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Rhodri Marsden

Journalist and musician Rhodri Marsden has been addressing common technology problems by stripping away the jargon and enlisting the help of readers in his Cyberclinic column in The Independent for the past two years.

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Suffering from website envy?

Posted by Rhodri Marsden
  • Wednesday, 22 July 2009 at 08:22 am
Two friends of mine had a major spat a couple of years ago over their respective website designs. The fact that they didn't much care for each other in the first place didn't help the situation, but one of them claimed – with some justification, it has to be said – that the other had swiped the overall look of her website and indiscreetly applied it to his. His attitude was very much "No I haven't"; hers was "Yes you have", and eventually he was reluctantly forced to change his to "well yes, I have, but so what?"

Anyone who publishes stuff on the web gets website envy. Most website designers, when briefed by their clients, will be given a load of URLs and be told to incorporate that kind of background, that kind of navigation, that kind of font, that kind of colour scheme and so on. Website designers themselves generally learn their skills not through weighty tomes bought at great expense from the computing section of Waterstones, but by getting their hands dirty, viewing the source code of other people's websites, seeing how it works, nicking the good bits and then applying them to their own designs. This magpie approach is so widespread that those doing it scarcely give it a second thought. And you can't blame them – after all, the whole ethos of the web is about freedom, sharing, adapting, reworking and re-presenting. And imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?

Some companies aren't quite so sanguine, it seems. The web hosting provider Fasthosts recently revealed that it is having to deal with an escalated number of content disputes involving websites – almost doubling over the past 12 months. There have been accusations of swiping designs, images, whole chunks of text; Fasthosts are putting it down to tight economic conditions forcing businesses to avoid the expense of employing designers and copywriters, and just cobbling together their own versions of other websites on the cheap. But a far bigger factor is surely our slowly changing attitude towards copyright in general. These days, if you see someone slap a copyright symbol at the foot of their website, it almost looks laughable; you can understand why they've put it there – they've spent time, effort and cash creating their online presence and don't see why anyone else should use bits of it for free – but you'd have to be on another planet to think that letter c in a circle strikes fear into anyone's heart in this day and age.

In an ideal world, of course, people who work in creative industries (Note: the author of this blog works in creative industries) would have their considerable talents deeply respected, we'd be carried shoulder high by cheering crowds at the end of our day's work to a waiting chariot, and the average person would no more steal our work than they'd steal a Rolls Royce. But it's not an ideal world. Don't swipe other people's website designs wholesale, but if you do, well, you'll probably get away with it. Just as my friend did.


melsykes wrote:
Wednesday, 22 July 2009 at 02:03 pm (UTC)
People have always ripped off or borrowed ideas from each others websites. It's how the web has evolved and sites have hosted bigger and better features.

Obviously an exact clone is bang out of order, but if you can change it, make it yours and improve upon it in your own way, then it's free game.

j4 wrote:
Wednesday, 22 July 2009 at 03:09 pm (UTC)
Some college in China blatantly ripped off the rather staid (i.e. incredibly dull) design of our University admin website, when I worked at the other place. It was a complete clone of our design except that they'd changed blue to brown throughout. The web team had a bit of a "what do we do about this?" conversation & decided we didn't actually care enough to do anything about it. They weren't stealing any of the University brand marks per se, & the idea of trying to copyright the other elements of the design would have been absurd. I mean, really, only Amazon would try to pretend they'd invented something like "A wide band of colour at the top and a narrow band of colour at the bottom and a navigation bar on the left separated from the rest of the page by a thin vertical line", or "three navigation links at the top right in different tints of the same colour".

It probably comes down to whether anybody can claim you're "passing off". If you nicked the University of Essex website's design for a Colchester-based EFL College, say, they might (reasonably!) get upset about it; if you nicked their design for a blog about badgers, they probably wouldn't care.

These are my personal opinions & not necessarily the opinions of my employers past or present, much less the opinions of the University of Essex, with whom I have no connection at all. May contain traces of nuts.
Web hosting provider
jamesparker1 wrote:
Friday, 29 January 2010 at 07:23 am (UTC)

Great information in this post and the web hosting provider recently revealed that it is having to deal with an escalated number of content disputes involving websites almost doubling over the past 12 months.
biochem456 wrote:
Wednesday, 15 December 2010 at 05:01 am (UTC)
Simplest design is better, but it will be very difficult to prove that this is yours design , not stolen one.... Especially when you work was inspired buy some other pages...o


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