Back in the mid-90's, I did a few semesters as a college English teacher. Like most English teachers, I modelled my syllabus and classroom policies on the syllabi and classroom policies of countless English teachers before me. I had to. We weren't talking about "creative writing" here, there were RULES.

One of the very important rules in every freshman English class (and every college class that involves writing) was DO NOT PLAGIARIZE. By plagiarize we meant "taking someone else's thoughts or ideas and claiming them as your own."

The penalty for plagiarism was an "F" in the class, even, as I recall, some sort of expulsion. It was not pretty.

Along with keeping a vigilant eye out for budding plagiarists, another of my English-teacherly duties was to teach about William Shakespeare, the 16th/17th century poet and playwright whom many consider to be the greatest English-language writer.

Of course, the plots for many of Shakespeare's plays were based on the plots of medieval French folk stories.

Did that make Shakespeare a plagiarist? Did he take credit for someone else's ideas? Or are folk tales simply the clip-art of literature?

* * *

A true "folk story" or "folk song" has no single author: the author is the "folk" and the stories are passed down word of mouth. Word-of-mouth or "oral literature" is most common in societies where literacy rates are low.

Snippets of folk ballads are reused and recycled. Take, for example, this stanza:

I eat when I'm hungry,

and I drink when I'm dry,

and if whisky don't kill me,

I'll live 'till I die.

These lines can be found in old Irish ballads and in 19th century American cowboy songs. They fit into the ballad form, they express a certain sentiment, they are paradoxically humorous, and so they have been copied and pasted from song to song.

Such imitation is common in oral literature. Indeed, it relates to how literary genres are formed. We expect a poem to behave a certain way, and if the poem follows a certain form, we know whether it is a ballad, a sonnet, a sestina, a haiku, or the 12-bar-blues.

* * *

Like folk literature, web design lends itself well to imitation. Pure HTML design is a limited medium whereupon a million themes can be spun from the same set of tags. Web designers imitate each other's work both in terms of content and design.

We find a site with an effect we like, we peek at the source code, and we think about how we can integrate the effect into our own work. We might even copy a snippet of code for future use.

Or, in order to understand layout, we might copy an entire document, put it into our text editor, slap a border around the tables, view it in our browser, and proceed to deconstruct and tweak.

If we do it right, such a "deconstruction/reconstruction" process results in a new document so unlike the original, that even the "original" artist won't recognize the imitation.

But thievery can be blatant. Disingenuous thieves will steal a site wholesale: code, layout, look and feel, even graphics and content, simply replacing minor bits and pieces to serve his or her own purpose. This sort of thievery is easily identifiable and tends to infuriate the original author.

Another method of blatant theft is to "mirror" an entire site without the site owner's permission. What motivates people to do this, I don't know, but it happens.

* * *

Because design "theft" ranges in scope and severity, it is worthwhile to ask where reasonable imitation ends and true theft begins.

I have heard some designers claim that they "never" steal code, that they generate everything from scratch, learning from their own mistakes. This may well be the case, but to expect complete originality, especially in this fast-paced and trend-driven medium, is unrealistic, even ridiculous.

At some point we all follow certain conventions in order to create an HTML document, and in terms of user interface, there is stuff that works, stuff that doesn't, and stuff that hasn't been tried yet. To expect a fully unique GUI for every site is again, unrealistic.

Reasonable imitation vs. thievery: where do we draw the line?

* * *

The most blatant theft I ever made in the course of web site building was a certain table with a dark border, which I lifted from one of Jeffrey Zeldman's pages. I took the applicable code and stuck it into a personal site I was building quickly. I changed nothing but the border color.

Forgetting about my "theft," I found myself writing an email to the same Zeldman, telling him about my site. It was immediately after hitting "send" that I realized what I'd done. A "confession" email was sent immediately thereafter.

Fortunately for me, Zeldman was, and is, a magnanimous soul. He never said a word about it, and I eventually acknowledged my debt in the site's source code.

Interestingly, the same Zeldman, replying to a recent Slashdot question, mentioned that this bordered-table design had been much imitated by a number of sites including mozilla.org. He said that his response to such imitation was to be flattered, not upset.

Then came a post from Jamie Zawinski who said he built the mozilla.org site under discussion and that he "could not" have imitated Zeldman's design, because he had "never heard" of Zeldman.

This exchange demonstrates the ironic and not uncommon incidence of a artist being marked as "imitating" another's work, when in fact there was no imitation, only coincidence.

How many writers have worked on an article or song only to find that someone else "wrote it first"? It has happened to me more than once.

And if this happens, how often do writers "write the same article," each with no knowledge of the other's work?

* * *

The cross-browser, cross-platform web is a limited medium. We have 216 web-safe colors to work with. We have a limited number of HTML tags and CSS enhancements. We have limited (and variable) screen space with which we can build a GUI, we have limited bandwidth, and we have an audience with a limited attention span. We have multiple browsers to consider, and our clients have limited resources.

We do what we can with what we've got. Does "stealing" happen? It does? It is always unethical? It is not. Is it always identifiable? It is not. Do false accusations happen? They do.

On the other hand, blatant theft of words, design, images, even bandwidth (via unauthorized image-linking) happens far too often. Plagiarism should be identified and corrected by whatever means are appropriate and effective.

But of designers, I would like to ask that we not be too quick to make accusations, jump to conclusions, or declare our own work "pure." I ask only that we consider carefully our concepts of ownership and intellectual property with regards to this new medium.

And I advise that we remember karma.




-- originally published in W3Nation.