82 thoughts on “Stealing design

  1. Well that’s not cryptic at all. Nope. Not whatsoever.

    For the record, if I had a nickel for every web site design design ripped off from me (including my years of foolhardy spec), well, at least I could afford one of those fancy Starbucks drinks. We’re talking Venti now.

  2. I still can’t believe that people so blatantly rip off designs. How many people have ripped off your site would you say Jeffrey?

  3. with Kipling, we say “They copied all they could follow, but they couldn’t copy my mind. So I left them sweating and stealing, a year and a half behind”

    cheers!

  4. Great advice. I’ve been saying for a while now that most web designs let ripoffs get to them WAY too much. It’s nice to know your work is liked well enough to be stolen, and the reality is that is almost never does any harm to the person being ripped off. It’s annoying, but it usually doesn’t actually hurt anything.

    Very well-said, Jeffrey. “…worry about the day the stop.” Love that.

  5. I saw a p!ssing match the other day over some css tab navigation that was supposedly ripped off.

    The weak part of it was that the person claiming theft used a nav template from a fairly well-known site. I recognized it immediately…he had just changed the font.

    A wannabe victim…now THAT’S sad! :)

    JimmyD

  6. I don’t mind peole ripping off a design, granted it’s not the images, but what irks me the most is when somebody rips off my code WITH the google analytics tracking code still intact. Then their stupid site screws up my analytics.

  7. Yeah, stealing code with Google Analytics sucks. But stealing code with Google Adsense is funny.

    I used to run a blogsome blog, and a heap of other blogsome blogs used my code, complete with Adsense code.

    Still never received $100 worth of clicks, though.

  8. Sure, having your design ripped off is a form of flattery and getting worked up about it isn’t really going to get you anywhere, but I just hate the idea of promoting laziness and that’s what this sort of practice is most of the time.

  9. @Neal, that is hysterically annoying. I’ve not experience that one before. I’m wondering what the overlay looks like.

    Jeffrey, you put this about as beautifully precise as can be.

    It’s like stealing yesterdays newspaper from your neighbor. It might still have some interesting things in it, if you haven’t yet read it, but it’s not really news anymore, is it?

  10. With all due respect to a seasoned advertising man and the father of the web standards movement, this statement is bullshit. Maybe some young buck blogger can convince themselves that their site is getting stolen is a good thing, but to me, who makes a living on my design and writing skills, this sentence is nothing more than a half-cocked, fundamentally ridiculous anecdote written specifically to incite a reaction. It smacks so strongly of Oscar Wilde (“there is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”) that I almost think Zeldman is trying to make a joke. But then I read the sad comments, with people actually agreeing with him, and I feel we, as a creative community, have missed something along the way.

  11. ‘chop your own wood, it will warm you twice.’

    i stole this quote from henry ford – oops, i shouldn’t have said that should i. there’s way to much stealing going on these days to even bother worrying. i attribute this outlook from using p2p in the 90s i think.

    round round round we go.

  12. @Kevin: I make my living the same way you do. For 13 years I’ve been designing websites and creating web content. For 13 years, people have been stealing my designs, writing, and code. For most of those years, it bugged me. But I’ve come to realize that it hasn’t hurt me. Clumsy thieves unwittingly do viral marketing on your behalf.

  13. Unless it is blatant plagiarism the one thing the web has taught me is that we are not as unique as we think we are. The idea that 99% of what you create is unique is naive and a lie you tell yourself. Everyday people are influenced by their history, culture, environment, and contemporaries. In most cases you are not the first person to have the idea you thought was unique or orginal. The web as a medium is contained by the progress of its technological advances. As for writing I suppose Strunk and White or the people who wrote the AP style guide can say they have been ripped off too. Even Shakespeare was derivative. You use image replacement that was somebody elses idea do you credit them with a comment in your code? Combine the lack of progressive technology and the fact that the web itself is a viral culture that connects many more people than any other medium and humanity can’t help but refract and reflect itself. That also includes you.

  14. It’s not so much the stealing that would worry me, it would be if the stolen design got more recognition, through css galleries and general traffic to the site complimenting them on their design. I’ve seen stolen designs printed in magazines before which is really worrying as they cannot be corrected or removed.

  15. I’m usually leery of paradoxical-and-therefore-witty aphorisms but in this case I generally agree. Intellectual theft is inevitable and so if no one is stealing your work then there are obviously better things to steal. That’s not to say it’s something you want to happen. The caveat would be, worry about the day they stop unless all intellectual theft is eradicated in which case be glad it’s gone (unlikely in most cases since influences are so vast and origins often impossible to prove.)

  16. Everything comes from somewhere. Who created the first tabbed system of navigation? What if they had claimed intellectual copyright on it?

    I use other people’s code all the time, not as direct theft but because they have achieved an effect I am looking for and I want to understand how they did it. The problem is when the theft is so blatant that someone hasn’t even bothered to make it their own like: http://www.flickr.com/photos/danbenjamin/255656615/

    “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief.” – U2

  17. Fact is, for a medium as “template-y” as web design is, where there are such rigid rules for design and development, there is and will never be a world where every design is different.

    You will find similarities at some level in every web site. Just because someone has coded a feature that “looks” like yours, doesn’t necessarily mean he copied the code from you. The designer/developer could very well have arrived at the same conclusion after having studied code from multiple sites or instruction books or from trial & error.

    Obviously, there are people who do copy code verbatim … and, so what … does it really affect the bottom line for you, the “original” artist? Unless that same person stole a prospect or a client as a result of your work, then I’d assume not.

    Again, obviously, there are exceptions to every rule in every facet of the creative world – an interesting related story: New York Times

    If it is important for you to protect your work from design thieves, you had better take the time to brush up on US Copyright and Trademark law. You may be surprised to learn that Copyright does not inherently protect your creative “ideas” from being replicated.

    I do find the argument amusing, considering the same people who are whining probably studied Zeldman or Eric Meyer or someone else at some point simply to learn how to code.

    This issue will never go away and we are ALL guilty.

  18. Too many people in this discussion are confusing the issue. There is a difference between being influenced and outright stealing. Of course I read Zeldman and others, and _learned_ (not stole) best practices in development.

    The issue at hand is stealing. I am the creative director at my company, and we work hard to brand and position ourselves ahead of the competition in our marketplace, and have largely succeeded. I manage both writers and designers. We strive to output clear, original language that describes the benefits of our technology. Just this week I found a local company who ripped our design top to bottom. Spending three minutes in The Google reveals no less than four ankle-biters stealing _entire pages of content_.

    It’s an epidemic that goes beyond design, and WAY beyond blogs. Companies are outright stealing from companies. Every time I find another shit head stealing our content, my company’s competitive edge and brand positioning is eroded.

    I am really surprised people are so lax about this.

  19. I am really surprised people are so lax about this.

    Actually almost nobody is lax about it. If people were lax about it, I wouldn’t have written the post. People get up in arms about it, and most of the time, rightfully so.

    That’s the trouble with aphoristic writing, I suppose. My post was meant as a gentle corrective to the angst that accompanies the actions we take to protect ourselves. Protecting ourselves is a must, but when we do so, let’s look on the bright side. Plenty of talented people aren’t getting ripped off. If you’re getting ripped off, it means people are aware of you and your work, and that awareness is good for business and your career. So, while taking care of yourself and going after blatant thieves, you might also take a moment to be grateful that people follow your work. A bit o’ sunshine amid the shit, as it were.

    From some of the earlier comments, I should also have clarified that this mini-post was written in response to the stealing of layouts. As we all know, layouts get stolen all the time and are very hard to protect. Copyright doesn’t even apply to them, which is an awful thing when you consider some of the low-level stuff that does get afforded copyright protection or even patent protection.

    It should go without saying that logos are different, photography is different, long passages of writing are different, complex works done on behalf of a client are different. If some fool steals the entire color scheme and grid and logo for a site you designed on behalf of a client, you are obliged to demand a retraction of the stolen work, and to pursue legal action if the fool ignores your initial requests.

    If they’ve stolen your layout (but not words or photos or illustrations), U.S. law protects the thieves, not you. If you succeed at getting the thief to change his or her design, it will be through your personal skills alone, whether you use intimidation or empathy or some combination of sticks and carrots.

    Then, too, as we all know, there are countries where intellectual property rights are observed only in the breach. People in those places can steal your words, music, photographs, illustrations, layout, and anything else, and they will get away with it. That being the unfortunate case, a lessening of angst may help you cope. Hence the aphorism.

    It’s not so much the stealing that would worry me, it would be if the stolen design got more recognition, through css galleries and general traffic to the site complimenting them on their design.

    That happens, and it is a genuine concern. If it’s a CSS Gallery, the problem is easy to resolve: contacting the site’s creators inevitably leads to the removal of the rip-off.

    But if it’s a serious non-web-based awards show (like Communication Arts), the book will already be out there, and you can’t undo it. However, folks at places like Communication Arts take plagiarism very seriously, and the culprits would be shunned and shamed in very public ways. Plus the judges at such shows see a lot of work, and would be fairly likely to recognize a blatant rip-off (just the same way any of us would recognize, let’s say, a blatant rip-off of the Simplebits logo).

    Intellectual theft is inevitable and so if no one is stealing your work then there are obviously better things to steal. That’s not to say it’s something you want to happen.

    Right.

    You may be surprised to learn that Copyright does not inherently protect your creative “ideas” from being replicated.

    Exactly the point I was trying to make earlier in this endless comment, but expressed more succinctly. Thanks!

    The issue at hand is stealing. I am the creative director at my company, and we work hard to brand and position ourselves ahead of the competition in our marketplace, and have largely succeeded. I manage both writers and designers. We strive to output clear, original language that describes the benefits of our technology. Just this week I found a local company who ripped our design top to bottom. Spending three minutes in The Google reveals no less than four ankle-biters stealing _entire pages of content_.

    And you are obliged to go after them, and no doubt will—and will succeed. Go get ‘em!

  20. Most people studying to be a cartoonist have done some tracing. And I admit I’ve made some sites that are startlingly similar to other well-designed sites. It doesn’t make me a good designer, but I learn through emulation. Art students do it all the time. “Make a painting like the Mona Lisa” or “do a Matisse”.

    I just did a store template like the apple store, is that theft, or just a good idea? I learned tons, and gave it my own style in a sense. I wouldn’t get any better if I coded in a box. By copying with a critical eye, I learn some of the thought that went into a particular design, and then I can use that on the next project I do.

    Theft is a gradient. Sometimes it’s incorrigible, sometimes it’s an homage, sometimes it’s just research.

    “Steal from one source and it’s plagiarism, steal from many and it’s research” I’d put a source on that quote, but ironically it’s been ripped off too many times.

    I agree that Ctrl+C/Ctrl+P isn’t research, and you wont learn anything from that, but stealing design is in no way black and white.

  21. I am not going to even hide that before I will make some specific website, first I am checking how zeldam, zen garden couple others are doing their websites. This is how it is but I dont feel that I am stealing something. If I am stealing then we must say that Microsoft is big, huge and naughty stealer too.

  22. @Mietek – I don’t think anyone would argue that Microsoft is, indeed, a “big, huge and naughty stealer”.

    I think Jeffrey summed this up already. If it’s a case like the Simple Bits logo ripoff, get mad. Get even, even.

    In most cases, you’re just playing a game of who bit first. And while work is always worth protecting, “talent” (if you can forgive me for using the word) is where your value is. And if anyone is biting that close, you should be more concerned about seeing a doctor, as apposed to a lawyer.

  23. Speaking specifically about layout ripoffs, I would say that these attempts only serve to illuminate the skill and attention to detail of the original designer.

    Inevitably some detail will be screwed up in these copies, and we all know that good design is in the details. This is why a copy of a painting will never get the same price as the original, its just never going to be as good…

  24. I’ve only had a layout ripped once :( I didn’t even care to boot, as the execution was so piss poor that I was probably the only one who noticed.

  25. 4 years ago someone stole my entire site – graphics, layout, text…and hotlinked the graphics from my site, which is how I found out about them. They replaced my logo with theirs, and that was that. I contacted them, and they said it was ok, because they were in South Dakota, and I was in Connecticut, so they weren’t stealing my clients.

    HUH?

    After a bit of verbal sparring, they edited the site just enough so it was different…except for some of the internal links, which to this day still point to my site.

  26. I agree with so many of the comments posted here. Not only do the copycats not do the work justice, it’s plain to see that their knock-offs of “missing something.” Our sites have been duplicated and “improved upon” for ages and the thing we’ve noticed consistently is that many of the designs we’ve conceived of over the years cannot be improved, they can only be compromised. In other words, those copy cats only recognize the work as good, they fail to realize that you can’t repurpose a carefully conceived user experience and expect realize the shortcut they’re after. Too funny.

  27. Good point Jeffrey! ;)

    While I would be annoyed about the idea of someone stealing my design work, the fact that no-one is stealing it at all right now probably says volumes!!! Haha

  28. Hear hear. Thanks for putting it out there in such a bold, straightforward way. I’ll never forget the deep cringing I felt reading Storey’s gangland post about the (albeit deliverate and outright) theft of Joyent’s design and Cederholm’s logo about a year back. Far worse was the subsequent pile-on by a number of insecure designers. It was nothing less than an online witch hunt. I bring it up only as a case study, not to open old wounds.

  29. I recently had to inform a nonprofit client of mine that their web design was a nearly-exact copy of another website’s. They’d paid a web designer to design a site but obviously didn’t expect him to copy another website wholesale. The website he’d ripped off was that of a very similar charity – which is the only reason I noticed – and this “borrowing” wasn’t likely to go unnoticed forever.

    That’s one good reason web designers shouldn’t rip off website designs – it’s their clients that will get criticised.

  30. @Jason King: I can’t tell you how many “clients” “didn’t know” that the “freelance web designer they hired” ripped off a design. It’s the oldest story since Cain and Abel. You contact someone who has stolen your work outright; they tell you that a freelance employee did it. Once in a while it may even be true. But one hears it so frequently, one understands it to be a face-saving fiction.

    @Andrew Boardman: My intention was not to criticize my friend Greg Storey for protecting his friends’ work! I didn’t have Greg (or anyone) in mind, and I didn’t intend my remarks to be taken as negative criticism of other people’s behavior; I just wanted to remind my peeps that if someone’s copying you, you may be doing something right. :D

  31. I tend to go in the other direction.

    For example, I recently built a site for a non-profit and a couple of days prior to launching it came across a nearly identical site that I had never seen before. Obviously the markup and CSS was entirely different, but the palette and overall ‘feel’ of the site was too close for comfort.

    These people paid (well, it was a freebie, but they would have paid) for a unique site and I felt that the burden. However, I sure do wish that I’d never seen the sucker. Ignorance really can be bliss.

  32. People can cut and paste your code, but at some point they will be asked to make your code stand up, rollover, or jump through a hoop. If all they are capable of is cutting and pasting, their lack of skill will quickly be recognized.

    Think of it this way: A zillion cover bands play “Satisfaction”, but people still pay to hear Keith and Mick do it.

  33. I was just thinking about that yesterday. I agree. With art like paintings, or drawings, I think it hurts more though.

  34. This is the common problem. I saw many sites that steal design and even a contect… But they won’t get anywhere with this :)

  35. Ranting and Raving abt “stealing”.

    Is stealing really wrong?
    So are you telling me that you have never ever in your entire teeny miserable life looked at something, wanted it so bad, and decided to come up with something that is ‘yours’. The way I see it, this board is crawling with coffee sipping, mac typing, wannabe artistic, sad bunch o’ hypocrites.
    Surely there is more to your pathetic lives than worrying people stealing ‘your’ designs.

    My solution: Open source people !!
    Now if you filed ‘your’ designs under creative commons. It allows people to appreciate you as a user who isn’t all whiny about ‘its all about me me me’.

    Plus encourages people to NOT steal BUT improvise on existing designs as well as acknowledge its original source.

    Think about it. Depriving them of the pleasures of blatantly ripping off designs.

    You indeed are a sad lot.

  36. Good point! This reminds me of a quote from BB KING, where he said something to the effect of “everyone borrows from everyone… there’s nothing wrong with a bit of borrowing.”
    The Beatles, in fact, admitted that they ‘borrowed’ ideas from their heroes. Some of their songs, they said, were built on the same chords of songs they enjoyed from others. All they did, was just reverse the chords and come up with a tune that was similar but different. That’s how it goes in the art world! And, frankly, we’ve ALL borrowed from someone else!

  37. This is probably the reason why Digg didn’t worry upon seeing the Digg-like design of Netscape’s social community section. But the fact that some people are just mere copycats still scares most web site owners and web site designers. Who knows, when you wake up morning you’ll get shock after accidentally opening a site that’s exactly the same with what you’ve designed some time ago or exactly the same with the web site you own. Who’s responsible for this? The designer who must have worked for several clients and didn’t have time to think for another original design? Or the web site owner who didn’t secure his site?

  38. when someone lifts my portfolio website wholesale–leaving the links to my blog and my analytics code intact–and uses it for their portfolio website, it tends to make me a bit irritated. especially if they consider themselves a web designer.

    the website has a picture of me on it, for crying out loud. at least have the decency to change that.

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  41. Why shouldn’t I worry about people copying designs? Please tell me why. Does that give me anything positive in return? What can copycats do for me?

  42. That is really too short for a post. It is somehow convincing but more of doubtful. Although at one point your post is a relief for designers and artists, still it will make us worry-free if nobody steals our design.

  43. That is really too short for a post. It is somehow convincing but more of doubtful. Although at one point your post is a relief for designers and artists, still it will make us worry-free if nobody steals our design.

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