How Your Web Designer Could Land You in Copyright Trouble

Why you need to be careful before you hit publish...

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Whether you are building your first website or your 100th, it’s a common practice to either seek out a theme to build off of or to simply hire someone to do the work for you.

But, no matter how you obtain your website, it’s important to remember that it will eventually be yours and yours alone. As such, you will be responsible for the content on it.

Even if you have contracts that protect you from the bad behavior of your designers, those can be impossible to enforce. This is especially true if the designer is not local or, as sometimes happens, simply disappears when the job is done.

No matter how much or how little of a hand you have in building your website, you have an obligation to make sure that everything on it is legal. Though the vast majority of web designers are ethical and work within the boundaries of the law, blind trust is also not a risk you can afford to take.

As such, the best way to do this is to make sure that everything is either yours or correctly licensed. This can be a tall order as there are several ways a designer could land you in significant copyright trouble.

1: Copyright Infringing Images

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Of all the ways that a designer can cause problems for you, this is the one that’s most likely to bring trouble to your door.

The reason is that the stock photo industry has a long-running legal campaign where they target commercial uses of their images. There are also companies, such as Pixsy, that specialize in finding infringing images on the web and targeting those sites with legal threats. This says nothing about Richard Liebowitz and his aggressive campaign suing on behalf of photographers.

However, in spite of this increasingly dangerous legal environments, photos are still routinely copied and shared. Many designers, often working with limited budgets on a tight time crunch, sometimes insert images they don’t have a license to use as either a placeholder or as part of the finished project.

However, once that site goes live and is used to represent you or your company, it won’t be the designer that gets the legal documents, it will be you. The good news is that it’s an unfortunate situation that can be easily avoided.

How to Avoid It: Ask your designer for copies of the image licenses that they provide with your layout. If they can’t provide those, then replace the images with ones that you have a license to use. If you need free photos, consider using sites such as Unsplash, Pixabay and Pexels to name a few. There are also a variety of paid stock photography websites that you can turn to or, if you have the interest, you can create your own images.

Likewise, if you are using a stock layout from a site like Themeforest, I highly advise replacing any stock images that come with it not only for licensing purposes but to make your site more unique compared to other sites using the same theme.

2: Copied Text

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Similar to images, many designers will provide layouts with text either to be used as a placeholder or as part of the finished project. The problem is that at least some of the time, that text is not original nor is it licensed.

The danger of copied text is a bit different. While it is something that many will file takedown notices or take other action over (this is something I do a great deal of a CopyByte), lawsuits seem to be rarer. However, this text often comes from competitor websites and can not only hurt your site legally but, unlike with images, this can harm your site with the search engines.

That said, it’s still fairly common to find that the image provided with a layout, whether or stock or customized, contains elements copied from other sites. As such, it’s important to take the time to make sure that the text on your site isn’t just licensed, but original.

How to Avoid It: The secret to avoiding this one is fairly simple: Write all of the content on your site. It’s your site and the words need to be yours. After all, why should anyone go to your site in particular if all of the content on it can be found elsewhere? Your words are what make your site special.

If you don’t feel up to the task of writing your own content, then you need to bring on a freelancer to do it for you. However, even then, it’s worth taking the time to check and make sure that the work is original. Plagiarism detection tools are relatively simple to use and inexpensive. This is an area where you really do not want unoriginal content, for more than legal reasons, so it makes sense to be extra careful.

3: Unlicensed Code

Though hiring a designer or using a pre-made thememight seem like a great am to protect yourself, however, you still need to be careful.

Designers rarely start from scratch. They often begin with a website builder, another design tool or even a premade design that they build off of. There is nothing unethical or illegal about this, but it can become a problem if whatever code they are using is not properly licensed for you.

For example, Elementor, a popular WordPress-based site builder, offers several tiers of their pro version, ranging from $49 for a single site to $199 for 1,000 sites. If a developer doesn’t have the correct license, the sites they make could be infringing. As such, they could be forced to either obtain a license or stop functioning.

The same is true for almost any other theme or platform as they often come with restrictions as to how many sites they can be on or if they are available for agency work. It’s important that both you and the designer understand the terms the software comes with so that you can follow them.

How to Avoid It: As with the images, it’s less important for the work be original and more important that it be licensed correctly. As such, ask to see the licenses for any underlying code that the designer uses. If you use a premade theme, read the license carefully and make sure that you comply with it.

Whatever you do, do not ignore warnings in your site’s backend that indicate your theme is unlicensed. Even if it is a pure mistake, it’s a mistake well worth sorting out quickly.

Bottom Line

What it comes down to is, ultimately, two things: Thinking about copyright as part of the design process and communicating with your designer as they work on it.

Whether you hire a designer directly or simply pay for a prepackaged theme that you alter, you have a right and a need to know what is in the site you just purchased.

As I said before, the vast majority of designers are ethical and legal, but given that it will be your site and your company that takes the risk, it makes sense to ensure that everything on your site is legal.

Realistically, none of this takes a great deal of time but can help avoid a tremendous amount of headaches down the road.

In the end, it only makes sense to take the time and make sure that you got what you paid for and that your good intentions won’t come back to bite you in the end.