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.

Accidentally Copying a Website Design

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 website design 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 web 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.

If you need a custom website with original source code, I encourage you to come to us. We can replicate the ‘feel’ of a website without copying any of the copyrighted elements. We can also build you a unique design, unlike any on the internet.  Plus, Thomas Digital Design offers a Free Mock-Up of a new website design focused on user experience and conversion. See the possibilities without any commitment or risk. We also help with legal web design

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