Design and copy pirates: Should you care?

Websites like Copyscape make it easier than ever to find other sites who have stolen your copy. However, should you care and how can you stop thieves.

Dylon Garton recently contacted me with the following issue:

I have been affected by the issue of plagiarism. I really struggle to write good web copy so when I manage to get some good copy into one of my web pages I am quite pleased. I am less pleased when I discover several other websites have lifted the copy word for word.

I am wondering how you guys deal with content theft. I have discovered a great site called Copyscape and this is how I have managed to find all of the sites that have ripped me off. I will be interested to hear how you guys deal with it.

There is no doubt that plagiarism is widespread within web design and across the web as a whole. Sites like Copyscape make it easy to find copy thieves. However, the problem is just as prevalent in design.


Our work has been ripped off a number of times and I know many other designers have experienced the same thing. Elliot Jay Stocks has been particularly vocal on the subject after suffering himself.

Let me be clear…

Ripping off somebody else’s work is wrong. Its lazy and it’s damaging. Not just damaging to the reputation of the individual who you ripped off, but damaging to the thief too. And I am not just talking about when you get caught. It is damaging because it leads to unimaginative thinking. Your own creative skills atrophy over time to the point where you can no longer create original work.

That is not to say you cannot be inspired by other people’s work. However, there is a line, and although we may pretend otherwise, we all know when we have crossed it.

The unfortunate reality

Although plagiarism in all its forms is wrong, it is not going to go away. It has existed before the web and will exist after it. The only difference is that because the web is such an open platform it is incredibly easy to copy work. However, in my opinion that is a price worth paying for an open web.

Once you accept that plagiarism cannot be defeated, it fundamentally changes you attitude towards it. There is little point in getting indignant or angry. You learn not to waste too much time or energy on people who are essentially just rude.

Does that mean that I ignore plagiarism? Not at all.

How I deal with it

99% of the plagiarism I have been confronted with has been resolved with a simple email. I write to the individual involved drawing attention to the problem and asking them to rectify the situation. I don’t make any legal threats and keep things as civil as possible. I make the presumption that the person I am writing to is unaware of the problem.

The reason I take this approach is because it doesn’t put people on the defence. They can easily write back blaming somebody else, apologise profusely and remove the offending content. However, if you start making legal threats they are forced to defend their position.

On the rare occasion when people do dig their heels in I shrug my shoulders and move on. If they want to continually follow in my wake that is fine. I will just move on to the next thing and produce something new. I am not going to waste my time on them.

  • Rob

    Well said Paul – I understand why some would get upset, but I also know that you can waste a lot of time and energy chasing phantoms instead of focusing on the creative work you NEED to be working on.

  • This happened to our site a few months ago, it’s strange how it affected me. Firstly, I had a good old laugh about it thinking that I was finally doing better work if someone felt like ripping it off. But very quickly funny nature of it turned very sour. (like within the hour)

    As paul said, we emailed him asking for it to be taken off politely and ended up getting a response saying that it wasn’t a copy etc which was not only a blatant insult to our intelligence but seriously rage inducing. Just the idea that someone else was taking credit for a badly hacked up version of my hard work was almost too hard to take.

    Luckily for me, a few design friends hunted down the designer and my boss who was even more rage filled threw some legal terms into the emails now pointed at the designer, not the owner. The owner now was passing the buck to the designer. Whether this was valid or not, I’ll never know but the guy sounded genuine enough. (I understand he got a refund from the ‘designer’ eventually too)

    The whole thing was messy to be honest, I don’t think it was particularly handled well because tempers were flaring. If it ever happens again, I plan on making sure that its dealt with a bit more decorum.

    Sadly however I think it’s very easy to take it personally when it’s your work on display. A real exercise in will power and restraint.

  • I’ve had this same problem with my own portfolio site, and discovered a number of ‘about me’ sections had copied my own text in full (and other snippets of copy on my other pages).

    @Rob – I actually believe that copy IS one of the creative elements to a website, and should therefore be treated with the same level of respect regarding copyright as a layout or visual design. I spent a lot of time getting the tone of my website right (not being a professional copywriter), so was a bit peeved to find others doing the CTRL + C / CTRL + V on my work which had taken several days.

    Paul, I found one of the best ways to combat this was to follow the culprits on Twitter! The text in question would either change quickly, or a gentle @message saying their copy looked familiar would do the job!

    Great work for highlighting this important issue.

  • The page is a neat naming-and-shaming tool… but I agree with the idea that you can’t easily fight the pirates. If you were to chase everyone who copied chunks of your creative work you’d be wasting more time than it was worth.

  • Well said. This approach is ideal and treading softly versus pounding often tends to get the culprit to take the high road. Using copyscape I found some of our stolen copy wasn’t even read by the thief…in a couple cases they actually left the references to our company name when cutting and pasting our services pages etc. In these cases we didn’t even approach them to ask them to remove the copy.
    I really thought the copyscape tool was very interesting an blogged a bit about it

    Thanks for the post.

  • Paul, your “Zen”-like attitude when it comes to copy plagiarism is commendable. Not having suffered from this problem, I cannot speak to whether I would be as calm.

    I also agree with you that, an unfortunate side effect of having an open web, which I whole heartedly believe that we should, is rampant thievery. But, what I cannot support is outright copying, in its entirety, another person’s work. Recently, a designer (name withheld) discovered that his entire site (design & copy) had been lifted and used as the portfolio for another designer. Not simply a design element, layout or technique, but the entire site. And, I’m sure, we’ve seen this happen before. But, wouldn’t you agree that this infringes upon the original designer’s ability to work and legal action must be taken if civil discourse does not work?

    Again, having not encountered such an issue, I don’t have a clear cut answer. I guess I am only wondering “out loud”.

  • Stealing other peoples content is wrong, period! The people who do this are nothing but weak minded individuals who dont have the brain power to do their own work.

  • I feel more should be done to stop these thiefs, at the end of the day this is your hard earned content.