Design Theft – The Webmaster’s Recourse

Every now and then, us Web designers will have to face the fact that our design has been illegally copied. And the typical designer will want to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. This guide explains not only what steps you can take to prevent the theft of your designs, but outlines what actions you should take against anyone who copies your work.

Note that this guide is not intended as legal advice, and you shouldn’t take it as such. The guide includes tips on what actions you should consider if another party illegally copies your design. For legal advice, consult your lawyer.

Preventative Measures

Prevention really is better than cure. The best thing to do is to try to prevent the illegal reproduction of your design before it even happens. Some suggest that you should disable the users’ right click capability, place transparent images over your real images, "scramble" your source code, and more. However, none of these methods truly protect your content from being copied — and all do more to alienate your regular visitors than they do to protect your design (for more information, see SitePoint’s article ‘Don’t Disable Right Click!‘). The absolute bottom line with copyright is: if you don’t work to be stolen, don’t put it on the Web. For some, it’s not even worth the risk. But for others, this approach is a bit radical, and the majority will try to think of some better ways to protect what’s theirs.

The most important thing you should always do is to label your work with the appropriate copyright disclaimers, trademarks, etc. It’s a great idea to have a "legal notices" page on your Website, to inform everyone in complete detail that copying someone’s work is a violation of international copyright laws, and that they will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law if they use your work without your express consent. Publishing this warning helps deter would-be design thieves, and helps reinforce to all users that you know your rights.

You’ve Been Ripped!

There are several ways to ascertain whether your site has been "ripped", or copied illegally. Plenty of Websites exist solely to list sites that have been recently ripped — one of the most popular is Pirated-Sites. It’s not a bad idea to bookmark these "watchdog" sites and visit them every now and then to ensure that your work isn’t being illegally reproduced.

A good user community is not only essential to maintaining a good traffic flow; if your site is copied, and you have a good community of visitors, you can be pretty sure that someone will notice it and let you know. If you have a message board, create a thread in your forums to let your users know that any information they can provide about illegal rips will be greatly appreciated (or even consider providing some rewards for good leads) as an additional measure.

Doing a little work like this in advance won’t eliminate every threat of illegal copying, but will cut down on the number of cases you have to chase.

Seeking Retribution… and Justice

After you’ve found the site of someone who’s copied your design, you’re likely to be quite angry. A great piece of advice that works in any situation is this: don’t make any decisions due to anger. Your design may be great, and you certainly do have every right to use it exclusively on your site, but feeling anger when dealing with the culprits won’t make your job any easier. Difficult as it may be, try to stay calm during the process.

The first step that you should take is to get some basic information about the Website that’s illegally reproduced your work. Mentioning the Webmaster or site owner’s name and/or address will add a lot of impact to your emails. Drop by your preferred domain name registration service and search for the domain name the ripper is using. If you receive a message that the information is unavailable, access the "whois" entry for the domain name. The name and address of the domain’s owners will be there — note this, along with their namerver. You’ll need these details to contact their Web host, if the need arises.

In many cases, the owner of the offending site may not even know they’re using an illegally copied design (for instance, they may have received it from someone else who ripped it). This is the best time for the owner to act on the matter if they want a resolution that benefits both themselves and the owner of the copyright. Finding the Webmaster’s email shouldn’t be hard — just look for the site’s "Contact Us" page, or something similar.

Your first email shouldn’t be too legally-oriented — try more of a civil approach, and make it as straight forward as possible. In as friendly a manner as you can muster, explain to the Webmaster why it would benefit them to take the design down. And if you need help composing your email, I’ve included a few sample messages at the end of this article for your reference.

In most cases, this initial email will see most copyright issues resolved. However, there are situations when the Webmaster won’t cooperate right away. In that case you should send a stricter and more legally-toned email to explain that you will press charges to the fullest extent of the law if they don’t remove the site. Also mention that if no prompt action is taken (give them 24 hours or so), you will contact their hosting provider about the issue.

Involving the Web Host

If two emails to the ripper don’t fix the situation, contact their hosting provider. If they’re located in United States or Canada you’re especially in luck, as the laws here state that if the host has been informed about the infringement, but fails to take any action, they’re liable as well. Remember when we got the details of the site’s name server? Go there now: if your search returns a page that doesn’t look like the page of a hosting provider, try the domain name only (no sub-domains). After you find out who hosts the site, look for their abuse email (which is typically on the contact or support pages). Drop them an email informing them about the abuse of your site design and copyrights. Again, try to keep a perspective and highlight why it’s best for them to remove the offending site from their servers.

Note that if the hosting company is based in another country, you may be limited in your options. If this is the case, try to persuade the host to remove the site — by all means — but keep in mind that you might not be able to taken any serious legal action against them. Send as many emails as you feel are necessary. Larger corporations tend to respond quickly, while smaller reselling businesses might not be so quick about throwing their clients out the door. If a hosting provider has an abuse phone number, feel free to give them a call. The more you annoy the provider, the more likely will they be to work with you.

Conclusion

Taking these steps will work to ensure the correct use of your design 99% of the time. But if it doesn’t, you aren’t out of options. If the hosting company is in the US, Canada, UK, or other countries with reasonable laws covering cyber crimes, you should seek advice from your lawyer.

I hope this short guide helped you, but if you need any additional assistance you should stop by SitePoint Forums. Good luck!

Sample eMails

Stuck for words? Here are some sample email templates you can customize and send to sites that have infringed your copyright.

1st eMail — to the Site Owner

Dear [insert site owner's name from whois]:

I’m writing to you to express my concerns about your Website’s design, which is located at [insert ripper's URL]. That design has been copied from my Website, [insert your URL], without my permission.

The design is a copyrighted work, which is protected under United States and International copyright laws. I request that you remove the site as soon as possible. If you do not stop using the design immediately, I’ll be forced to press charges for copyright violation (and give you plenty of bad publicity about it).

Thank you for your time and cooperation. I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

[your name]
[your Website name]

2nd eMail — to the Site Owner

[your name]
[your title if any]
[your Website name]
[your contact details]

[person who is using your work]
[their Website name]
[their address]

[date]

[insert site owner's name from whois]:

I recently contacted you about your Website, [URL], which violates federal copyright laws. You did not stop utilizing the illegally copied design as requested in my email.

Violating copyright laws is a serious offence and is classified as a felony in some cases by United States federal courts.

If you stop using my copyright design within the next 24 (twenty four) hours I will not take any further action against you. However, if you fail to cease your illegal activities I will contact your hosting provider, [insert host name if you know it], to get your Website shut down, and/or press charges to the fullest extent of the law.

It is within your best interests to take appropriate action and cease using my design as soon as possible.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Sincerely,

[your name]
[your Website name]

3rd eMail — to the Host

Dear Sir or Madam:

I’m writing to inform you and express my concerns about one of your hosting clients ([insert site name]). This Website has been illegally using my copyrighted works without any prior consent from me. Copyright violations are a serious crime and I’m hoping you will provide assistance regarding this issue.

{if the host is in United States use the following paragraph, otherwise skip it}

As a hosting provider in United States of America, you will be liable for copyright law violations according to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act if you allow this activity to continue after you become aware of the infringement.

Quick action to eliminate this lawbreaker would be beneficial for everyone, including you. As a hosting provider who eliminates untrustworthy clients from your database, you’ll enjoy good publicity, gain a reputation as a provider who cares about copyright laws, and save yourself from dealing with any lawyers.

Thank you in advance for your cooperation. I look forward to hearing from you about this serious issue.

Sincerely,

[your name]
[your Website name]

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