Inspiration vs. Plagiarism

When does inspiration cross the line and become plagiarism? When it comes to Web development, it’s a very fine line at times.

Copyright law protects anything that’s tangible. It protects code, images, audio and text. Anything you can print out and hand to someone, it protects.

What it doesn’t protect is abstract concepts such as a site’s layout. The reason being that design, generally speaking, is an element of patent law. Copyright law does not protect a site’s layout, it’s color scheme or its “big idea”. Though it can protect the individual parts that make it, the end product rarely, if ever, can be copyrighted.

This means that if I like a site’s layout and want to use it as my own, I can do so as long as I do it without reusing any of the code or images from the original. Needless to say, this would take a great deal of work, so much so that it makes much more sense to simply start from scratch.

However, that doesn’t stop some people from doing it anyway…

The Tale of Two Sites

I spend a fair amount of time on the Pirated Sites forums trying to help Webmasters who have had their content ripped off. Even though I’m constantly reminding some people that a design isn’t copyrightable, many have had their images stolen and their code ripped, a clear violation of copyright law.

One Webmaster, James White of, posted the forums with just such a complaint. Another site, one owned by a so-called Web developer, had lifted much of his code, including his CSS file, and several of his images to make his site a near clone of SN.

Eager to help, I advised James to file a DMCA complaint against the site’s host and to get the works removed. He did so and, sure enough, the site went down. It seemed that the matter had been resolved and I was prepared to move on from it.

However, the site reappeared on the Web after about 24 hours of downtime. The plagiarist removed all infringing materials from his site, not by creating a new design and making the site an expression of himself, but by simply re-writing the infringing code and replacing the stolen images. Though this created minor differences between the two sites, the resemblance to SN is still undeniable.

Regardless, without any actual infringing code or images, there’s not much hope for any future action, as sad and as frustrating as that is. Though it is highly unethical, especially for someone promoting themselves as a designer, it’s not, at least on its face, illegal.

The Problem

Currently, there is no protection for a layout. To my knowledge, one can not patent a site design (though you can apparently patent all kinds of other stupid software “inventions”), and design doesn’t fall under copyright law. There’s simply no way to guard against this kind of “heavy inspiration”.

Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If one could patent a Web page design, creating a site would be like traversing a minefield. For example, if James obtained a patent on his layout, no one would be able to use a three column layout with a large image across the top. Every Web developer would have to look up the site design they want to create and see if it’s been patented before, costing everyone a great deal of time and money and drastically reducing the number of sites on the Web.

Clearly, Web design patents aren’t the solution, but one has to feel as if there must be a way to resolve such cases where theft was clearly the intention.

In the end though, it’s just part of being on an Internet where we’re all free to express ourselves without having to dig through the archives of a patent office. Everyone who creates should be grateful that simple ideas aren’t protected under copyright, patent or trademark law as it frees us from worry of legal action for persuing ideas we came up with on our own.

The consequence, however, is that many will push the idea of inspiration all the way to the breaking point. I’ve seen several “heavily inspired” versions of my poems and have moved in on none of them.

Because, unless it’s clearly a derivative work, there’s nothing a copyright holder can do. The line between plagiarism and inspiration is a very faint one, but in the eyes of copyright law, it makes all of the difference in the world.

[tags]Plagiarism, Web Development, Patents, Copyright[/tags]

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