Spot the difference
Website copying may be widespread, but there are some simple measures you can take to protect your copyright. Chris Alden explains
Thursday March 1, 2001
Mike Slocombe, the designer and creator of Urban 75, isn't the type you would expect to get agitated about the rights of the copyright holder.
He wears dreadlocks. He opposes legislation that threatens individual freedom of expression. He won't accept banners, tie-ins or ads on his site, funding it instead through freelance web design. But when Slocombe discovered last month that an organisation in the US had built web pages that looked like his own, even he was put out.
"I got emails from people in America saying, 'Are you involved in this site, or did you design it?' So I took a look, and shrieked in horror as I saw what looks like my site."
Even phrases were remarkably similar, Slocombe says. A Google search on the Urban 75 catchphrase - We are entirely non-profit, no banners, no tie-ins, no ads - returned only Narconon, Urban 75 and sites linking to Urban 75.
The main difference, it seems, is ideological. Urban 75 offers information about drugs without condemning their use, but Narconon actively promotes treatment of addiction through techniques developed by L Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology.
Slocombe alleges that a copyright violation had taken place - but Gary Smith, Narconon's executive director, in an email to Online, said he "does not believe the websites in question include any copyright infringement".
The question of copyright on the internet is complex. "It's widely recognised," says Michael Chissick, the head of the online law team at Field Fisher Waterhouse, "that most things on a website - the software, text, photos, music, film - are copyright-protected works."
But it is normal practice for developers to, say, look at each other's code to educate themselves. Any page can be viewed as source code (a function in all browsers) or even copied (offline viewing, again a function in later browsers). A simple email of thanks will usually suffice.
It is also permissible to copy work if it is not a "substantial"
portion of protected work, qualitatively speaking, or if it is not original. Work may also be explicitly placed in the public domain - free graphics libraries are available to developers, often in return for a link or a credit.
Despite such resources, copying is widespread, as the Lancashire designer Julia Hurst of spreadtheworld.com can testify. The man whom she says ripped off her site even advertised in the magazine of her local chamber of commerce.
"There was an advert for a web designer setting up three or four miles from me. I went to have a look at his site - and found it was my site.
"It looked different, but the words were verbatim. It was lifted wholesale, even to the extent that where he'd copied one page he'd put his pictures in but left my text."
She solved the problem by sending an email complaint - not only to her rival, but also to the local chamber of com merce and her ISP. The site was down within a few days.
If email doesn't do the trick, headed paper might. When a site in America copied whole pages from her site, Hurst asked her solicitor to write a letter. "They'd copied whole pages and put at the bottom 'Reproduced by kind permission of' - which gave them credibility, when courtesy was one thing they'd never extended me. That one the lawyer's letter sorted out."
But in the end, says Chissick, you need to be prepared to back up your claim. "If you haven't much money, the first thing you should do is write. If that doesn't work, your only real recourse is the courts - and that's what they're there for."
It helps if you are well known. If many people can vouch for the fact that they saw your website at a certain date, or if screengrabs appeared in the press, that will be better proof than computer records that might more easily be fabricated.
But while a copyright case in the same country might not be too problematic, says Chissick, things could be more challenging overseas.
It is usually the law in the country in which the website is hosted that will apply.
"As always with the internet, there's a difference between what the law says - thou shalt not copy somebody else's copyrighted work - and the practice."
The good news is that most countries are signatories to the Berne convention, which requires states to recognise "moral rights of integrity and attribution". But the law may still vary from place to place. In the US, the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act says an online service provider must take down a website if you allege it violates your rights - or become liable for damages.
Slocombe, a long-standing opponent of tough legislation such as the Criminal Justice Act and the RIP Act, describes this law as open to misuse, because protest sites that can't afford to fight legal claims could end up being intimidated.
But if the website declares it will defend itself against your claim, you have just 10 days to bring a case - or the service provider must put the site back up. So you have to be prepared .
The problem for a one-man show such as Urban 75 is that hardball is an expensive game to play. The Church of Scientology, famously litigious, has been an aggressive defender of its online copyright.
So Slocombe used a radical tactic: posting comparisons of the two sites on Urban 75, plus a section (later removed) inviting his readers to email concerns to Narconon and its service provider, Earthlink.
Earthlink has not replied to either the Guardian or, we understand, Urban 75. The company was founded by a Scientologist, Sky Dayton, although it has distanced itself from the church.
Narconon, it appears, did get a reply. According to Smith's email, "Earthlink did not see that there was any problem with the Narconon websites". The ISP, he adds, was "very concerned about the number of unsolicited emails that Narconon and Earthlink were receiving at the request of Urban 75."
Narconon made such changes, Smith says, because it "wanted to resolve all concerns amicably".
Small victories, but valuable to Slocombe, a man wedded to his online obsession. "I don't want people confusing my work with theirs."
How to protect copyright online Companies have responded to copyright protection requirements by offering digital rights management services, which attempt to track copyrighted work on the net. Examples include www.siteprotector.com and www.contentguard.com.
To prove copyright in graphics, digital watermarking has been built into image manipulation programs such as Adobe PhotoShop. You buy into the service from a company such as Digimarc, and they will give you a watermark to use on your images. Under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, interfering with such watermarks or other anti-copyright devices will create copyright liability. Although not having it does not mean you aren't protected, it is always a good idea to put a clear copyright notice on your site. A licence or disclaimer telling users they are welcome to make copies for personal, but not commercial use, is typical.