The Legalities of Copying a Website Design

A website contains many different creative elements. The overall design relies on images, videos, text, and of course, the underlying code. Some of the parts, such as the code used to create footers, is common to all websites but other elements are unique. Copyright laws protect these aspects of a site. However, the legalities of copying a website design, the overall look, and the feel, are a bit murky. Be sure to read this article before you hire a web designer to duplicate an existing website.

Accidentally Copying a Website Design

When redesigning a website, intentional copying of website contents, or patented color schemes, or even the design that defines a brand is illegal. For example, many criminals will reproduce a banking website and then when a visitor enters their login information, voila, they can steal their identities. Copying a website design for nefarious purposes is fraud, and the perpetrators can be prosecuted.

But what about copying a website design ‘by accident’?

One of the first questions a web designer typically asks during a consultation is whether or not the client has seen a website design that they like. It is a common practice to identify things like banners or animations that catch the eye. A client also might find a website whose structure fits their purposes and use it as a model.

So, the question that arises is ‘when does inspiration turn into copying’?

Copyright Laws

Copyright laws protect creative and intellectual property from those who would steal it.

  • The right to a creative work exists automatically from the moment of creation.
  • Copyright gives the holder the exclusive rights to use, copy, transmit or modify their original content.
  • There is no need for the author, artist, or developer to publish or register their work.

You may have noticed the ‘all rights reserved’ or ‘copyright’ text in a website’s footer. This copyright notice prohibits others from duplicating the images, text, or other creative elements on the site. It also protects the source code.

It does NOT prevent a web designer from recreating the look of the site using their own original source code.

Website Templates

Obviously, a website that is built using a website template will resemble thousands of other websites across the web. The source code is the same, and the only real difference is in the images and colors used in the design. Claiming copyright infringement, in this case, would be difficult. Unless the perpetrator used things like logos, trademarks, or plagiarized content, it would be hard to prove that they deliberately copied your site.

Custom Websites

However, the legalities of copying a website that’s been designed using custom code are pretty straightforward. Web developers write custom code for one client. Therefore, they own the rights to that design. It does not matter if another site copies part or all of your site. If any of the elements of your custom website are reproduced on another site, then you have a case for copyright infringement.

How to Prevent Someone from Copying a Website Design

One way to protect your b2b website design project is to hide the source code from website visitors. This precaution is especially important if you have proprietary elements. Your web developer can discuss all the ramifications because you might have to trade speed for secrecy. You can also lock the images and text so they can’t be copied to the clipboard or downloaded.

What If You Want to Copy Someone Else’s Web Design?

There is nothing wrong with looking for inspiration on other websites. You can point out elements to your website designer and even incorporate them into your design. You just don’t want to copy the elements themselves or the code. For example, if you like the look of a scrolling banner, you can have a scrolling banner. Just make sure it doesn’t scroll the same images, and your web designer uses their own code to create the element and doesn’t copy the code from the website you found.

You would also want to gather your ‘inspiration’ from a number of sites and not just one.

Another way to legally copy a website is to ask permission. The website owner might not care if you use their layout or they may be willing to share the code for a small fee.

The Legalities of Copying a Website Design

To sum up the legalities of copying a website design:

  • You cannot duplicate copyrighted elements such as images, text, or source code.
  • It is illegal to use someone’s logo or trademarked material.
  • You can gather inspiration from a number of sites and incorporate them into your web design.
  • It is legal to recreate elements similar to those on another site using custom code.
  • Using a website template means there will be thousands of other sites similar to yours and you have no rights to the source code.
  • A custom website gives you ownership of your unique design, and another site cannot legally copy it.

Next Steps

So where do you go from here? Here are some additional resources to help you on your website design journey:

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Alex Chapman
5 years ago

Hi there,

The article is great but doesnt really answer my question. If I was to want to do a similar website to a well known brand as in the look of it and the way it operates in a similar fashion but for a completely different industry, would this be acceptable?

For example the NOW TV website but use it for estate agency?
Thank you

5 years ago

hi there ive been accused of COPYING a websote and stealing IP.
it was my web designer built it for me based on another design i took inspiration from, i didnt realise he copied source code and that it was also illegal.
i now have this company threatening legal action and so need the site adjusted to avoid copyright lawsuits.
its essentially a template of a few pages not many, can u help?

4 years ago

Thanks for the article.

In the “custom websites” section above you say “It does not matter if another site copies part or all of your site. If any of the elements of your custom website are reproduced on another site, then you have a case for copyright infringement.”

I’m wondering what “copeis” means in this context? Is it about source code or is it about the “look and feel”?

The phrase “any of the elements” suggests that it’s both, though in the previous section it says that designer can copy the look as long as the code base was created from scratch.

It would be great if you could reveal that part a bit.