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copying a sites look and feel
October 12, 2006 12:20 PM   Subscribe

What are the ethical/legal ramifications of copying a sites look and feel?

I've found a site whose design I like a lot and would like to create a site with a very similar look and feel. I wouldn't directly copy any source code/images/css but the end result would look quite similar (colors, layout). My site would not be considered a competitor as they are for entirely different purposes. Would this be considered copyright infringement? Is this just not 'done'?
posted by anonymous to Computers & Internet (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
It is not 'done.' Even if you recreate everything by eyeballing it, without snooping at the source code of the other site. And if you do re-use any of that site's access, it's a copyright infringement, though in reality, it would probably never get caught, and if it did, would probably result in a takedown demand and public humiliation at worst.

That said, there are plenty of open-source templates out there that you are encouraged to copy. Some of these suck, but some are pretty nice. And it's even possible the page you found that you like is one of these templates.
posted by adamrice at 12:38 PM on October 12, 2006 [2 favorites]


err, access = assets
posted by adamrice at 12:38 PM on October 12, 2006


If you're not in the same market, not directly copying their code/graphics/text, etc., you're not harming them in any way. Certainly I think you're on safe legal grounds as far as copyright goes. Still, you may want to create a kind of colophon explaining the process of designing your site, and giving credit for your 'inspiration'. The original designers would appreciate that, if they were to come across your site, I'm sure.
posted by Hildago at 12:38 PM on October 12, 2006


I am no authority although I am quite sure it would be a copyright infrigement. I'd be interested to know "for sure" too?
posted by orlin at 12:40 PM on October 12, 2006


You might not get sued, but it could be quite embarassing.
posted by visual mechanic at 12:43 PM on October 12, 2006


There are so many sites out there that, unless the source code is really clearly similiar or the design is something quirky that will stand out and draw comparisons with the other one, two different sites in two different fields with ~the same design won't be noticed and can't be proven.

Choose slightly different fonts; Helvetica instead of Verdana, Palatino instead of Georgia, and so on. This ethical approach may annoy your designer friends, but designers are eternally ripping off someone else anyway, so I wouldn't worry about it.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 1:01 PM on October 12, 2006


I'd say that if you're not sure whether you're stealing from or being inspired by, you're stealing. mechanic's link is a good example if you go look at the flickr side by side the message shows. The winery goes just that one step too far, but what that one step is could be debated.

Anything wrong with the 2 column dividing style? No, lots of sites use it.

Using the same two browns? Also fine, it's a nice color combo.

The same colors, same layout, same menu placement, same column widths, similar/same font? Now you're copying.

Looked at another way, take that carbon copy site and change the colors, make the left column narrower, move the logo or make it larger, alter the font.... and would you be able to identify it as a dupe?
posted by phearlez at 1:13 PM on October 12, 2006


I, too, find myself drawn to the look of certain sites, and long to duplicate them. With my limited HTML/CSS skills, that can be a problem. Still, I've done it in the past.

I once fell in love with the look of a particular site. I reverse-engineered it, altered the color schemes to something more my style, changed some border thicknesses, altered fonts, and made a couple of other minor changes. When I was finished, my site looked similar, but not the same. Still, I had pretty much just used the other guy's code, and it bugged me, so I e-mailed him the URL of my site, and asked him if he had any objections. He said that it bugged him a little, but that the sites were different enough, and he was glad I had asked, so he had no objection. Ultimately, he changed his layout a few months later, anyhow.

What I'm saying is: if you find a site with a layout you like, duplicate it and make your modifications. If you're worried that it's too close, then contact the original site designer and ask for permission. I think that in most cases (but certainly not all), people will be flattered, or will offer suggestions on changes you could make so that you're not "stealing" their design.

I agree that this is a thorny issue, one that people are too quick to dismiss as black-and-white. Good luck!
posted by jdroth at 1:35 PM on October 12, 2006


If you want to see the designers' view of this (and it's associated with visual mechanic's link above), this is a good read. There are many points of view.

Having just said that, I'm in the process of doing something similar, but I intend to make significant changes, be up front with the designers in question (including giving recognition on my site) and ask forgiveness and permission rather than going through the hosing that winery has seen.
posted by lowlife at 1:41 PM on October 12, 2006


Designers find inspiration from each other all the time. The key is not to copy it, but to be inspired by it. Re-imagine some parts, tweak things here and there, etc.
posted by chrisamiller at 1:43 PM on October 12, 2006


The thing is, if you try copying something you like, you end up changing it so much it barely looks inspired than what you started with. If it doesn't, you're short of ideas :)

Whenever I've seen a site's style I like and been inspired by it, my results never look that similar since I found nicer ways to go about it en-route.
posted by wackybrit at 1:43 PM on October 12, 2006


I'd say to also consider the popularity of your site and the other site. I remember about five years ago happening upon some site that was eerily similar to Apple's site, and it was pretty obvious because Apple is so popular. If I recall it was for a college newspaper, so they weren't in direct competition, but that didn't really make it any better. If you expect that your site will get a lot of traffic (realistically), and the other site is fairly popular, I wouldn't do it.
posted by ml98tu at 1:44 PM on October 12, 2006


two different sites in two different fields with ~the same design won't be noticed and can't be proven

Don't count on it. I find out about copies of my company's site in completely different industries all the time.
posted by jjg at 2:08 PM on October 12, 2006


Copying the look and feel of a site does not constitute copyright infringement. You cannot copyright "colors, layout, menu placement, or column widths" as Phearlez claimed. However, fonts and images are specific "expressions" and can be copyrighted.

This is slightly off-topic, but trademark infringement is another issue which confuses many people. Specific colors and shapes can be associated with trademarks to a particular entity in a particular field. So, copying those colors from a competitor can be considered diluting their trademark if your in the same field.

Just because some entity asserts a copyright on something they created does not mean they are in the sole designator of its use. In fact, many people overextend their copyright claims to hoard intellectual "property" they don't actually own.
posted by dendrite at 2:26 PM on October 12, 2006


In regards to the posters original question. Its probably not a good idea to copy the design of another site verbatim, for reasons of public scrutiny. However, there's nothing wrong with being inspired by their design and adapting it to your own use. I'm always a fan of giving credit where its due of course. Oh, and vis a vis my previous comment, don't be afraid of any legal threats if you do decide to copy their colors/layout/widths etc, they have no claim on those things.
posted by dendrite at 2:31 PM on October 12, 2006


Here's a citation to support my claims: What is copyright.

Read the paragraph that begins "There is one thing that must be clarified, though."
posted by dendrite at 2:42 PM on October 12, 2006


This sort of thing you really need to play by ear. But people can be quite harsh if they think you've stolen another sites design.
posted by chunking express at 2:43 PM on October 12, 2006


You cannot copyright "colors, layout, menu placement, or column widths" as Phearlez claimed.

I apologize for my imprecision: I never said it was copyright infringement, I said it was stealing - in the same way that I would say you're stealing someone's look if you start buying the exact same clothing and wearing your hair the same way. Nothing illegal about it, it is just kinda sleazy, lazy and off-putting. In the context of the question I should have been more careful about my phrasing.

If I only had to live in my own head and not the real world I'd say what the hell? It's a fucking web page and if you're not in the same market space or using their copyrighted images, who gives a crap? However I have to share the planet with and take phone calls from people who get all bent out of shape about web page design as if it's actually art, so it's easier not to step on any toes. And who wants to be the dude who gets pointed at as a talentless copycat?
posted by phearlez at 2:46 PM on October 12, 2006


"It is not 'done.'..."
posted by adamrice at 3:38 PM EST on October 12

Oh, fer chrissake.

Of course it is done, "it" being design, not content. All the time. Which is why every browser since lynx has a "view source" display option. The very ethic of the Web, since the first Web site, was the use of non-proprietary protocols, and a simple markup "language" to create a shared, public information space that was greater and more useful to all, than anything any one contributor could provide.

Copying and tuning a design is both ethical and the very highest compliment you can pay to a Web site. Offer a link or other attribution for your inspiration, if you like, or better yet, try to improve the design, make it more efficient, clearer, more "standards compliant" and hope your success is so clear to others, that your site is widely copied, too.

Latecomers to the party, that think of Web techniques as some sort of "design," get all bent out of shape about their styles, but the guy who invented it doesn't share their narrow minded view. Mote, beam, eyes...
posted by paulsc at 3:10 PM on October 12, 2006


Copying and tuning a design is both ethical and the very highest compliment you can pay to a Web site.

I have worked with many, many professional Web designers, and I can't think of a single one who would hold with this sentiment. Web designers are not in the business of writing code, picking fonts, or making graphics. The result of those things, the look and feel, is their work, and replicating it by any means without permission is stealing.
posted by jjg at 5:04 PM on October 12, 2006


"The result of those things, the look and feel, is their work, and replicating it by any means without permission is stealing."
posted by jjg at 8:04 PM EST on October 12

I see stuff like this, and am appalled at the fundamental ignorance such comments display. How in the world can a Web "page" have a "look" or a "feel" if I'm free to view it in any user agent I like? How much "look and feel" do you think I see in lynx? How much "look and feel" survives a substituted local user.js include? How much of "look and feel" is automatically substituted by browsers running on systems without your hoped-for font library? How much "look and feel" happens through a squid proxy, if your caching headers aren't set correctly?

People that say this kind of thing don't get how the Web works, at a very basic level, and seemingly have a moral investment in useless dreck and superflous cruft, and zero comprehension of copyright principles.
posted by paulsc at 5:28 PM on October 12, 2006


People that say this kind of thing don't get how the Web works, at a very basic level, and seemingly have a moral investment in useless dreck and superflous cruft, and zero comprehension of copyright principles.

paulsc, your answer reads as really rude and one stop short of calling other people idiots for disagreeing with you. There's a large majority of designers that would compare copying another trademark logo and another website to be one and the same, just as "illegal" as the other. I don't agree 100% with that notion, but it is the prevailing opinion of designers (and I'd say courts might agree).
posted by mathowie at 7:08 PM on October 12, 2006



People that say this kind of thing don't get how the Web works


paulsc, you might want to check the jjg's credentials. I think he has a pretty good idea how the web works.

How much look and feel ... ...

Pipe most any site through those and you should feel free to copy the visual design. It no longer exists as the intended creation. In addition, post-processing is the extreme minority. Show me one person who does that and I'll show you 100 who don't.

For a basic site, good web design often involves 20+ hours in Photoshop and about the same in well-strucutured HTML/CSS development. It's not uncommon for a site to exceed 40 hours to put together by professionals.

Copying/borrowing/whatever-you-want-to-call it on the web or otherwise it is good form to contact the originator and ask their blessing, in my opinion. I would appreciate it for any of the sites I've touched in the last 10 years.

If you copy a look and feel, a seasoned designer will see a copy. If you copy the code, a seasoned developer will see a copy.

Copying either without permission is ethically and legally grey. Will you get in trouble? Probably not. Will you get bad press? Maybe. Poor form? Certainly. Check in with the creator. You might be surprised.

People that say this kind of thing don't get how the Web works, at a very basic level, and seemingly have a moral investment in useless dreck and superflous cruft, and zero comprehension of copyright principles.

I'm only trying to give the poster an evenness here and call honk. How the web works at a technical level is entirely different from how people use it. As for the useless dreck and superfluous cruft, Sturgeon's Relevation is amazingly relative.
posted by pedantic at 7:21 PM on October 12, 2006


"paulsc, your answer reads as really rude and one stop short of calling other people idiots for disagreeing with you. ..."
posted by mathowie at 10:08 PM EST on October 12

mathowie, I think much of what has been posted in this thread is raw opinion. Raw to the point that terms like "stealing" have been bandied about, for what is "served" freely to any agent, human or not, tickling port 80 of a Web server. Sorry if my comment strikes you as hypergolic, but much of what has gone before is just as over the top, to me.

"...good web design..."
posted by pedantic at 10:21 PM EST on October 12

Much of your comment hinges entirely on the relative nature of that phrase, I think. One man's meat, another's poison, etc. Leaving aside, for the moment, whether there even is such a thing, as "good web design."

"... How the web works at a technical level is entirely different from how people use it. ..."
posted by pedantic at 10:21 PM EST on October 12

I'm surprised you think so. How a thing works almost entirely determines how people can use it, and much of product liability law, as I understand it, derives from this. But IANAL, so let that pass. The Web is not a "thing" that any designer can readily control, and those who try to do so, craft things which are, at best, snapshots of their own predjudices. mathowie himself has recently posted in MeTa that non-human agents represent more than 30% of traffic to these MeFi sites. How does a robot visiting any Web site interpret "good web design?" Don't statements such as that, and the continuing problems "design" creates for robots, meta-users, the visually handicapped, and reprobates like me, running lynx, mean that your statement might deserve re-thinking?
posted by paulsc at 8:15 PM on October 12, 2006


[a few comments removed -- take this derail/debate to metatalk or make it more germane to the OPs question. everyone has made their original points.]
posted by jessamyn at 6:30 AM on October 13, 2006


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