Website design copyrighted?
September 9, 2007 5:23 AM   Subscribe

Are website designs copyrighted?

How much protection is there for unique website designs (not content like text or graphics) but layout, colors, etc? If I model my website on someone else's that I like, am I in hot water?
posted by Kimpossible to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe, maybe not.
Check out "look and feel" for some more specific info.
posted by caddis at 5:30 AM on September 9, 2007

Logos, graphics, text, intellectual property... yes.

Layout, font selection, html/css code... no.
posted by ReiToei at 5:49 AM on September 9, 2007

There is such a thing as a "design patent" but to my knowledge no one in software or web design has ever tried to apply for one. Because there exists the design patent, the courts are naturally very reluctant to put design elements under the copyright umbrella. (ie, if Congress had intended that in the law, then they would not have created the design patent)
posted by TeatimeGrommit at 6:10 AM on September 9, 2007

If you model your website on someone else’s, you are fine. If you simply download the HTML and stylesheet and search/replace your own colors and text, you may not be in hot water, but you certainly will look like an ass when you get caught. If you are creating this website for a commercial purpose, you may get into hot water with your employer when they found out you just lifted the design.
posted by ijoshua at 7:30 AM on September 9, 2007

This article has been linked to quite a bit in the past week:

Saying "I like this color palette, I think I'll use something like that" or "This three-column layout would work well on my site" is just fine, I think. That's inspiration.

Copying and pasting someone else's HTML or CSS or Javascript is stealing, legally or not, and there's a pretty good chance you'll be called out on it and people will think you're a big jerk.

There are like, a million free website templates out there. There's no excuse to steal such a thing.
posted by Plug Dub In at 7:33 AM on September 9, 2007

I think if you model it off someone else you should be okay, if you're copying their stuff and tweaking it... make sure it has a creative commons license that lets you do that. Honestly, you won't get in much legal trouble even if you rip it off 100% but you will take a huge hit on your reputation. If someone else can tell you copied another site without prompting... then you're too close anyway.
posted by wangarific at 7:42 AM on September 9, 2007

TeatimeGrommit: There is such a thing as a "design patent" but to my knowledge no one in software or web design has ever tried to apply for one.

A design patent for TatamiNet was issued last year to Winterhouse.
posted by Su at 7:53 AM on September 9, 2007

Plugdub got it right, but to be clear: There's nothing web-design specific about this. It's work of art, and therefore has automatic copyright protection like any other work by any other artist/author. Unless they explicitly grant you the license to use it, you cannot.

You can "steal" the same inspiration you could from a song, a painting, or a novel. But no more, or you'll be subject to the same legal reaction. If a non-expert, common-sense using neutral party (the grandmother test) would see them side by side and say "those are pretty much the same", then you're gonna lose in court.)

Treatises that try to give website designs special exemption from this are usually apologetics for code-lifters.

(Patents are an exotic and unrelated issue, and the OP didn't ask about patents.)
posted by rokusan at 8:55 AM on September 9, 2007

Moreover, some publishers have trademarks on some of the design elements they use both in print and online, and will enforce those. For example, the National Geographic has a trademark on the yellow border that's been on the magazine from day one. Publish an magazine, even a little regional one, with a yellow border, and you will hear from their attorneys. (My firm had this happen.) The same, I suspect, if you lift some of their website elements.
posted by beagle at 10:58 AM on September 9, 2007

Don't forget Amazon's lame 1-Click patent for a fairly obvious website function.
posted by roger ackroyd at 1:51 PM on September 9, 2007

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