For web designers, one of the most common problems in the industry is intellectual property infringement. This often comes in the form of other people stealing a website design—a design that could have taken anywhere from days to weeks to create.
It happens all too often, and the problem is compounded for people who design templates for a fee. After all, if the same templates are available for free, no one has an incentive to actually pay you for them.
This article will shed some light on why other people steal designs, as well as what to do if your design is used without permission or compensation from someone else.
There is no firm procedure for what to do in an intellectual property theft situation, but following the tips below is a great way to get started protecting and defending your digital property.
Reasons for Intellectual Property Theft
First, you should try to understand why intellectual property theft happens. The most common reasons for theft include:
- People simply do not realize that what they are doing is wrong. They figure that if something is not clearly copyrighted on the internet then it is fair game, so they do not hesitate to copy a design or template.
- Even if your design is taken and only moderately tweaked, it is still theft. There is a fine line between being inspired by a design and outright stealing it. If you find that your work has been copied and only slightly altered, this is a line you will have to define yourself.
- Some people do not have the funds to hire a designer, but they are internet savvy enough to do the dirty work of copying a website’s design themselves. Sometimes these people do not realize that this is wrong, though more often than not they figure they will not be caught.
- Unscrupulous and often amateur designers may have been hired by a website but were not able to do the job. In this case they may rip off your design, make some minor tweaks and pass it off as their own–hoping that the client won’t know the difference.
- Many websites and forums offer templates for free, so perhaps one of these websites was the first one to steal your design, which was then given to others for free. This is clearly theft, though the people who subsequently use your design often will not know that they are participating in intellectual property theft.
- A website owner may hire a freelance designer to create the site. After receiving the design and paying for it, the owner may file a chargeback. In this case, the chargeback is fraudulently placed. If the owner continues to use your design after filing a chargeback, he or she is in violation of copyright laws.
Ways to Protect Your Work
Though there is no guaranteed way to prevent others from ripping you off online, there are a few things you can do to protect your creative works. Tips include:
- Posting a copyright notice. Since most people do not realize that copying a website design is stealing, including a copyright notice will inform would-be thieves that your design is protected intellectual property. This will more than likely be sufficient deterrence for most people.
- Protect your images from being hotlinked by using your .htaaccess file so that thieves cannot link images from your website.
- Protect your design code by blocking screen scraper applications. Locking out all screen scrapers is not feasible, but by protecting against ASP and PHP code you will cover most of them.
- Regularly monitor the internet to see if anyone has stolen your design. Websites like CopyScape can help you find duplicated content, including unauthorized use of your designs.
- License your designs with an open source such as Creative Commons. Though this may seem counter-intuitive, opening your designs for public use actually deters most thieves by removing temptation to steal because the design is already available for free. This approach also ensures that you will get credit for your work and still allows you to be compensated by offering additional services to customers who use your design.
- Before working with a new client, be sure to draw up a contract. Outline expectations, deadlines, and payment details. Also, research the new client; make sure there aren’t any bad reviews for this person from past freelancers. These steps will help prevent a chargeback. Even if the client files a dispute and is later forced to remove the now stolen design, you will be left with a special order project that no one else will want. So preventing special order chargebacks from happening in the first place is ideal.
What to Do If Your Designs Are Stolen
Even if you take measures to protect your designs, there is no surefire way to keep others from ripping off your work. If someone does happen to steal your intellectual property, whether it was intentional or not, you should consider taking the following steps.
- Do not react rashly. Though sending a fiery email may be a tempting response to discovering theft, taking this action will work against you in the future. Calm down and take a moment to consider your plan of action.
- Find the website owner’s contact information. This can be found on the website’s contact page. If no contact information is listed, looking up the domain’s Whois information or contacting the Web host can be ways to get this information.
- Reach out to the owner in a professional and polite manner. Do not accuse them, just state the facts. Inform them that their site’s design is copyrighted and that if they cannot prove that they have compensated you for it, then they must take the site down and make a new design.
- Give the site owner a few days to respond. If they do not get back to you, then reach out to the site’s ISP and request that the offending website be taken down. The ISP will require proof that the design is actually yours. Once this proof is given, most ISPs will take the website down themselves to avoid legal trouble.
- If you live in the United States, you can also choose to use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and issue a notice to the website’s host. DMCA intellectual property theft forms are available online. Most hosts will comply in order to stay out of litigation.
- If the previous steps don’t get you anywhere then it may be time to contact a lawyer. Lawyers will often start by sending an official cease and desist letter, which typically is enough to get stolen designs taken down. If the site’s owner does not respond, then making further contact with the host will be necessary.
- Know how far you are willing to go. If even preliminary overtures from a lawyer are not enough to get a stolen design removed, then further legal action may be necessary. Lawsuits are expensive, so take some time to consider how much time and money you are willing to spend. Talk to your lawyer about expected costs and your chances of winning if you choose to file a lawsuit.
- Document everything. This should be done during the whole process, starting with when you first discover that your design has been stolen. Good documentation can help you with all subsequent steps, especially if you decide to get a lawyer involved.
Web designers work hard to make original templates and designs, so it is a frustrating experience to discover that a hard-earned work has been stolen.
Intellectual property has rights and deserves compensation, so know your rights, how to protect yourself, and what to do if someone happens to steal from you.