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My Website Design Was Stolen! Now What?

Designers spend hours perfecting websites, whether their own or their clients’. When you’ve invested anywhere from a few days to months in a website, the last thing you want is for someone else to steal the design without even giving you proper credit (or compensation). And if you’re a template or theme designer, it’s an even bigger problem. After all, if your templates are available online for free, a lot of people won’t bother paying for them.

So what can you do if you’ve discovered that one of your designs has been ripped off? What should you do? Read on for a complete guide to steps you can take to protect your intellectual property.

I am not a lawyer, nor do I pretend to be one on TV, so the advice here should not be taken as legal advice. Before taking any of the actions mentioned below, check with a lawyer or other legal expert to see what is allowable in your state or country or to see if additional options are available to you.

1. Why People Steal Designs Link

Not everyone who steals a design is out to rip you off. There are a variety of reasons; one of the most common is that many people just don’t understand that stealing someone else’s design is illegal and unethical. Of course, if you’re selling templates or themes, that probably isn’t the case, but if a one-off design of yours has been stolen, it’s always a possibility.

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The myth persists that if content is put online, it’s fair game. Others think that if a copyright isn’t explicitly stated, then it doesn’t exist. In either case, the person who has taken your design likely doesn’t realize that they’ve done anything wrong.

In other cases, someone might take your design because they feel it’s an excellent example of what a website in their niche should look like or because the company behind the website is a leader in the industry. These people may or may not realize that what they’re doing is wrong or at least may not realize just how wrong it is.

Some people steal designs because they can’t afford to hire a website designer but have just enough technical know-how to copy a website themselves. These people rarely suspect they’ll be caught. The same sometimes happens with people who have been hired to design a website but lack the skills to do the job. And so they copy another website, hoping their client has never seen it.

Sometimes, someone will steal the bulk of your design but change small parts and then claim they were merely inspired by the design and didn’t really steal it. Unless they completely recreated the website from scratch and made significant changes (and even then…), this isn’t a good defense, and you can still treat them as though they they stole it outright.

If you sell templates, and someone has used one of them on their website, they may not realize that this is wrong. Plenty of forums and other websites out there make templates available for anyone to download, and some make no mention that these are not licensed to be distributed in this way. So don’t jump to the conclusion that someone intentionally stole your design. Of course, the people distributing your templates are probably guilty.

I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to intellectual property theft. If it’s happening to you for the first time, then it can be tempting to go after them with full force, but in many cases you’ll have better luck educating the offender.

2. Initial Steps Link

So, you’ve discovered that someone has stolen one of your designs. Whether you’ve discovered it yourself or someone has reported it to you, it can be a jarring experience. Your first reaction might be to fire off an angry email, make a comment on their website or out them publicly. But step back for a moment and think through your options.

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The way you handle this situation will largely determine how satisfied you are with the resolution. If you attack the person, their immediate reaction will be to get defensive or dig in their heels and refuse to deal with you. They may even contact a lawyer to get you off their back, and that could result in expensive legal fees and even litigation for you: Not exactly what most designers want to spend their money and energy on.

Finding the Website Owner Link

The first place to check is the website itself. In most cases, you’ll find some kind of contact information there. If not (or you find only a contact form), you can usually find the website owner by looking up the Whois information about the domain. If the domain is privately registered, though, you may have to contact the Web host to obtain contact information. If that fails, your last option may be to use legal channels.

The First Contact Link

Remember, the person ripping off your design might not even know they’re doing something wrong. Your first contact is an opportunity to educate them on intellectual property rights. Don’t accuse. Let them know that the design they’re currently using is copyrighted and that unless they can prove they’ve paid for it, you’ll need them to take the website down immediately.

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It’s possible that the website owner is unaware that their design is not original. If they’ve hired a less-than-reputable designer, they might have been led to believe that their design is completely original, and your email will come as quite a shock to them. Keeping your first email friendly and polite can make a huge difference in how they respond.

If You Don’t Hear Back Link

If you don’t hear back from the website owner after a few days, you can always contact their ISP to request that it take the website down. If you can provide proof that the design is yours and that they aren’t licensed to use it, many ISPs will suspend the website to avoid being sucked into litigation should you decide to sue.

Issue a DMCA Take-Down Notice Link

This only applies in the United States, but the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has provisions for dealing with intellectual property theft online. You can get a template of the formal notice, fill it out and send it to the website’s host. Most hosts will immediately comply, to protect themselves from litigation.

Call Them Out Publicly Link

If you’re 100% positive that the person has copied your website intentionally, and they aren’t responding to your requests to take it down, you could call them out publicly on your blog, in a forum or on another website.

This is riskier, though. First of all, they could sue you for libel. Whether they’d win or not is irrelevant: fighting a lawsuit is almost always expensive and time-consuming. They don’t have to be right to file a lawsuit; so even if everything you say is true and accurate, nothing is stopping them from following that course.

But this kind of action has its upsides. If your blog has a lot of readers or the forum has a lot of followers, you might get others to join your cause and act on your behalf to get the offending website taken down. The offender might relent, not wanting the negative publicity. But again, weigh the pros and cons carefully, and take this step cautiously.

Document Everything! Link

Document any actions you take regarding the theft. Note when you discovered the offending site, when you contacted the owner and whether they responded. This will help if you end up having to take further action.

If you still aren’t getting anywhere on your own, it might be time to contact a lawyer. A lawyer will probably begin by sending an official cease and desist letter to the offender. The letter would likely state that the design they’re using is copyrighted material and that they need to take the website down immediately or face further legal action.

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In many cases, an official letter from a lawyer is enough to scare off just about anyone, and you’ll find the design is quickly changed or taken down altogether.

However, if there’s still no response, the lawyer might send a similar letter to the website’s host, demanding that the website be suspended due to copyright infringement. Hosts are usually responsive to this kind of letter, because they don’t want to be sued.

If neither action works, the next step may be a lawsuit. In many cases, though, it’s just not work the time, effort or money involved. This is when you should sit down and really think about how far you’re willing to go.

If the person who stole your design is simply using it on their own website, you probably won’t want to bother with a lawsuit. The effect on your income probably won’t be big enough to warrant this kind of action. But if the offender is redistributing your design or passing it off as their own (for example, in their portfolio), then the lawsuit might be worth it. Ask your lawyer what they think your chances of winning are and what the costs will be.

Depending on your country of residence, you may be able to get assistance from the government in taking down the design. Check with the office responsible for copyright and intellectual property rights in your country to find the proper authorities to contact.

4. Preventing Theft Link

You can do a number of things to prevent your designs from being stolen. Some are technical solutions, while others relate more to the front end.

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Non-Technical Solutions Link

Simply posting a copyright notice on your website will deter many would-be offenders, especially people who don’t realize that online content is copyrighted unless specified otherwise. It might also deter people who know it is illegal but hope they won’t be caught. It shows you’re more proactive than other website owners.

Technical Solutions Link

One thing you can do to prevent theft of your designs is to block screenscraper apps from accessing your code. While blocking every screenscraper out there is impossible, the article “Preventing Design Theft: A Few Tricks of the Trade6” has both PHP and ASP code that can help you block most of them.

Use your .htaccess file to prevent images on your website from being hotlinked, because some thieves will go so far as to link images directly from your website, rather than use their own bandwidth.

Finding Out if Your Website Has Been Ripped Off Link

Usually, you won’t know that your design has been stolen unless you come across it on a website (which is very unlikely) or unless someone has reported it to you (only slightly more likely). Watchdog websites are out there, but the most popular one, Pirated-Sites7, was hacked and has been taken offline.

By including unique text in your footer or elsewhere in the design, you might be able to find thieves by searching for those key phrases. This is not always effective, but you might get lucky.

One other option is to use a website such as CopyScape8, which looks for duplicate websites. Just enter your website’s URL and it looks for websites out there that have copied your content (and possibly your design).

5. If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Join ’Em Link

If you’re spending more time chasing down thieves than actually designing, you might want to consider making your designs publicly available. Releasing them under a Creative Commons license or other open-source license removes the temptation for many thieves.

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Even designers who make a living selling templates could benefit from open licenses, if only in part. Selling your templates under a non-commercial Creative Commons license and then offering additional services to customers who purchase the designs directly from you (such as set-up, customization and support) can prevent others from profiting from your work (and entirely remove the temptation for many). After all, if someone can get your template for free, why would they pay someone else for it? (This is different than paying you for it, because you’re offering added benefits and services, and many people believe in compensating the original designer or artist for their work).

If nothing else, a no-derivatives license can at least help ensure that you’re getting credit for your work. As strange as it sounds, a template released under a Creative Commons license is no longer a motivation for many pirates.

Further Resources Link


Footnotes Link

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Cameron Chapman is a professional Web and graphic designer with over 6 years of experience. She writes for a number of blogs, including her own, Cameron Chapman On Writing. She’s also the author of The Smashing Idea Book: From Inspiration to Application.

  1. 1

    Bottom line, unless you have a team of good lawyers at your disposal, you’re helpless.

    • 2

      Don’t think so. You can always try getting the online community behind you then it would be much easier to have action taken. Remember you can contact the web host and prove evidence (I think this sometimes works?)

      • 3

        Don’t think contacting web host would help though…

      • 4

        @Alexey – in most cases it would. Especially for the more reputable hosts. They don’t want their reputation tarnished for aiding an abetting a criminal. Which is what it is basically classed as.

        • 5

          Even if a host pulls down a website, its fairly easy to repost the website on another domain. I’m a lawyer and I can say from legal experience that as long as a domain is registered, it cannot be pulled down unless criminal activity is suspected. And in almost every country, copyright theft is considered a misdemeanor or less, which legally cannot result in domain seizing.

    • 6
      • 7

        I didn’t have a design stolen, but I did have some content scraped. I contacted the host of the offending site, GoDaddy, and the account was suspended the next day.

    • 8

      Callum Chapman

      December 19, 2009 1:05 am

      Most people would freak out as soon as you mention lawyers, no one ever said you have to have any ;)

    • 9

      I strongly disagree. I’ve been on the other side of the fence. Someone accused me of stealing a design. I was arrested, had property seized, question, bailed. After being re-bailed a further three times the case was dropped due to lack of evidence.

      I did not use any legal help. I was cleared because I was innocent. Not every case comes down to being “screwed if you don’t have top lawyers.”

  2. 10

    It is very difficult to get someone to take a site down, regardless of legal ramifications…

    I have been there…one thing I have learned, not that I agree with stealing, but really it is a sign of respect, they like your work that much they want to use it, let them…

    If you talk about on your bog, people will know which came first….

  3. 11

    If you have copyrighted your work, would not another option be to offer to license the work to the alleged offenders? Licensing for a fee might be a rather non-threatening “get out of jail free” card to offer, benefiting both parties.

  4. 12

    “Internet Famous: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Online Celebrity”???
    Written by a girl with 6 years of experience???
    Is she a celebrity??? No, so her article… hummmm…
    Hehehehehehehe, now everybody writes :D!
    Great, free open space for everyone :P

  5. 13

    Hm it would be a pleasure for me if anyone steal my design :) Stealing is the evidence that it was made good.

    • 14

      Unless their website gets more famous thank yours…
      Otherwise it would be an honor, indeed :)

  6. 15

    Once something is published, online or not, it is automatically covered by copyright.

    Oddly enough, this article is pretty much the same as an article on another blog a few months back. Can’t remember what though, came about after Delete had their design stolen.

    Anyway. I think a lot of what is said here is a little over the top. People ‘steal’ ideas from designs all the time, any type of design, unless someone has copied you graphic for graphic and/or word for word then you should take it as a compliment.

  7. 16

    Frederick Luna

    December 18, 2009 6:34 am

    copyright is the word!

  8. 17

    yeah, it’s like quote of Pablo Picasso “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.”

  9. 19

    This post should be called “10 examples of breathtaking stock-photos.”

    • 20

      Cameron Chapman

      December 18, 2009 8:13 am

      I think the rate at which we (blogs in general) use stock photos has finally grown beyond the rate at which new ones are uploaded…

    • 21

      But…but…there’s only 6 photos in the main article…
      And some aren’t photos…

    • 22

      I extend my hand shake to you good sir.

  10. 23

    if you stop hotlinking by .htaccess keep in mind, that some feedreaders won’t be able to get access to the images either. thus stopping hotlinking isn’t the best solution for blogs and other sites, that distribute content by rss.

  11. 24

    There isn’t enough support for this, there is nothing more frustrating than working hard on something and then some so called designer helping themselves. They are stealing your style and it is very difficult to get anything done. Name and same is the way forward.

  12. 25

    Excellent article, Cameron.

    I haven’t been victim to this myself, but have seen it numerous times (some, even, by popular, reputable & otherwise very well liked designers).

    Thanks for putting this information in one place :)

  13. 26

    I actually purchased a design from a designer with in the Theme forest group not one of their templates. But he freelanced a design for me. Turns out he ripped it off from another designer. I was asked to pull it down and I did. I was out all of my money. Now I have a generic site up that’s embarrassing to me. Wasted a lot of time and money but right is right and would never steal something that was not mine.

    • 27

      Did you confront the designer about it? I’d be demanding my money back.

    • 28

      This is a website for web developers and designers. Why in the world are you paying for a design in the first place?? Make your own. If you dont want a generic site…build your own.

    • 29

      What you will find with that a lot of sites have the same basic templates. The images, borders, text, and colors may change that make it look different. So just because someone CLAIMS that your site was stolen from their website they have to do a lot more than just claim. This is the biggest problem out their people who think that just because a site looks like theirs it most have been stolen from their website. It is nothing than pure ego. Put your site back up.

  14. 30

    I’d like to take Tom’s idea one step further. Why not just send them a billl? :)

    What I like is when someone uses your eBay images that are on your server in their eBay auction. It’s so much fun! I just change the image to something like “Buy 1 get 2 free”. The image is removed from their auction in about a day.

  15. 32

    Dudes, don’t sweat it.

    First of all, a design cannot be “stolen” since stealing implies the victim looses whatever has been stolen. “Copying” is a better term.

    Secondly, it CAN be illegal, because when the “theft” crosses country borders, it might become legal.

    Third. Take it as a COMPLIMENT. Whoever copied your design, must like it so much that he/she takes all that effort to copy it.

  16. 33

    I’m sure I have read this article somewhere else..

    • 34

      Wow. I’m impressed.

      Isn’t it crazy that sometimes people write about the same subject? /sarcasm

      Seriously people, get off her back. Who cares. It’s informative.

      • 35

        It was a joke fella, its an article about IP theft, so I suggested it was stolen, do you see what I did there?

        However when reading some sections they were very very similar to some other articles on the net ;)

  17. 36

    Something closely related just happened to me. I’m consulting for a company and several months ago I completely redesigned and developed their entire website…all on my own. They have another graphic design company they occasionally use for some print material, holiday cards, etc. Well the other day I went to their website just to see what their portfolio looks like and saw something very surprising and infuriating. In their portfolio, under the title “Things We Create” there was a nice big screen shot of the site I both design and developed.

    To say I was pissed is an understatement. I spoke to the person I report to and he said he called them and asked them to take it down, but I just checked and it’s STILL up there!

    • 37

      Something very similar just happened to me.

      I received a google alert regarding a site I created, and it turns out some guy on a freelance design website is claiming he developed my site.

      With no way to contact the person directly, I used the website’s “report violation” procedure but after almost 2 weeks nothing has changed. Pretty frustrating, indeed.

  18. 38

    I don’t believe this! I just found out that I site I designed was ripped off. I LOVE YOU SMASHING MAGAZINE!!!!

  19. 40

    my guess is that most people here might like to think of this article as something that could happen to them, when in reality it won’t.

  20. 41

    I think taking it as a compliment is indeed the best way to deal with these situations. While it can be frustrating to see your designs being used in ways over which you have no control, the experience should serve to push you to keep evolving your own designs, to develop even more innovative and unique ideas, and to enjoy yourself in the process.


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