Ethics of web-design and copyright
October 3, 2012 9:25 AM   Subscribe

What is a reasonable amount of 'look and feel' to copy from another website?

I've been working on developing a simple website for my business. I was converging on a particular design strategy but the site did not look very good. I then found another website that used a very similar design approach, but had a beautiful layout. The other website belongs to a company that is a large and famous product design firm (Firm X). I am in a two person company in a completely different industry.

Is there some reasonable amount of look and feel that I can ethically justify? Firm X's site is made using html, css and javascript. I cloned the site to explore how the site was made and all of the code is beautifully written and extremely elegant. What I would like to use are the image positioning, the javascript image overlays and the javascript image popouts. The logo, icons, font, images and text would be different but just changing these elements does not seem to make the site look very different. Both sites are very simple (they are just one page) but the difference between them is significant.

At a personal level, I don't want to take the entire site and reuse it as it feels wrong. However, I would love to use some of the design elements and code. I emailed Firm X to ask if I could, and how much it would cost but as they are quite big I suspect they may not get back to me. Also, I suspect that they are not interested in selling pieces of their website. I did read through some previous Ask questions on this topic from the last few years. Q1, Q2 & Q3
posted by anonymous to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's possible that they lifted some of the CSS and Javascript from standard libraries, etc, dig through the code and see if you can figure out where they got it from.

Also think hard about what it is that you like about the site, and simplify it as much as you can and then search the vast number of design websites out there and find tutorials about how to build it yourself from scratch. It's always easier to maintain a site you built from the ground up than it is to copy and paste code.
posted by empath at 9:30 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's one way to approach this.

If the site is so unique in terms of layout that you can't find a close match, then do not lift it. If you can find a close match, license that and customise from there.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:36 AM on October 3, 2012

The Javascript overlays and popouts (without knowing which site it is exactly) are probably quite similar or identical to the various libraries that exist to do just this thing. Unless I explicitly knew this to be the case, however, I would not take actual source code from another site. All web documents are copyrighted, and unless you are explicitly given permission by a site license, taking the source code is not ok.

Read this article from Smashing Magazine about what to do if your web site design is stolen (even with significant changes.) It could give you some insight into what you may in for if you go through with this plan.

With thousands of templates (both free and commercial) existing in a number of marketplaces, there is, imho, no good defense for lifting someone else's design unless you can obtain permission. It may not be technically illegal (I am not a lawyer!), but if you're asking yourself how to ethically justify something, it might not be worth doing.
posted by xyzzy at 9:49 AM on October 3, 2012

I would try to re-create something similar from scratch or open-source code so the code is different and so your site is different in terms of design elements (colors, sizes and dimensions, shapes, font type, font size, etc.). The more little design elements that are different, the less chance of someone going after you, and the less chance of someone being able to do so with any success. In design, it's common to borrow aspects of ideas or at least be inspired by them. That's why sites like Cool Home Pages, SiteInspire, and StyleBoost exist.
posted by Dansaman at 9:56 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, a lot of really great ideas come from trying to copy someone else and failing in interesting ways.
posted by empath at 10:04 AM on October 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Copy the features, not the code.
posted by misterbrandt at 10:43 AM on October 3, 2012

Copyright law is very clear: If you have downloaded or copied _anything_ you can't use it without explicit permission. Changing names, variables, etc... is just as bad as copying it directly.

There is no fair use in your use case above.

Many of the things they are using are likely "open source" with licenses that would allow you to use them, but even then you should get that open source from the original project site, not from a user. The user may have modified them.

Also since you contacted the original site you need to be VERY clean since you are now on their radar. They will possibly look very closely at your site to make sure you are not copying anything from them.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 11:13 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wholeheartedly support not being a perfectionist and helping the web become a better place even if you didn't invent the whole frickin' thing. Steal the look, not the code. Forget about whether you contacted them or not. I wouldn't recommend doing that in the future, but they'll probably forget about it anyway. They'd have a hard time proving trade dress violations.
posted by rhizome at 11:17 AM on October 3, 2012

The other website is almost certainly created by a third party web design firm.

You can't copy the whole thing for obvious copyright reasons.
You can't really copy 'parts of a design' any more than you can copy part of a cupcake recipe, it just won't work as well with bits missing. Copyright covers both the look and the code.

What I think you need to do is identify what it is about this design that works so well and then try to design something similar but different. It is very common for people to be good at either design or coding but not both. It can be a good investment to pay for some temporary help to cover all the bases properly.
posted by Lanark at 11:52 AM on October 3, 2012

empath: Also, a lot of really great ideas come from trying to copy someone else and failing in interesting ways.


I work for a company whose graphic design assets (websites, icons, photography, etc.) are "borrowed" by lazy designers/developers/art directors on a shockingly frequent basis.*

There's rarely anything to be done about it beyond calling out the perpetrators publicly. It's usually not worth anyone's time or expense to involve lawyers.

So how can you avoid being publicly humiliated by whoever you're admittedly copying? Make it an homage, not wholesale theft. Be inspired by the original work, don't copy it. Maybe even call out the original source to give them some credit.

Otherwise, you're just being an asshole.

* I completely understand this. Copying and tweaking someone else's code is how everyone learns to make websites. Being inspired by someone else's work is the only way anyone creates anything. Nothing exists in a vacuum; every work is in some way a response to what existed before.

That said, there's a line. And you know exactly where that line is. Don't cross it and then say you didn't really cross it. Don't be an asshole.
posted by sportbucket at 3:18 PM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

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