About Web Development Plagiarism

When you think about plagiarism, the first thought that comes to mind is probably something to do with writing (such as you might have faced during your university years when plagiarism was likely to get you kicked out) or art (where people are constantly faced with accusations of stealing other artist’s work). You probably don’t think about the same thing occurring in web development, but the reality of the situation is that the plagiarism of code and design is just as prevalent as the stealing of art and lyrics.

Unfortunately, when it comes to web development, the law is fairly hazy when it comes what constitutes as ‘inspiration’ and what constitutes as downright ‘stealing’. Whilst the difference between the two can be debated amongst members of the industry, the only important distinction (at least, for a web developer who has had their code stolen) is the one made by the law.

It has long been believed that there is very little legal protection when it comes to the plagiarism of web development work, but this is not true – there is probably a lot more protection than you have thought there is. In most countries, copyright law protects anything that is a shape, pattern or similar object, which includes design. It is important, however, to look further than this – an intangible design is actually made up of a collection of tangible objects (code), which is 110% copyright-able. On top of this, any images or text that is used in a website is also protected by copyright. This is because all of these bits of information are saved onto a web server.

So, what can someone working in web development get from all of these legal distinctions? Basically, while the design itself cannot be covered by copyright and plagiarism laws (being intangible), the work that went into creating the design is protected (as the code, text and images are tangible). This is an interesting predicament for many web developers – if you come across a website that looks exactly like your own, it will not be considered plagiarism as long as the creator hasn’t used any of the images, text or code that you used to create yours. In contrast to this, you could find a website that has no resemblance to yours whatsoever but, if the creator has copied the code directly from your website, this is a breach of copyright.

So, how can a web developer prevent their code from being plagiarized? You could consider encrypting your HTML (which is not overly desirable as it also blocks search engine spiders from indexing your website), make your own code (because every web developer will have their own style, much like every author and composer does), embed your images (with your copyright information), use unique file names (which can make it easier to prove plagiarism has occurred), and search out plagiarists (the best way to do this is by joining a forum that is specifically for this task).

If you do uncover a company that has blatantly stolen your work (without permission, of course), your next step is to take the matter to a lawyer. Often, however, all a web developer needs to do is point out the similarities between their own website and the new one for its creator to agree to change these things – after all, no one wants to be involved in a legal battle over their website unless they really have to.

The next time you come across a website that you think has breached copyright law by stealing your work, look deeper into the page – if they haven’t used your code, then you don’t really have a foot to stand on. If you do in fact find that the web developer has copied your code, you certainly have a legal grounding to take the matter further.