THERE IS AN attitude on the Web

by Joe Gillespie — Sep 1, 1998

THERE IS AN attitude on the Web that everything is free for the taking. This probably stems from the long-accepted perception of the Internet as a community where open sharing of resources has been the accepted norm.

As the Web becomes increasingly cut-throat commercial, this attitude is gaining latitude.

Some of the on-line "lifting" is not malicious, but simple ignorance. For example, many of the new consumers on-line simply don't understand what the term "shareware" means, so they inadvertently pirate what is intended for sale. Shareware is software that is for sale on a try-before-buy basis. It is usually considerably cheaper than store-bought software but it's not free. You use it, you pay for it!

The practice of time-limiting shareware and on-line commercial software is a good compromise that is fair to everybody and means that the 'virtual pirating' of software from the Net has, at least, levelled off.

Web site designers also suffer from virtual pirating. While it would never occur to a thief to take a magazine advertisement, change the name and resubmit it to the publishers as though it were their own work, virtual pirates seem to have no qualms about doing just that with a web site. "How do they get hold of an entire site?" you might ask. Well, it's quite easy.

Good Manners and Common Sense Go A Long Way

On the Web, a page's source code is easily viewed, copied and carried off. There's no glass case or locked door to stop the casual thief from walking off with whatever they fancy. Of course, there are different levels of theft, and there is a distinct difference between "borrowing" a web page design component and outright "lifting" of an entire site.

This is what happens. A designer is surfing along, sees a snappy web site navigation system or a particularly pleasing color scheme and decides they'd like to incorporate that feature into one of their own designs at some future time. There is no intention to use the design in toto, but rather, just the one facet is saved or remembered as part of the designer's learning process. We all probably do it at one time or another.

Such a designer, being an honest person, will drop an email note to the owner complimenting them on the pleasant experience they had at the site and mentioning that they would like to make use of some element. By contacting the originator before using the concept or code, they have provided an opportunity to be notified of copyrighted materials.

If the goal was to "borrow" not "steal," then this should be an acceptable risk. If the goal was to simply use the material, and hope no one found out, then you are "stealing" the code and hoping you don't get caught. If it is copyrighted material that you have stolen, you may find yourself embroiled in a legal battle that you are unlikely to win.

On the other side of this argument, however, is the fact that there are some basic web page layouts or concepts which most folks have simply adopted into their repertoire and no one can copyright. Such as "Have a band of color on the left and put iconic buttons there for a navbar." This device is so prevalent on the web that it is considered to be in the public domain. But lifting becomes stealing when it is simply taken without asking or informing the originator that it will be repurposed elsewhere. It is simply polite "netiquette" (net etiquette) to thank someone for their ideas (and common sense to be sure ahead of time that you haven't infringed on copyrights).

Most people know how to grab an individual graphic or page but you might wonder how theft on a site-wide scale actually happens. It's simple. Programs called "off-line browsers" allow you to download entire sites, including graphics and scripts in most cases, for viewing off-line. These programs were intended to help people who have to pay for their access time by the minute but off-line browers have other uses too. They are often used by designers to demo a site to a client before payment is made. Unfortunately, there are also those who exploit the usefulness of off-line browsers to simply steal a web site instead of paying for, or creating one themselves.

Now, before you panic and think every web site is vulnerable, understand that there are only certain kinds of web sites where this is likely to happen. A high profile site with thousands of visits a day, for instance, will rarely be stolen, it would be too obvious. Somebody's personal homepage, although it may contain some tempting tidbits, is also unlikely to be purloined in its entirety, it's usually too specific. But there is a huge mass of web sites in the middle with valuable information, desirable layouts or clever code routines that are open to wholesale plundering by the unscrupulous web site pirate.

What if your site ends up in this category and is stolen? Joe Gillespie recently had occasion to address this question when someone lifted every page and graphic from his Web Page Design for Designers site and displayed the pages on his own site, just changing the copyright notices to reflect his own name rather than Joe's. Luckily, given Joe's recognition among his peers in the web design community, there was no question as to who had authored the work. It helps immensely if your work is known and you have thousands of witnesses.

What if you're just starting out on the web and no one knows you yet? How can you prove ownership of a web page or a web graphic? Let's outline a few ideas, based both on steps Joe took in response to his recent web site burglary, as well as feedback from the Spiderwoman List of web designers who've documented cases of website theft back to 1995.

1. Leave A Byte-Sized Trail to Follow Later

Don't plan to become a victim, but don't be naive about it either. Protect your work before you make it accessible to the world. Always state copyright ownership clearly, certainly on the home page, but preferably at the bottom of every page. If your client has a legal team that has written a nice disclaimer, link the copyright notice to a separate page with the disclaimer and reservation of rights explanations. And do put the same type of notice into the HEAD of your web pages using a META tag for this purpose:

<meta name="copyright" content="Copyright © 1997 MyNameOrCompany. All rights reserved.">

2. Set a Trap for the Vermin

It also might be a good plan to embed a unique password or phrase into your text and/or code and in another META tag. This way, the webspiders will make the job of tracking down potential thieves much easier.

<meta name="password" content="My_unique_password_or_phrase_goes_here">

These no-cost detectives search the web on a regular basis. If you have a unique word or phrase hidden on your site, then a simple search of any of the top search engines should pinpoint any theft for you. One way to make a searchable phrase is to take a simple phrase and leave the spaces out or put underscores in, or to insert a benign dummy tag that looks purposeful like:

<x-sas-window top=42 bottom=621 left=4 right=534>

Make sure it's not too obvious or the thief may recognize it as a trap and remove it.

Other clues to your ownership include HTML filenames, variable names (in JavaScript), graphic files filenames and graphic file pixel dimensions, which are more difficult to alter.

3. You Can Only Keep Honest Men Honest

You should also put copyright information as comments in your HTML or JavaScript code, as well as in the source of any CGI scripts or Java applets you design. Remember, HTML and JavaScript are difficult to hide, the best you can do is make it difficult to read by using convoluted variable names or removing all line breaks, however, this double-edged sword will make it difficult for you to do web site maintenance later if you don't keep a regular master copy.

The legality of any copyright notice is not absolute since the Internet is an international medium and there are many countries across the world where the transgressors may remain untouchable. There is a law of diminishing returns where it becomes increasingly more expensive to prosecute decreasingly less important perpetrators. If the material is hosted with a reputable ISP they will usually assist you in addressing the theft without ever having to take it to the level of legal action.

4. Never Mind 1000 Words, Use Just One: Copyright

If you design original graphics, protect them using a digital watermark such as the Digimarc method built into Adobe Photoshop 4. Add a surcharge to your graphics design fees if the cost of the digital key is prohibitive. Won't theft cost you much more?

Original photographic negatives or dated prints of a scanned photo are fairly conclusive evidence of ownership. Avoid using large amounts of clip art or stock shots or an abundant application of popular special effects or filters as these can make authorship of a graphic more difficult to distinguish and prove.

Try to make yourself and your work known to your peers and your style, like the brush strokes of a classic painter, will become identifiable.

5. The Other 999 Words

You'll also need to be able to prove that you are the original author of all textual content. If you have a time-stamped file on your computer, that may be good enough proof for you, but will not necessarily stand up in a court of law and probably not at all in an international court. A number of witnesses that can confirm seeing your work on or before a certain date is fairly irrefutable.

6. To Catch A Thief

After announcing a web site on the Net, be sure to check for your secret phrase or password in the major search engines on a regular basis, and visit the sites that come up on the hit list. If you find that someone has stolen some or all of your work, then what? First of all, don't panic. Don't fly off the handle. Don't call a lawyer. In most cases, everything can be resolved in less than 24 hours and with very little hassle. Most thieves know they've stolen something, and once they're been caught, they'll take the site down faster than you can blink an eye.

You must tell the thief he or she has been caught. Send a polite but assertive email message to ask if they were aware that their site was a near, or exact duplicate of your original design or that certain material on a particular page belongs to you. Detail for them what material is suspect, and make it clear that either you should be credited or the work removed within a defined time period, say 24 hours. Alternatively, suggest they remove it temporarily until you can resolve the question of ownership.

Be sure to CC: the ISP or hosting agent for their site. You can get this information by using a program called WHOIS, a free service on the Net offered by domain name registration services such as the InterNIC. For instance, go to http://rs.internic.net/cgi-bin/whois/ and enter the domain name of the site in question. WHOIS will return a page itemizing the name, physical or mailing address, email address, possibly even the phone number of both the owner of the domain and the agency hosting it. Save this page or print it out, since you may need to follow up beyond an initial email contact.

You may or may not get a response from the offender. They may have, quite innocently, obtained the material elsewhere. This is where proof of ownership is essential. They may ignore your message altogether or it is possible, the email may have been lost in transmission, so before whatever period of time you gave them has passed, say 12 hours into the request, if the offending material has not been removed from public view, send the message again copying the hosting agency again, and state that you have not received a response nor has the offending material been removed. Say that you realize email can sometimes be lost in the ether and you are resending the request. Then just append your original message. Don't elaborate or escalate the issue at this point, just give them a chance to answer.

The next step, if the site remains up and the perpetrator remains uncommunicative, is to follow up with a written, snail-mailed letter with proof of delivery. Again, you should copy the letter to the agency hosting the domain. Remain professional. If you end up in court and have been abusive, it can come back to haunt you. Send a follow up paper letter if the first produces no results, and after that, if you still obtain no satisfaction, you must proceed to court.

If you have shown that you have a good case, chances are that the whole episode won't get this far. In Joe's case, for instance, the stolen material was removed in mere hours after in initial email contact. If you haven't got a strong case to prove ownership, you could be looking at a very expensive exercise indeed.

In the end, a resourceful thief can steal, disguise the theft, and prosper--perhaps, even win an award with your work! At the moment, web site pirates are mostly opportunist, not professionals, and are relatively easy to defeat. If they were any good in the first place, they wouldn't have to steal. No doubt, the practice will become more widespread and more sophisticated as rewards increase. Hopefully, some bright programmers will come up with equally devious counter measures.

Avast me hearties. Stand by to repel boarders.

Copyright #copy; 1997 Joe Gillespie & Sarah R. Yoffa. All Rights Reserved.

Joe Gillespie is a designer/art director based in London, England who now heads Pixel Productions, specializing in design for multimedia. He has also produced the High Five award winning Web Page Design for Designers site.

Sarah R. Yoffa is a principal of Phoenix Rising Enterprises, a web development and Internet consulting firm on Florida's central east coast specializing in multimedia and interactive web sites. Sarah comes from a Mechanical Engineering background and has applied classic Design Automation skills to Intranet designs for HTTP-based Information Management.

After over a decade on the Net, Sarah has an active virtual life. She's Host of the CGI Conference at Spiderwoman on the Web & Feature Columnist for Spiderwoman's Webspinnings, a founding member of The Fourth Fate Consortium, a Virtual Office of women web developers and web hosts, and she founded the Space Coast Webgrrls chapter, one of over 100 groups of 7000+ women who network worldwide.

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