Is Theft in the Eye of the Beholder?

If I have a television sitting in my living room, and I come home to find my front door busted in and the television gone, it’s obviously been stolen. If I work on a site design, and discover 90% of my design on another site, I’d also cry “thief!” But for many non-designers (and apparently some designers too) the border between inspiration and theft is rather blurry.

Today, I read Greg’s post about the curious similarities between Joyent, Cork’d and Falkner Winery. For those who don’t know the sites, they appeared on the web in the order listed here.

When I look at Falkner Winery, I see Joyent, with a little colour and window-dressing from Cork’d, and just enough newness to make it clear that it’s a winery site, and not some sister-site of Joyent. In other words, the front door’s busted in, and the t.v. is gone. Maybe they left the antenna behind, but it’s a clear case of stolen in my eyes. But I’m a designer. I work months on a site to get everything the way I and the client want it, and when it’s done, I’ve failed if it looks the same as some other site. Considering I earn my money with this effort, and my clients pay their money for it, we’d both take it pretty seriously if some other designer saved himself the effort which cost us so much time and money by copying my design.

Design theft is pretty hard to define quantitatively. Take it to court and it all comes down to the judge’s eye and his feeling about it. Maybe there is something like a “more than 50% copied” rule, but in the end the judge has to draw the line. Design is just too subjective to be put on a scale.

Discussions of such design theft pop up in blogs every now and then, usually started by designers like myself. But what always surprises me is how many non-designers don’t see this sort of thing as a problem. I’d be interested what you think. Look at the three sites, and let me know if you’re a designer or not, and what you think. Is Falkner Winery a blatant ripoff, or just a matter of inspiration?


  1. Not unlike Netscape stealing digg. I cannot stand this sort of thing, and I am with you Mb.


  2. Martin Heike says:

    Yes, Faulkner has been inspired by Joyent, but Joyent didn’t create something unique. Take a look at all those css vault designs: They all base on some effects, structures, color schemes. Look at and for example.

    The design is not stolen, it is has been copied.

    The better a design is, the easier it is to copy it. The better an artwort is, the more difficult it is to copy it.

    The TV has not been stolen, your neighbour has just the same.

  3. Mb. says:

    @Martin: you’re joking, right? solutionwatch and irishtu look similar to each other, maybe similar enough that I’d be annoyed if I were the designer of whichever one came first, but the page structure, content presentation, etc. is different enough that it looks like a case of influence, not theft.

    But Faulkner has exactly the same structure as Joyent, in many cases down to the exact pixel measurements. The colours are changed, but changed so little as to unnoticeable without measuring them in Photoshop. The whole thing looks essentially like Faulkner’s designers used Joyent as a template.

    In the sense that Joyent hasn’t lost their site through Faulkner copying it, it is not stolen, no. My t.v. analogy is perhaps a poor one. Maybe the t.v. isn’t gone, but you’ve come home to find your neighbours sitting on your couch watching your t.v. and drinking your beer.

    As for your “The better a design is, the easier it is to copy it” statement, I can’t say I understand what you mean…

  4. Martin says:

    No, my example wasn’t a joke, it is just to show, that css based websites are using the same design elements (shadow, gradient on black, whitespace etc.). Falkner has copied structure, forms and colors, but the design wasn’t very unique. Good design isn’t very unique. Art is unique.
    You know this discussion?
    As for my statement, äääähm … try to make a design for a music database software. I bet, it will always look like iTunes. Try to make a design for a tool to drive a nail into something and it always looks like a hammer. Try to create a better tool, and it will be very easy to copy it! I bet.

  5. @Mb. -> I can’t speak for whoever designed solutionwatch but I can guarantee that I hadn’t seen solutionwatch when I designed my site – I’m not sure who came first though. And to be honest, having been ripped off a fair bit myself, I really can’t see how solutionwatch resembles my site at all (or vice-versa – like I said I don’t know which came first – my site’s current design is from about Feb/March 05)

  6. Mb. says:

    @Stewart: cool, direct from the horse’s mouth so to speak.

    I can definitely see how your site *resembles* solutionwatch — monochrome colour scheme, black/grey gradients — but as I said above, that’s nothing I’d call theft. There are more than enough differences there too.

    But the Faulkner/Joyent thing is a case of “squint and they’re the same”. Quite another deal altogether.

  7. Mb. says:

    @Dave (very late): interesting. I wouldn’t necessarily call the Netscape/Digg thing design theft. The overall impression of the pages based on colours, page structure, typography, etc. doesn’t evoke an immediate “theft” reaction. Not in my eyes anyway. What they copied was more the function: list with headline, text, number of votes/diggs and misc. links. That’s a function I’ve seen all over the place for a while now, e.g. Listible is pretty similar, and Newsvine shows similar info and function organised slightly differently.

    Stuff like this bothers me less somehow. I have a feeling that Digg simply defined a sensible way to display functionality like this, and other sites have been using it, simply because it makes sense and works well, thereby establishing a kind of standard.

  8. Martin says:

    nonono, I never said that solutionwatch or Steward has stolen anything. What I said is: they (all) base on the same effects (3-D), color schemes, gradients and and and and. Everything reminds me of anything. Sorry.

    The designs we are talking about are unique like chocolate ice cream with crunchy nuts!

    Oh, and BTW: has Agenturblog stolen anything from listible? Or does he has the same idea? Who invented web 2.0 style elements?

    If there is a 1:1 site design, we can call it: design thief, but if there is any modification, it is not. Sad, but true.