copying website contentBeing able to determine the difference between using a site as reference and blatantly copying a website seems like a clear case of common sense. So, why does it seem that when it comes to material online, so many people are making the decision to just “take” what they find?

In the web design business, having reference to different websites is useful in starting the web design process off in the right direction. It’s always beneficial when clients have done research on their own and are able to provide insight to their style preferences or help define features and necessary programming functionality that they may require.

Legitimate research certainly includes checking out other sites and industry competitor sites to see what’s good, what’s not and what makes some sites more successful than others. But there is a very big difference between “referencing” and “stealing.”

So what’s the difference between referencing and stealing?
Reference is just that, something that will allow a design team to develop concepts that are unique and compelling but guided by style parameters that will ultimately meet the expectations and approval of the client. Copying is stealing – it’s that simple. Stealing website content, imagery, and design can be punishable just like any other form of theft.

Moral ambiguity online…
I’m not sure why there seems to be a moral gray area when it comes to copying online content. I guess it’s partially because the internet has made it so easy to get information and recirculate it. The internet allows us to easily get volumes of information ranging from images and music to articles and reports. Many people seem to feel that if something is found online it yours for the taking.

In light of all of Google’s most recent algorithm updates targeted directly at sites that copy content one would think that blatant copying would be on the decline. And if the penalties Google has been dishing out weren’t enough of a deterrent, there can be harsh legal ramifications as well. Just to be clear, I’m talking about more than just content. My company frequently gets requests to knock-off site designs, populate a site with content from a competitor because the services are basically the same, or to use images found on another site. Of course, we won’t do any of those things, but it seems strange that so many people ask. The very same people would never ask to copy or pull elements from print advertisements or printed brand assets from a “reference” company.

Make no mistake, copying a website in any way is theft and can be punishable.
Print or web, stealing is punishable. Recently I’ve received calls from two different business owners desperately needing help to quickly redesign their websites from the ground up. Why? Because they (or rather the person they hired to design their site) copied a competitor’s website in varying extents that included copying source code (that happened to be protected), phrases that were trademarked, images that weren’t licensed to them, and even the site design and layout. Some of this stuff is very easy to track online and companies who spend the time and money to build their brands tend to take this stuff seriously.

Both of the sites mentioned above were required to take their sites down or pay monetary penalties. Both sites happened to be eCommerce sites responsible for generating a significant portion of their company’s revenue. In one sense these two companies were lucky that they were able to avoid costly legal ramifications, but on the other hand they were hemorrhaging money every day their sites were down.

Now, I’m making the assumption that part of the original decision to “steal” was to save money. Perhaps, to save money by not hiring a professional copy writer to create their own original content. Perhaps, to cut down on design costs by providing an existing direction to knock off. I could be wrong, but I often find these types of decisions are in some way tied to money. These are two great examples of how trying to save money by copying someone Else’s work ends up costing so much more. Now these companies are both faced with getting their websites back online as quickly as possible. This will require a completely new site design with clean code, purchased images, copy writing, and probably some type of rush charge all on top of the original website build cost.

If you need to check your website’s copy to see where it’s been duplicated or copied then a great online tool that I use is Copyscape —it’s worth signing up for the premium membership. If you have good quality content on your site then there’s a pretty good chance that many other people have scraped it for their own use. If you find instances of this using Copyscape, then you can try to contact the webmasters to have them remove the content from their site. My experience with this has not been to successful; a more effective alternative is to request a duplicate content removal from Google. Just go to the Google Copyright Removal page to report the infringement. Note: you must be logged into your Google account.

Today, it is far too easy to track photos, content, and source code online for there to be any indiscretions, not that you should be considering theft as a design solution anyway. I’ve seen companies pay Getty images tens of thousands of dollars for using images that weren’t licensed, I’ve seen sites removed from SERPS for using content that was plagiarized, and I’ve seen businesses go to court and lose over replicating another businesses’ website. Most business owners don’t take chances with there business, your online assets shouldn’t be an area where that policy is compromised.


About the Author: Chris London is an owner and Art Director for Pixel Productions Inc., a nationally recognized brand design and eCommerce development company. He is part of a creative team that specializes in design, development and online marketing for small to mid-sized businesses as well as helping those businesses understand the benefits, challenges and costs involved in successfully driving potential clients or customers to their websites for increased ROI.