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Dealing with design theft what to do if someone is stealing your designs

Written by Tom Ewer on 03 March 2014

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but if it comes in the form of someone ripping off your web designs, it can be downright annoying.

It is, of course, the nature of the beast that some designers will always take "inspiration" from the work of others and as web designs in particular tend to follow strong trends, it's almost impossible for any design to be completely original. Having said that, if you find another designer is shamelessly producing website after website that look suspiciously like the ones you just uploaded to your portfolio, or even worse, taking whole chunks of code from your sites, what can you do about it?

Finding Design Thieves

The first time most people find out someone is stealing their designs is by accident. In many cases a friend will stumble across a site that looks remarkably similar to your own work and email to let you know about it. Or you may see some strange referrers in your website statistics software and discover that someone is hot linking your images into their own site, which looks exactly like yours.

Unfortunately, finding duplicates of your designs is not as easy as it is for writers, who can simply paste a couple of paragraphs of their work into Google to find the offenders. It's still worth giving a tool like Copyscape a go though, as it will pick up sites that have copied everything from your design to your content, which is more common than you may think.

If unique images or a logo are part of your design then it is possible to search for duplicates of the image with Google images search. Simply drag the image onto the search bar and Google will return all closely matching images. Of course, if you've used stock images in your designs, this type of search won't do you much good.

If you sell WordPress themes or skins for other blogging platforms, it's always a good idea to keep an eye on theme directories, just to make sure your designs don't magically appear there one day.

How to Protect Your Designs

Again, there's not an awful lot that web designers can do to protect their ideas from being stolen. Illustrators and photographers can put a digital watermark on their work, but you can't watermark an entire website.

As websites are designed to be downloaded onto the computer of anyone viewing them, it makes them really easy to steal -- all the images are there for the taking and style sheets and code can be deconstructed and used again at will.

There are token efforts you can make against digital theft such as disabling right-clicks, but none of these work against any but the most casual thief and are more likely to cause navigation and other issues for authentic site visitors.

Sometimes simply putting a comment in the code that all design and code is copyright and cannot be reused in any form is enough to deter people from copying it. Not everyone realises that copying code is a no-no.

You could also try out a service like Myows. While this won't stop people from stealing your designs, it will make it easier to find out if you've been a victim of design theft and will make the process of getting the offending site taken down quicker and easier.

Steps to Take When You Find a Site Using Your Design

So what should you do if you find out someone has stolen your web design?

  1. The first and most important step is to contact the website owner explaining that you are contacting them with regards to a copyright and theft issue and asking them to remove the stolen design. Be firm but not accusatory -- it's perfectly possible that the site owner commissioned the design and has no idea it was stolen. Make sure to be clear in your email that if the site is not taken down or redesigned within a certain time limit, you will take further action.

    If you see your work in a theme directory or marketplace, it's usually easiest to contact their customer support service directly. Many sites have a "report copyright infringement" link for this purpose.

  2. If you get no response from the site owner, try contacting their web host directly. You can find their contact information by doing a whois search on the domain. Most web hosts have clear copyright guidelines that their customers must abide by and will take down offending sites, provided there is clear evidence that the design is not original.

  3. File a DMCA takedown request. If the site is hosted in the US, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act requires that the host takes down any copyright infringing material. If you don't get a reply from your initial contact, grab a copy of a DCMA takedown request template, add your details, and this is more likely to get you noticed.

    Hosts in the UK and the rest of the world don't have to abide by this act, but it's worth a try anyway. You can also file a DMCA complaintto get the offending site removed from Google.

  4. Publicise the theft. The design community is usually amazingly supportive of fellow designers who have been ripped off in this way. Make sure the word gets on all social networks you're on and it's highly likely the site owner will be bombarded with comments and emails calling him out as a thief. The pressure of the mob can often be just what's needed to get your designs removed quickly.

    The flickr design theft pool is a good place for naming and shaming the guilty parties.

  5. Consider legal action. If you get nowhere by following the previous three steps, your next course of action is either to write it off as a lost cause or to contact a lawyer for advice. Taking legal action can be expensive and is therefore a last resort that few go through with, but it's worth threatening all the same.

Conclusion

As frustrating as it may be, design theft is a common part of being a web designer and something that most designers will experience during their career. As your chances of any kind of compensation for this kind of theft are slim to non-existent, it's probably not something you should be spending a lot of your time worrying about.

Have you ever been a victim of design theft? Let us know your experiences in the comments.

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