Design copycats

Written by Adrian Holovaty on July 15, 2002

"Stealing" content has been the talk of the online content industry lately, but here's another type of stealing that many people rarely think about -- design theft. has an interesting article about theft of online design, which claims, "[w]hile most website operators know ripping off content is rife, the lifting of online design -- from entire sites to individual elements -- is just as widespread."

Great point. In fact, Web design theft is so widespread there's an entire site,, devoted to spotlighting particularly blatant cases.

I only found one news site in's archive, but I'm convinced news sites are some of the worst design stealers out there. (An example: The left-rail navigation of vs. that of U.S. News. I think the Post's came first.)

But who can blame 'em? For the most part, news sites have similar content, similar information architecture and, ultimately, similar missions. There are only so many ways that a Web page can present and organize "News," "Opinion," "Sports," and "Features." Plus, consider Web designers' limited font choices and somewhat-limited color choices, along with the philosophy that sites should abandon individualism in favor of usability, and you end up with very little room to move.

Still, that's no excuse. I know from experience how it feels to be ripped off -- my You Write the Caption site on was blatantly copied by the Baltimore Sun, and they even admitted it after I e-mailed them -- and I think news sites should keep a steadier eye out for design copycats and maintain originality in their own designs, if for nothing else than for credibility.

For instance, I just plain wouldn't feel right ordering anything from Musician's Friend, seeing that its design is a direct copy of Because they're not willing to invest in an original design, I can't help but wonder whether their products are similarly second-rate. Same goes for news sites; when I visited for the first time, I felt the site was cheapened by the fact that its left rail looked exactly the same as's. (Of course, I'm a font and design junkie and thus notice these things more than the average Web surfer, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who has felt this way.)

A final thought: Ivan Hoffman, an Internet law attorney, has published some legal Articles for Web Site Designers and Site Owners, including advice on protecting your site's look and feel. While I don't necessarily condone legal action to ward off copycats, it's interesting to note that it's indeed a realistic option.


Posted by Rob on July 15, 2002, at 4:16 p.m.:

A few years ago, this ISP stole a design from my personal site and forgot to take out the META tags. Imagine how surprised I was when a search turned up a site that looked oddly familiar. The moral: if you're going to steal, at least be creative -- and smart -- about it.

Posted by Wohleber on July 15, 2002, at 4:56 p.m.:

I won't condone design theft, but to play devil's advocate a moment: Is design theft necessarily more widespread online than in print?

It does get harder to disguise the superficial details because of the limited font choices, etc. Lifting actual code is beyond the pale, but there's a gray area between inspiration and outright theft.

To further muddy the waters: a web page layout is more than a graphic deseign; it's a user interface. Most users prefer a standard application interface, even a mediocre one, to learning a new interface for each application. This creates a pressure for conformity in web site design in opposition to individual sites' desire to create a distinct brand identity and package their content as they see fit.

Web site design seems to fall into a conceptual void that is perhaps not adequately served by copyright law but not quite in the purview of patent law. But I know squat about IP law so maybe someone better informed can offer a less muddled perspective.

Posted by Dan on July 15, 2002, at 9:44 p.m.:

It's surprising how rampant design theft is, it's almost as widespread as proprietary code theft. People who outrightly steal are marauders who by their very actions lessen their own abilities and threaten the slight amount of credibility they may have had in the first place. A brief look at tells the ugly truth, there's an army of people willing and able to steal design.


There are a few fundamental design principles that I think should be recognized (and appreciated) before we go around accusing site after site of stealing things like the three column layout. Let's not forget about genre and style, both of which can be used to describe a commonality of form and function.

When these terms are used to describe conceptually similar entities it removes the all-encompassing stigma of terms like "stealing" and turns them in-part into concepts and words such as "refinement" and "competitive advancement". Of course, this is in reference to pieces that in whole and/or in part constitute similarity but are not a direct copy. Rather, they are a fundamental rethinking of a problem that borrows methods and principles from a whole other solution. However, to be "original" these principles must exist in a creative use and application that has distinctive individual characteristics of their own as well.

I agree with Wohleber that there are accessibility issues that come into play also, most sites should remain within an umbrella of formats so that they can provide a constructive user experience that doesn't present the user with a new paradigm to learn at every corner.

I think for the designer that actually wants great talent and skill the concept is clear - use other people's work as inspiration and refine your vocabulary and style into voice distinctly your own. As for the pirate, your day cometh.

Posted by Wohleber on July 15, 2002, at 11:21 p.m.:

Maybe in the future consumers will use the front-end user interface of their choice to display XML-tagged content from various providers. There's a lot to be said for that, I think, but the separation of design and content is not always a good thing.

Posted by Adrian on July 16, 2002, at 3:47 p.m.:

I really like the idea of users providing their own front-end interfaces. I think we're already seeing the beginning of that with user-defined style sheets, which, to me, are very exciting.

Of course, there will always be room for good, professional design. I'm excited to see how long it will take for mainstream sites to adopt alternate style sheets and let users decide which style sheet looks best to them. (I'm working on adding that functionality to this very site at the moment.)

Posted by AgentKen on July 19, 2002, at 8:07 p.m.:

I'm gonna take a different tactic on this question.

Many of us learned web design without any practical training. I mean, if I want to know how to place the "Open Links in new Window" (a cool feature) option box on my site, I just read the source code and take the bits I need.

That's one of the beautiful things about the open-source design of the Internet.

Does it lead to abuses? Sure it does, but it also drives innovation. How? Well, good designers are always trying to push the envelope -- making sites, faster, more accessible, what have you -- so their sites will stand out.

I've built some features that have been copied. I've also voluntarily given away content (and content-management systems) in order to help others (espcially in our newspaper chain) improve their sites.

Do I like it when someone swipes my code or design? Yes, I do. I take it as validation that I've done something well.

Since open-source is still the paradigm of Internet publication, you just get used to seeing your own work show up elsewhere.

And this isn't limited to the web. We just did a print redesign (scaling down to 50" web) and what did the designer do? He got himself a couple of Poynter books on newspaper design and launched into two months of best-practices research.

And I'm doing the same thing today, working on specs for a new Spanish-language publication that we're launching. I asked the editor to give me links to sites that he liked and sites that were run by simililar publications. From that research (and what I know about site usability), we're going to build a site that will have elements from other sites.

T.S. Eliot once said, quite accurately, "Good poets write, great poets steal." By which he meant that all creativity is built on the foundation of what has come before.

It's not theft, and it's not homage, it's just a basic element of the process of creating. Because without the reference points to previous works in the genre, poeple wouldn't be able to comprehend new works.

Which (as some one from an academic background) reminds me that most of the Web design debates center around usability theory when it may be productive to take a side route and discuss genre theory a little.

What makes prose different from poetry? Short fiction different from novels different from reporting? Similar questions might be well applied to the Web: What differentiates a retail Web site from a news one? Does there need to be a clear distinction for the site visitor? What are the implications of presenting the news in different formats?

For example, the site using a print-tabloid-inspired design that I find implicitly untrustworthy, so I would never use it for anything beyond NYC gossip and crime news (which I would never read).

Similarly, what are the genre implications of presenting a news site in a layout like Amazon's or eBay's?

The thing about genre theory is that people are confronted by a vast array of information all day long. And to make specific decisions about each unique event is impossible, so we generalize, categorize, and create genres of understanding. For example, advertising is a genre that most of use can readily identify and thus dismiss as background clutter (hence the "death' of banner ads online).

Further, if people can't intuit the genre of a piece of information (think avant-garde art), they are quite likely to ignore it entirely, becauase do try to decode it would take time and effort.

From that standpoint, regularity and uniformity of genre is beneficial, especially in a news medium, where the medium is _not_ the message.

Posted by AgenKen on July 19, 2002, at 8:11 p.m.:

Speaking of stealing code: Adrian -- love the site but wish there was a way to fix typos after making a post, a la UBB and other forum software.

Posted by Adrian on July 23, 2002, at 6:53 p.m.:

Ken: For the most part, I agree. It's helpful to be able to view source on a Web page and figure out how something was done. When I was learning HTML, it was incredibly useful to see examples of things I wanted to accomplish. And I still take a peek under the hood when I find a neat design or feature. If nothing else, the open-source design of HTML has helped teach countless budding Web designers how things work, greatly contributing to the Web explosion of a few years back.

To a point, it's also a good thing the news site genre has a collective look and feel -- an almost-standard presentation of breaking news upfront, navigation on the left or top, etc. It makes for easy acclimation to the site and serves as a genre identifer, as you point out.

That said, I think there is a credibility loss when one news site directly, blatantly copies another. I get a certain feeling of cheapness when I see a design feature duplicated on another site. I don't mean a generic idea, like having a search bar at the top right of the screen; rather, I'm talking about a functionality or design detail that I've come to identify with another site.

I just found one the other day:'s story pages use exactly the same superscripted underscore around its "Today's Top Stories" titles that uses on its sidebars. Same font, same color, even same number of underscores on each side. Shameful.

(Of course, as I mentioned in the blog item, I'm particularly sensitive to this kind of thing because I'm a font and design junkie.)

Posted by AgentKen on July 23, 2002, at 11:08 p.m.:

I would agree -- blatant rips offs are a problem, you;d at least think that the Tenessean would use Volunteer orange for that feature.

And I think that credibility suffers both when your site doesn't have a fresh look and if it has a borrowed look.

So with that in mind, let the comments fly on my big Spanish/English monthly tabloid project: (still under development).

Posted by Adrian on July 24, 2002, at 7:01 p.m.:

Ken: I'll post some comments on the site this evening. It'll be the first of a new feature on this site -- the aptly named "site reviews."

Posted by Kim on September 17, 2003, at 5:16 a.m.:

Adrain: I have to agree with you regarding blatant stealing of html. I have been dealing with the same individual stealing my designs for three years now. Each time I change the design of my site, she steals it. She recently gave up one site and started this new one, again stealing my html. I have had this design since 2001. I have confronted her regarding this, dozens of times, but now I tire of it. I now own a company and will be offering web design services. I use this site as an example of my work. Her copying my site undermines the integrity of my work.

To me, this demonstrates the depth of a thief's intelligence: She stole my coding, including my Meta tag description content, which contains a grammatical error. Her thievery is blasted on the HotBot and MSN search engines when you do a comparison search of our subjects, error and all.

Check out my site and then view hers. Don't forget to view the source for the content description Meta tag.

Posted by Sarah on October 1, 2003, at 6:26 p.m.:

Original web site -

Copycat -

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