"I spent a lot of time and resources developing my web
site, creating graphics, adding some special unique effects
and more. Shortly after I posted and announced it to the
world I discovered that many people were taking my ideas
and code and using them on their web sites."
"This code represented a significant effort on my part to
showcase and illustrate my skills. How can I protect it
from copycats that would pass it off for their own work and
dilute its value?"
This type of question and concern is very common on web
design newsgroups and mail lists. New users often expect to
get an answer about a special code, switch or encryption
method that can be used. More experienced users know that
there is no such thing but are constantly looking for some
trick or idea that will work anyway.
There is also a large body of people that question the
desire to hide your code. "...the World Wide Web was built
upon the concept of open standards. Its success to a very
large extent can be directly attributed to its openness and
free transfer of ideas. Any attempt to restrict the
openness is contradictory to that concept and would if
successful, ultimately result in its degradation and
usefulness. Besides, we dare anyone to show us a unique web
site that to a substantial extent did not borrow ideas and
code from some other existing source..."
So who is right and what can be done about it in either
Here is this week's analogy. Imagine building the largest and
best-equipped market town in the province. In order to
protect the shoppers and merchants from thieves you hire a
large police force to keep them out. But the police do not
know who the thieves are or believe (probably correctly)
that there is a little bit of larceny in all of us and
consequently keep everyone out. The market town of course
starts to decay so the police are dispensed with. Pretty
soon the market starts to flourish which of course attracts
thieves that start to rob everyone blind. The merchants and
shoppers stop going to the market town or if they do, they
leave their most valuable goods at home.
As with most things people have a tendency to paint their
views in black and white. This is especially true of the
Web were many people still have an idealistic view or an
unnatural fear of it.
So just how much of a problem is the Web's openness?
The first thing to recognize is that it is a problem. Not
necessarily because a lot of good ideas and hard work are
being taken but because a lot of people perceive it to be a
problem. If someone believes that their work and effort
will probably be stolen then they are far less likely to
put as much time an effort into it.
The majority of people designing web sites probably
overstate the problem. The level of concern should relate
to the true cost of having someone copy or use your work.
Will it result in a direct monetary loss to you or is it
related more to your pride? The fact is you probably did
borrow many ideas and code from someplace else no matter
how many unique ideas you have added.
There are many cases however, where taking somebody's work
will result in a direct monetary loss to them. An artist
posting his or her work may be dependent upon its sale to
make a living. At this extreme case, Napster and MP3.com
were not sued by the music industry for pride. There are
big bucks involved.
An interesting example of this was recently posted on an
SVG mail list where a cartography company (map maker)
wanted to post their maps using SVG. They were concerned
that since SVG is vector based there would be nothing to
stop anyone from taking the information from the maps and
producing their own. Maps are all about resolution and SVG
vectors have it all. For them the ability to post their
maps online means fast, reliable, low-cost distribution. It
also means that there is nothing to stop anyone from
What about copyright? Copyright law protects everyone's
intellectual property as soon as they create it. You do not
even need to register it. This newsletter for example, is
copyright protected even without the little copyright
notice that is included. So are your web pages. If someone
copies and pastes the code from your web page to theirs
without your permission you have every right to sue them.
But how practical is that? I'm not a lawyer so this is a
non-legal observation. (Unless you can demonstrate a
significant monetary loss it will probably be an expensive
exercise. Lawyers and courts cost money and are time
consuming. If you are a company protecting a trademark or
if the copyright infringement results in a demonstrable
financial loss it may be worth your while. If you think
that someone has copied your family web-page design, it may
not be worth the effort.) End non-legal observation.
Even if the copyright infringement does represent a
significant loss for you, it may be impossible to prove. In
the case of a map the value is in the coordinates. Unlike a
song being downloaded from Napster, the source of a set of
coordinates may be difficult to identify.
By far the best solution is to prevent the theft in the
first place. But that of course is when the openness of the
web becomes a problem.
What can you do to protect your work if you truly believe
it should be? -Next week.
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