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This 123 message thread spans 5 pages: < < 123 ( 1 2 3 [4] 5 > >     
Is it OK to copy somebody's HTML?

 7:16 pm on Dec 3, 2007 (gmt 0)

I have a question on the legality and ethics of copying HTML and/or CSS from another site. Here is the scenario: I find a website whose general layout and design is appealing to me and I notice that the HTML is nice and clean. I copy all the source HTML, as well as the CSS file. I change ALL the content to my own content, text, images, etc. I make some tweaks to the CSS to modify the colors, background images, and fonts.

Is this OK? All the content is my own, but I have used the HTML/CSS framework that somebody else wrote. I haven't done this, just pondering the question. I don't think I would mind if somebody did this to me.

Is HTML and CSS copyrightable?



 3:54 pm on Dec 6, 2007 (gmt 0)

^^ Well said..

happy Holidays to all.. and peace love and prosperit


 4:36 pm on Dec 6, 2007 (gmt 0)

It's like a song. A song can be copyrighted, but single musical notes by themselves can't. Or an image – an image can be copyrighted, but the individual pixels can not.

We had a 100% *direct competitor* steal our CSS a few years ago. I counted the characters and there were over 2400 characters in the external CSS page. They left the CSS as is and added a few more classes at the bottom. At the end of the day the CSS was 99.4% (or somewhere like that) the same as ours. Their site looked, felt and worked exactly like ours did. When you removed the CSS, the site looked nothing like ours. There was absolutely no question the CSS could not have happened to have the same layouts, coding standards, class names, etc. It was a direct competitor stealing our business – using our code.

Unfortunately I was told by multiple lawyers there was nothing we could do. To this day I think it was the worst advice I've ever received. I actually wrote that CSS myself – not copying from anywhere. This competing company made lots of money from my work - but I was told there was nothing to do.

So - maybe the lawyers know more than I do. However - I do know one thing - this situation made me want to be a lawyer. I would welcome the fight any day and would absolutely win! Yes, prosecuting a CSS infringer is not as easy as someone that copied your graphic logo, but I absolutely 100% believe if it were my job I would get that site shut down, and more likely even get a portion of his profits transferred back to me.

Now – being the victim… is it okay to copy CSS? No. Can you use it for inspiration? YES. That is one thing that makes web development so great! However, don’t 100% copy anyone’s code. If you like something, spend the extra 5 minutes and change the code and make it your own code. Copying 1 line is okay. You should by general practice change the code so you learn and have made it your own. Copying entire blocks, or worse – entire stylesheets is absolutely not okay. Especially when it’s your #1 competition. It would be harder for Netflix to sue you for stealing their code for a “home and garden website”. But if you are a direct competitor to them – offering DVDs for rent – Netflix has even more legitimacy for going after you!

Now my question – shall I have the additional time to prosecute – is there a limit on how long I can wait to sue the pants off this infringer? Unfortunately I have better things to do with my time (like developing websites) than to sue this person, but at the end of the day every penny he makes should be mine. It’s my code that is dictating his site. His site (I can prove) loses me business. Thus, him stealing my code loses me business and loses me money! By any standard – this is not right!


 4:54 pm on Dec 6, 2007 (gmt 0)

His site (I can prove) loses me business.

I feel for you, but while his site may be losing you business but I doubt if your CSS is directly responsible for this.


 5:07 pm on Dec 6, 2007 (gmt 0)

How can anyone possibly think software is not protected by international copyright laws? Of course it is. Software is intellectual property, just like books, movies and music.

On the other hand, it's almost inconceivable anyone would make a federal case out of it, or even detect that you have lifted their design, unless you used it to create a site nearly identical to a close competitor in your niche.

However, it would -- as others have already said -- be much better to copy the design you admire, then dissect it to see how it works so that you can write your own version. This also gives you some legal protection under the Fair Use doctrine.


 6:18 pm on Dec 6, 2007 (gmt 0)

The main issue is not 100% copying. 100% copy results in broken pages much of the time. Most pages use server side includes and functions, things you usually cannot steal from another site.

Just like in songs, the main problem is remixes and variations of webpages. I think the issue is more can you copyright one snippet of CSS which just does one little thing, or the combination of CSS+HTML which does it.
Almost anyone smart who wants to copy a design will do so so that it's not an obvious copy. The codes will not be the same, and the question is if the copyright still applies for it.


 6:41 pm on Dec 6, 2007 (gmt 0)

How can anyone possibly think software is not protected by international copyright laws? Of course it is. Software is intellectual property, just like books, movies and music.

Well I think the problem with this is, HTML and CSS aren't software.


 6:43 pm on Dec 6, 2007 (gmt 0)

I agree, that using someone's design for inspiration is the right way to go. It has no possible legal issues at all. 1 thing that I think everyone can agree on is that you are walking on thin ice if you copy code. Do you want to start a website that way? I think it is pretty clear that you do not.


 10:15 pm on Dec 6, 2007 (gmt 0)

Well I think the problem with this is, HTML and CSS aren't software.

Not sure why we keep having this problem with semantics.

It doesn't matter what the popular or technical definition of "software" is. It matters what the legal definition is, specifically that used in the copyright laws.

The copyright law in the U.S. says that they are software.


 3:17 am on Dec 7, 2007 (gmt 0)

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.

Fact: In the US the HTML code defining a webpage is considered to be a computer program and is copyrightable as described in United States Copyright Office Circular 66 "Copyright Registration for Online Works". For programs written in HTML the copyright protection "will extend to the entire copyrightable content of the computer program code."

Opinion:"Copyrightable content." That's the catch. It's the responsibility of the copyright claimant to make the case as to what the copyrightable content is. Certainly it includes the embedded marked up content. OTOH the usage of HTML tags to describe formatting and layout is a much more gray area and a claimant is going to have to make very good case why his is uniquely original enough to deserve copyright protection.

Also copyright on HTML code only covers the code itself. It doesn't include the resulting rendered screen display. Any copyrightable elements that are created by rendering are covered by a copyright on the displayed screen image. Code and display are two different copyright elements, and it is possible to infringe on one without infringing the other.

But neither a copyright on the HTML or on the rendered display will include the formatting and layout of a webpage. Formatting and layout are not copyrightable elements. They might be elements of a trade dress, but not copyright.

So the answer to the original poster is that if everything is as described and he's stripping out everything but the HTML and there's nothing uniquely original left, using the code is probably legal. Ethical is another question. And whether or not his resulting site will infringe on the original's display copyright is yet another question.


 8:48 am on Dec 7, 2007 (gmt 0)


It's not a good idea to copy somebody else's design. BUT, if your design experience is no so vast, you could copy the files, then add your own images and mess with the CSS a little.

Every web designer has done that as some point in their career. I wouldn't mind if that happened to me, but I would be really upset if someone stole my images though, even the site layout images.


 11:01 am on Dec 7, 2007 (gmt 0)

Good post Korrd!


 11:35 am on Dec 7, 2007 (gmt 0)

Korrd : Your opinion sounds reasonable, but where is falls down is derived works.

If you take a web page and strip the images and text and replace them then you are creating a derived work of the original and it is copyrighted. Thats why aol didn't do this.

If you aren't good enough at HTML to do your own site, don't just take someone elses because you are not good enough.


 12:12 pm on Dec 7, 2007 (gmt 0)

Can we stop calling a markup language(HTML), computer code... it is not a programming language.

If you think HTML is a programming language then I would like to see you code database interaction with it.

Why do you use 2 different terms there? The correct rant is 'Would people who write HTML stop calling themselves programmers. HTML is not a programming language'. HTML IS code whatever way you look at it. It is totally irrelevant because things that are not programming languages are still copyrightable.


 2:49 pm on Dec 7, 2007 (gmt 0)

HTML is not code. It is a markup language. What he said was 100% correct. Code would be something like PHP or ASP that is used to increase the usuability of HTML. However at the same time, for this discussion the use of the word code and markup language does not matter. The people who write the laws could not tell you the difference between HTML and PHP. They would say it is "code" and that is all that matters.


 3:14 pm on Dec 7, 2007 (gmt 0)

The people who write the laws could not tell you the difference between HTML and PHP.

Just like we cannot seem to be able to interpret the laws they write. :)


 3:47 pm on Dec 7, 2007 (gmt 0)

in china somebody or team supply the html css or asp or php code for free
and they are called cms content manager system
they all have a bbs
and many people discuz how to use the cms

the taem earn by ad on the bbs

may bbs is called forums


 4:29 pm on Dec 7, 2007 (gmt 0)

Markup language (HTML) and computer code are not the same thing, but both fall under the same category: magical incantations.


 4:32 pm on Dec 7, 2007 (gmt 0)

good guys will do good things - and, of course, the converse is true too.

google on css or template and GPL or copyleft or opensource or what have you.

And if you want to move the discussion forward, put these words on the stuff you are proud of and want to share.

this stuff is out there - some of this this stuff is good enough for learning, using, iterating for the better and paying it forward.

a little thing I learned at MIT is the saying "the enemy of the perfect is the good".

Sometimes good enough is way better than perfect.

unless you happen to be a lawyer or get to live and feed upon the money that goes down as the years roll by and good, bad and misinformed battle it out on the way to better.

* Il en est des livres comme du feu de nos foyers; on va prendre ce feu chez son voisin, on l’allume chez soi, on le communique à d’autres, et il appartient à tous.
o What we find in books is like the fire in our hearths. We fetch it from our neighbor's, we kindle it at home, we communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.
o "Voltaire: Lettre XII: sur M. Pope et quelques autres poètes fameux," Lettres philosophiques' (1733)


 5:48 pm on Dec 7, 2007 (gmt 0)

Markup language (HTML) and computer code are not the same thing, but both fall under the same category: magical incantations.

Yes, and they are learned at Hogwarts, where Professor Snape teaches the dark art of ColdFusion.


 5:49 pm on Dec 7, 2007 (gmt 0)

No matter what the law or anyone else says modern web design and particularly layout (not content!) is based on plagiarism. We have all copied each other's ideas at some time or another. Every now and then someone will think of something innovative and you can be sure that if it is good it will be included on thousands of websites six months down the line.

Who was first to develop a drop down menu? Do you think they are sitting simmering in their own juice because millions of people have copied it? I think this is good example of something that could have been copyrighted using the definitions being put forward by some of you guys. Where would the web be if people were constantly starting actions for stuff like this? Plagiarism! This is the way of the worldwide web folks - always has been and probably always will be. Live with it and we can all learn from each other.

CSS like what we see in the CSS Zen garden can be used to produce really nice websites but let's get this in perspective. It is the graphics on these sites that are beautiful not the layouts, which are invisible to almost everybody. The art is in the graphics, the CSS is only the paintbrush.

I cannot understand the people who think that they are being really creative because they can throw some CSS or HTML together. I started writing code more than 20 years ago. In these days we used to shout from the rooftops when we found a new way of doing something and get quite chuffed when other people adopted our ideas. That is how software evolved. If it was up to some of you guys we would be paying for a licence to use a bubble sort in bloody BASIC.


 8:59 am on Dec 8, 2007 (gmt 0)

In my opinion, if taken someone's code/language whatever you name it, and modified literally, so that is has change the code of its base, and looks, may be not illegal, ethical is a different issue though.

If everything would have to go that strict way of copyright, the person who invented wheel would say the whole world has copyright infringement. OR if we want to get result 2 out of two 1's there is only one way to do so, i.e. 1+1=2, now no one can say that is copyright infringement.

Example of cars, lets say, every and all manufacturers do copy their opponents, one way or other, but of course with some or extensive modifications, and the end result is they are selling their products.

Its human being's attitude to learn from examples. Newton proposed his theories based on examples from nature, Now those theories are laws.

One way or other, the whole world is copying and will always, never mind if its from another human or nature.


 6:31 pm on Dec 12, 2007 (gmt 0)

Agreeing with many and disagreeing with about as many ...

Either you are a "creator" who is "inspired" by others' "work" or you are a "copier" who "uses" others' "work".

Modifying someone else's complete markup framework by using your own graphics and text instead of theirs is not "creating" ... it is "copying".

In any case, in the US, you cannot copyright markup any more than you can copyright the elements of any language. You can only copyright (or even patent, in some cases) code. Please note that the definition of code could absolutely include a combination of markup (HTML, et al.), style definitions (CSS, et al.) and active code (scripting, PHP, et al.) that accomplishes something unique.

So go ahead and use the HTML or the CSS that someone else put together, as long as they do not create something unique. But don't start calling yourself a "creator" or anything like it, if you choose to do so ... you are the definition of a "copier".


 4:28 pm on Dec 14, 2007 (gmt 0)

I haven't read all of this, so this may have come up before, but have you tried just asking the site owner?

Frankly, I take inspiration from articles on A List Apart and pile of other sites and make a layout that's mine, from a legal point of view, but it's a "standing on the shoulders of giants" kind of thing. If someone said, "Hey I'm not going to take your content and graphics, but I like the layout, mind if I use it?" I would say "Be my guest."

I might stipulate that it not get sold in any way and would perhaps tag it as GPL or CC or something like that.

On the other hand, if I was a halfway decent designer and made my living off my designs, I would either say no, or I would demand some sort of credit and copyright notice on the new site.

Anecdote: Someone informed Woody Guthrie that another musician had stolen one of his tunes. He replied: "That guy ain't nothin'. He just steals from me. I steal from everybody."


 11:37 am on Dec 15, 2007 (gmt 0)

Either you are a "creator" who is "inspired" by others' "work" or you are a "copier" who "uses" others' "work".

We could get into another argument about whether there is any real difference between the two.


 6:49 pm on Dec 15, 2007 (gmt 0)

Modifying someone else's complete markup framework by using your own graphics and text instead of theirs is not "creating" ... it is "copying".

Actually, it's neither if by "creating" you mean creating an original work. I'm not a lawyer, but I play one in my LinkedIn profile, and I would consider this an example of creating a derivative work which has a legal definition (in a way that "inspired" for example does not). Sometimes there is actually more restriction on derivative works than on copies.

I can't find an example right now, but I've definitely seen things like stock photos were the right the make derivatives actually costs more than the right to make copies for commercial use, since with derivatives, the artists loses not just control of usage, but artistic and creative control as well.

BTW, the new lawyer over at SEOMoz.com is doing some lengthy articles on internet law, the most recent one being a long rundown on copyright issues.


 12:25 am on Dec 26, 2007 (gmt 0)

"The copyright protects the form of expression rather than the subject matter of the writing. For example, a description of a machine could be copyrighted, but this would only prevent others from copying the description; it would not prevent others from writing a description of their own or from making and using the machine." (qoute from the USPTO web site).

You've indicated in your question that your "description" or "web page" will be different from the "original" web site. Copy in the above definition (from the US copyright office) is clearly an identical copy of the original. You can use several nouns and verbs in a description. Hence you cannot copyright the "language".

HTML is a language. Without programming languages, computers would not have the market share they do today, simply becuase no one is interested in participating in someone else's monopoly without getting paid for it.

That does not mean that you can just copy any computer file however. Just because a document is a "hidden" file, does not mean it is not a protected document. The fact that you can read the source file is sufficient enough to say that the document is published and has an audience.

Comments and white space layout can contribute enough to a document's presentation so that you could end up infringing on someone else's rights. A judge may view white space and source comments (non-syntax language)as intellectual property (perhaps as methods and processes to aid in media production). Many code editors also use white space to aid in document production, and of course license their users to use that intellectual property.

Common sense has to draw the line. Business communications expect certain "professional protocol". You may be viewed as incompetent if you do not place the logo in the upper left hand corner, with a subject line, body, and closing part in a letter.

So the bottom line is use common sense, and think about what a judge would say about your case if you made one. Web pages that look too much like another site may end up at the bottom the search engine lists anyway, if at all.

The web is run by people, so treat others they way you want to be treated. Sophisticated editing programs are also designed to emulate anything we can create, and I think the bottom line is that we have to concentrate on the end product, unless we have strong reason not to.


 12:42 am on Dec 26, 2007 (gmt 0)

I've read quite a few posts regarding css style sheets. Lets keep this in perspective, it is a language. When people start using a new language, things sound "new". As time goes on, people will adopt standard practices (such as business letter forms).

Also, you may try to create a css style sheet "from scratch", however the odds of you creating something exactly the same, if not similar to someone else using the same mark up language is very good.

Yes, I can emphasize with a web designer that feels a competing web designing site "stole" or "borrowed" their way of doing things. I think that is part of the risk in this profession to a limited degree. Did the other company get more business because they "stole" your design, or did the customer see your design and want it emulated?

Did the other company get more business because they "stole" your idea, or did they pay thousands to an ad search engine to get listed at the top of the advertising list? You have to know the whole profession, not just how to style web page, especially with a look that customers want and demand.

Instead of focusing on "lost revenue" think about the revenue that you will get that you do not expect. There may be silly reasons, maybe the owner has a school event and wants to get the bid out to someone quick, before his kid starts the band event, swim meet, whatever.

Customers may not know the code, but they will know how they want the site to look. I would not spend hours of lost sleep wondering if my code was too similar to someone elses, you want to believe there is some amount of professional courtesy out there, you are not going to get every client.


 3:45 am on Feb 15, 2008 (gmt 0)

There has never been a case that went to court over a style sheet copyright issue.


 11:24 am on Feb 15, 2008 (gmt 0)

Your html is the same as mine.
So you might twist yours a little differently than I twist mine .. call it an accent if you want .. but it's still the same language.

The difference in xhtml, xml, html, dhtml can be looked upon as the same as The Queens English, American English and Australian English. It's all the same ... or not, depending on how and where you're using it.

Acting like an Auzzie and being an Auzzie are two totally different things. Of course, you know the language, and many Am's have a great go of it by imitating the Auzzie slang.

The language itself doesn't make you the best, copied or not, but rather it's the actual oratory of the language itself that sets you apart.

If you try to speak Auzzie, and you aren't an Auzzie, then it will show through eventually and expose you for the fraud you really are. There isn't a law in the land that can ruin you faster than losing your place in the industry by being exposed as a fraud.

You can take someone elses html, but you'll never be able to use it as effectively as the one who put it on in the first place. Though we speak the same language, we still speak the same language differently.

You should attempt to learn the language, on your own.
Write your own page using your own knowledge of html, and not someone elses.

If you write your own, you'll be able to display yourself and what you're all about, much more precisely.


 6:18 pm on Feb 15, 2008 (gmt 0)

I think that CSS and HTML is copyrightable the same way as any other public work. You should see it like an work of art.
I think it's wrong to take someone else's work just from lazyness, but I think it's good to be inspired by other's work in doing something better than the original.

Anyway, here is an opinion from people how practice CSS as an art form:


 6:42 pm on Feb 15, 2008 (gmt 0)

Hello sache, and welcome to the forums.

That's an interesting discussion - but it is from 5 years ago. Back then css was just barely beginning to take hold and it seemed quite arcane. Today it seems to me that css a bedrock basic -- more like cinder blocks than the actual house.

I think mcneely's post points in a good direction - why bother copying mark-up? Every page layout should be tailored to its own purpose anyway.

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