My Website Design Was Stolen! Now What?

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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 and is the author of The Smashing … More about Cameron ↬

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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.

You may also want to check out the following Smashing Magazine articles:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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

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

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

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 Trade” 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

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-Sites, 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 CopyScape, 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

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.

Smashing Editorial (al)