerful and persuasive than legal mumbo jumbo. The potential of this angle hadn’t occurred to me…

    Since my homespun attempts at Cease and Desist weren’t doing the trick,
    I simply sent the offender this link:

    MaxPower’s article on “PageSpank”
    http://www.maxpower.ca/new-plagiarism-low-future-google-spank/2006/10/25/

    He immediately removed the article.

    Another useful link:

    http://www.plagiarismtoday.com/

  9. Jeremy + Aaron i take it back about b5 you guys are standup dudes. Way to go. Good teamwork handling this.

  10. Aaron and Jeremy, thanks for stopping by. I guess I’m just a little disturbed at the thought of what can happen when people have server-side access.

    Chrissy, I agree with what you’re saying to a certain extent. We all steal from others to a certain degree, especially writers.

    In the post before this one, for example, I could have easily passed off Gene Schwartz’s insights as my own… after all, I modified the hell out of his original text and applied it in an entirely new realm. But in my mind, that still would have been the wrong thing to do.

  11. Chrissy,

    Ebay bans users from selling products that are knockoffs of the originals. More and more, these types of issues are facing legislation, and things are being done about it.

    If the community stands up and says “this is not acceptable,” then we can make a difference.

    I understand your position, but you didn’t craft the item in question from scratch, either.

    Stand in my shoes and see how you feel.

  12. Just to clarify my comment above – I have used this approach with great success in dealing with text plagiarism – but I see no reason why it couldn’t be effective with design issues.

    For years, I thought the nature of the web, and international jurisdiction issues, made fighting content theft a hopeless scenario.

    Actually, it’s not – it’s quicker and easier than the court system would ever be. All the world knows Money – and there’s not a web publisher alive who wants to incur the unforgivable wrath of Google blacklisting.

    Obviously, your publishing this issue – shining a light in the thief’s face – was enough to ensure that out-of-the-box WP template got slapped up on One by One media…

    What was the designer thinking? That he’d build a site and NOT show it to everyone?

    God, he must be mortified…

  13. Brian: I guess it’s a hard lesson learned. We have to have people who can work on the backend, but you also have to have some level in trust that your people can be trusted. We obviously need to do something to tighten up here to make sure the folks we entrust the keys to can actually be counted on to hold up expected ethical and legal standards.

  14. Brian, Chris and others,

    First off, I want to thank Brian for alerting me this morning via email. Not everyone would be so gracious. I applaud him for making me aware of the problem before posting this information.

    As I stated earlier in my email, let me be the first to apologize first to Chris as the template designer. I want to make sure that he gets full attribution for his design and I offer to compensate him for a well done template. People should be paid for their efforts.

    I do not condone the “theft” of anyone’s work, be it through content or through technical work as may be the case here. I stated to Brian in my email, just because I’m not involved has no bearing on my responsibility. To Brian, I confessed my ignorance of design, and most of the back end workings of blogs, applications and platforms. This ignorance does not eliminate blame from me as a managing partner of One By One Media and Bloggers For Hire. I accept responsibility in that role. I have been assured that the issue is being addressed even as I write this comment. As to Mr. Goldblatt, I have been given his personal apology and have asked that he also give apologies to the parties involved.

    Now that the apologies have been offered and the issue acknowledged, I must now be proactive in how I address the problem.

    I have asked that the issue be corrected. I am assured that this is being done. I must learn from this mistake and correct the issue in any other instances, and finally I must make sure this does not happen in the future. I will make it again my responsibility that this is carried out.

    I told Brian, that I preach transparency to clients to to customers. This is my opportunity to practice what I preach. I would be happy to address any other or further issues you may have, and feel free to contact me directly.

    Jim Turner
    Chief Managing Partner
    One By One Media, LLC

  15. The outright duplication of another site is downright unethical. Yes, plenty of bloggers base their site’s design on abundantly free themes such K2 and Cutline. The difference is they build on theme to make it their own. After all, who wants a site that looks exactly like someone else’s? Successful blogs depend on it’s uniqueness in both design and content. The copying of copyblogger is not only lazy, it’s bad for business.

  16. Brian – Have the changes already been made? I looked at those sites and they look nothing like yours. Am I missing something?

    Mike

  17. Maybe I’m missing something, so please excuse me. But I don’t see the similarities besides the standard header with 2 column layout (which is extremely common), without going through the code. Did they change the graphics since you posted?

  18. Wow, what a mess. Kudos to Jim Turner et al for the quick fix (I didn’t even get here in time to see the offending pages), and for the honesty and openness they’re showing.

    Code stealing is just wrong. Someone *else* did all the work; the thief should not get acclaim or money for basically taking a picture of a work of art.

  19. Michael and Jay, Jim has responded quickly and replaced the designs with generic WordPress themes.

    I am discussing this with all the relevant parties right now, and I’m sure we’ll find some way to work this out amicably.

  20. We’re still working on this internally to figure out exactly what happened and why.

    More info as we have this, though.

    And, again, brian and chris, really, really sorry about this :-(

  21. Just chiming in here as both a b5-er and part of OBO with Jim and Scott. We all feel bad about this. Unique, usable designs should be celebrated and the creators get the kudos they deserve. Again, apologies to Brian and Chris.

    And yes, as Brian said, we are all working in the back channels to figure out the next steps. There is a lot here for as an example what to do when this happens and how to handle it. I also thank Brian for bringing this to Jim’s attention before he posted so Jim could respond quickly.

    Brian and I are both long-time code jockeys. I know I learned a lot of HTML and CSS from looking at other people’s code. My rule of thumb was that if someone had a great design that solved something I was trying to do, was to just look at the code in question and not copy the whole page or scripts written for the site. The “oh that’s how it’s done” thing is interesting. You might learn how something is done from the code, but if it’s just standard html or CSS you’re learning (oh that’s the right syntax for a hover).

    But if you take a whole site design or layout wholesale, that’s wrong. Of course you can’t claim the three column design, but you can claim a trick to make it look really good.

  22. I use Cutline myself, and I just wanted to add that it is no normal WordPress theme.

    Chris didn’t just design this and throw it out there. He actively supports it. He has tips for adding teasers, pull quotes, sitemaps, and many other bonuses.

    He’s done so much that you just can’t help but wish the guy the best of luck and fortune.

  23. EFCG,

    Thanks, seriously. Wow. All the best!

  24. Brian and Chris,
    I’m sorry that you had to deal with this. It’s not right. We all know that. Chris your design deserves more respect. Brian your design deserves more protection.

    I’m too that the b5 and OBO guys got caught in a mess by someone who was . . . [insert adjective here]. We should be able to trust the people we work with. You deserve better than what you got.

    I admire every one of you for how you handled it. I can’t have been easy or in any way pleasant.

  25. Wow, that’s definitely not right. By the time I got here, the sites had been changed to standard WordPress templates. However, knowing that any “proud papa web designer” would like to showcase his work, I poked around his website.

    His portfolio page shows, quite clearly, the two designs in all their glory:

    http://design.goldblatt.info/images/portfolio/obo.jpg

    http://design.goldblatt.info/images/portfolio/b4h.jpg

  26. It’s never good to have a design, idea, or anything stolen. Glad you were able to get your issue worked out…

  27. I think you were perfectly justified in the original post, but there may be a general lesson here in letting off steam via a blog.
    I know that you have updated the post and all, but of course, you can’t update the Google cache and the many RSS readers. Tough to change history once that “Post” button has been pressed. Again, not necessarily applicable in this case, but in general

    “Post” button = permanent.

  28. Jon, that’s true. In this case, I think the infringer deserves to have it be permanent, but I’m ultimately too willing to forgive.

  29. As a creator of themes for WordPress and someone who’s frequently contracted out to perform exactly the same kind of work you’ve contracted for your blog, I’m willing to make several assertions. I’m making them while sitting ignorant of the minor details of your case, but I’ll make them because they deserve to be stated in the context of accusations of infringement:

    1. There is no such thing as “intellectual property”. It’s completely out of the question to use a generic catch-all phrase like “it’s my intellectual property, yada yada”. Besides it being bad English, it encourages a number of horribly illogical presuppositions and contradictions.
    2. You also can’t possibly assert copyrights to the look and feel of your Web site. They’re NOT copyrightable under U.S. law or any other legal system around the world (see Apple v. Microsoft). Any judge would throw out such a case, based on precedent or written law.
    3. You indeed own the copyrights to the code that generates this particular look and feel of the site. If you found someone copying that, and you can prove that work to be derivative work from your theme (in the sense that the same bytes were re-used, even altered), you have a legitimate case. But just mimicking the look is not creating a derivative work.

    There, I said it. Keep me posted!

  30. “ultimately too willing to forgive” …no such thing Brian.
    Being able to let go is the most valuable skill I know of. It keeps you sane, and we all know what kind of silliness happens in the world when it isn’t being practiced. And yes it is possible to let go, forgive and still make sure the guilty party is punished. Everybody who steals, at some level, really does want to get caught.

  31. Thanks for the lesson Rudd-O. Did you graduate from law school before or after I did?

    I don’t give a damn what a judge would say. But this type of situation is exactly why a blog is more powerful than a lawsuit.

  32. Well i was the one who found it, so i could compare the stylesheets, believe me Rudd-O it was 99% the same (the author’s name was edited and some other things).
    Stealing is not OK.

  33. My first few emails to Brian went immediately from his great content into, “How can I beg Chris to make a template for me?” And then came Cutline.

    At this point, I think I’d have to stop blogging if Cutline weren’t available. I’m too in love with it.

  34. Adam, Brian: so it’s a textbook copyright infringement case. Brian, I also agree that the blog is a much more potent tool to nuke copyright infringement situations than a lawsuit.

    We certainly agree that copyright infringement shouldn’t be tolerated. The law is there for a reason. But no matter how much you guys and I agree, equating CI with stealing is wrong, and it could also be construed as being tendencious.

    But, please, frame the conversation using the right words. Copyright infringement is not theft. It is certainly not “stealing”. There is *no* interpretation or dictionary definition of those words that stretches so long.

    Please don’t contribute to the confusion surrounding copyright. It only worsens everyone else’s lives in the long run.

    Just to be clear, and this is not nitpicking but just stating something that has been obvious for thousands of years: stealing is taking someone else’s property. This implies that the victim can no longer exploit the stolen good. It follows that this case does not fit the definition of stealing, because your current theme is without doubt yours to exploit even if it were copied a thousand times.

    Copyright is certainly not property, and there are perfectly valid and sensical reasons why it shouldn’t be considered or treated as property, ever. Unless, of course, you think monopolies are good for the economy and everyone. Which no renowned economist thinks, by the way. Not surprisingly, the only people who think monopolies are good, are monopolists. And Parker Brothers, perhaps.

  35. Oh good lord… I thought I left these type of specious nitpicky arguments behind when I quit the practice of law.

    I’m into copy now Rudd-O… powerful evocative words that best convey the heart of the matter.

    “Steal” and “theft” seem on the money to me. Your reformist ideas about intellectual property (and yes, that’s what it legally is) are best left expressed in some other forum.

  36. OK, Brian, you got me there. But I can’t help thinking you at least agree with me partly. Have a great day, and I’m glad the issue cleared up so quickly. Keep writing powerful copy, as you’ve always done.

  37. BC, I am so glad you’re a reformed lawyer and don’t play one on TV.

    Words like those big-uns above make me quesy.

    I’m actually glad I was out on the trail of money and missed this mess.

  38. You needed a site security guard. I know someone.

  39. Loren, you’re… uhh… I mean whomever you’re talking about is hired. :)

  40. Done

  41. That’s some sort of weird, i’ve been asked by a wannabe client to do a “Copyblogger” style blogger beta layout.

  42. Rudd-O, there’s better ways to get more visitors to your site. You just made yourself look stupid.

    Brian, your “look” may be copied, but your content, the meat that really matters, can never be duplicated by those same individuals. (What’s Chris doing still charging you?)

    Chris, get used to this. When you do great work, there will always be someone there trying to pass it off as theirs. What amazes me is how dumb they are, to think nobody will notice.

  43. Looks like yours wasn’t the only site design being copied in the last couple days:
    Google copies Yahoo

  44. This happens all of the time in online businesses (I know, I work for one). Our competitors are always ripping us off…even our copy styles and phrasings, modifying them just a bit. It’s kind of the way of the world right now. It’s wrong on some levels, but in the new world, perhaps imitation is what drives innovation, and word of mouth and quality of product/content will have to determine which companies sink or swim. Shouldn’t it be that way anyway?

  45. No, it’s not the way of innovation.
    Innovation means you add value and creativity, not take something and mash a detail. That’s theft pure and simple. To say it’s not is to condone it, to look the other way, to lower the bar for everyone.

    You don’t paraphrase the encyclopedia. It’s still plagarism when you do. That’s a lesson learned in 5th grade.

    Being “nice” to someone who doesn’t want to do their own thinking isn’t nice; it’s crippling.

  46. There is a difference, for example, when Match.com adopts something eHarmony is doing successfully and running with it… that’s healthy competition that promotes innovation.

    Cutting and pasting does not facillitate innovation. It rather gives the unscrupulous an unfair advantage by freely exploiting the resources of others.

  47. I have to agree with Liz and Brian here as well. Innovation has a component of collaboration. Cutting and pasting is a step in the opposite direction. Innovation is reviewing, and taking what you have learned to advance an idea or product. There is no advancement with the reversal of the terms “learn” and “take”.

  48. But what about very similar designs and copy—isn’t that the same thing?

    I guess my question is, at which point does healthy “based-on” become stealing? I know there are a few lawyers on here who probably know more than I do… what percent can an original design and text be modified from its original and still be considered an original work? How about for coding and open-source stuff?

    Obviously if someone steals your code, or words verbatim that’s pretty obvious rip-off. I completely agree with Liz, too, about how looking the other way lowers the bar for everyone…but that bar seems to be lowering across the board. Not saying it’s right…but do you at least agree that things are going in this “share/steal freely”, e.g., YouTube, open source, “healthy corporate innovation”

  49. I’m closing the comments. Enough has been said.