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5 Biggest Copyright Pitfalls for Web Designers

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Read Time: 5 min

When it comes to design, copyright is often a very muddled gray area. Just as the lines between plagiarism and homage are often confusing, so too is the line between infringing and non-infringing use of copyrighted material. Since it is natural and even expected of Web designers to incorporate elements from other sites and other creations, it is important to understand the risks and hazards when it comes to copyright in Web design. As such, here are five of the most common copyright pitfalls Web designers face and how to best avoid them.

1. Images

The most common issue many web designers face when it comes to copyright law has to do with the images they use in their layouts. For some designers, it is common practice to find images they need by doing a Google search or pulling an unlicensed image from a stock photo library.

The problem with this is that, as Google itself warns, these images are usually protected by copyrights, and their use as part of a layout almost certainly constitutes an infringement. Historically, artists have not had many resources for finding such infringements, but as detection tools improve in quality and drop in price, more infringements are being detected.

It is important that you always make sure you have the rights to use an image in your layout, even if it is just a placeholder.

If you need to locate free images that you can use legally, search for Creative Commons-licensed work on Flickr or visit StockXchng ( to find high-resolution images you can use legally - as long as you are sure to follow the terms of the licenses carefully.

2. HTML/Source Code

Most Web designers are expected to crib some of their source code, either from other sites or their previous work. But where taking a portion of a page to get a table format or a few CSS elements from a stylesheet likely won't raise any alarm, large scale copying, such as taking an entire style sheet or whole theme elements, likely constitutes copyright infringement.

The problem is that HTML code, much like computer software, is considered an original work of authorship, even if it is created with the help of tools, and enjoys copyright protection. Though you can't copyright the general look of the site, meaning Google can't copyright a white background with a center logo, you can protect the code that created that work.

The best way to avoid any issues over your source code is to create as much of it yourself as possible and limit any copying to only things that you could trivially reproduce but wanted to save time on. The more it becomes clear where your code came from, the more likely the copyright holder may become upset.

3. Platform Licensing

The days of static websites went out nearly a decade ago. Most sites today are built on top of a platform of some variety or another, be it WordPress, Joomla, Presta Shop or some other software. However, many of these tools have strict and/or unusual licensing requirements and it is easy for designers to run afoul of their terms when setting up a new site.

The most common mistake is installing a purchased application on too many sites; for example, by buying a one-domain license on ThemeForest for an application, but using it with multiple clients.

However, even open source applications carry risks as many designers, in an attempt to keep the site clean, remove attribution lines in the code and files on the server that are required as part of the license.

When using any software to build a site, take a moment to read thorough the license and understand what it means. Follow those terms closely. Developers are constantly becoming more savvy about tracking down those who violate their licenses and even authors that license under the GPL are becoming more aggressive about enforcing their terms.

4. Open Source Blunders

A related mistake comes when web designers use and publish works based on open source code, particularly GPLed code (which includes many WordPress themes) and forget to either retain the license information and/or fail to donate their modified code back to the GPL.

If you create a derivative work of a GPL-licensed one, such as making a GPL WordPress theme a different color, the new theme has to be licensed under the GPL.

If you are unsure of whether your new work meets the requirement for GPL "inheritance", this 2001 article by Lawrence Rosen ( explains it quite nicely.

5. Dummy Copy

Though the use of dummy text is largely a hold over from the print design world, many web designers continue to use it for various reasons. It can pose a great risk if the dummy copy is pulled from another site. Even if the copy is just for testing purposes, it still constitutes an infringement. It may be unwittingly harming the original authors if the search engines have detected the test site.

Generally speaking, it is best to either use content from the client's current site if possible, or true lorem ipsum text if it isn't ( Considering that lorem ipsum text is actually more flexible than using articles and content from other sites, it makes sense in nearly every regard.

Be especially careful of scraping RSS feeds for the purpose of filling up a test application or blog, this is especially frowned upon by bloggers and may have your test site mistaken for a spam blog.

Bottom Line

In the end, it is important to keep copyright infringement in mind when designing websites and services. This is especially crucial if your test sites are public facing or may be indexed by the search engines - as you may find your test pages taken down by your host.

However, even if you test solely on a private server, it's worth keeping these issues in mind so you do not pass along an infringing site to your clients, even by accident. Nothing will sour a relationship with a client faster than them receiving cease and desist letters or take-down notices for content in your layout.

Given the minimal amount of effort that it takes to remain on the right side of copyright law, it doesn't make sense to even take the chance. It only takes a few minutes to do things correctly but it takes just one copyright infringement complaint to sandbag an entire design career.

This article was originally posted on the ThemeForest blog. We are currently porting over some of the more popular articles to Nettuts+.

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