Blogging Ethics

by Ant Stone on July 2, 2010

in Features

I’ll keep this succinct (not usually an art I practise here). As bloggers, we are always told we must declare everything we receive. We must be open, and transparent. We must think for ourselves and feed off each other. We’re a billowing flock, smothering the Internet like starlings.

But what happens when this breaks down? What can we do? Very little. We’re just supposed to take it. Some believe it’s a compliment when other people plagiarise your work.

I don’t, so imagine my reaction when I came across this:

This is mine…

This is a group of buttons I’ve displayed on my blog for the passed six months, I designed them (with the exception of the incorporated logo) specifically for my blog:

This is theirs…

A few days ago I accepted a blogger into the T-Bag Travel Blog Directory, I visited their blog and commented on a post. Last night they tweeted: “Sooo incredibly pleased with some of these banners I’ve made for the website. Will be showcasing them tomorrow, it’s 3am & sleep can’t wait”. Curious, I checked them out:

What do you think?

I told them I wasn’t happy and outwardly accused this person of plagiarism, and they’ve passionately denied it. Citing that:
“This is like saying nobody’s allowed to put four framed boxes with links on their pages just coz you’ve got them on urs”

For the record, they have since offered to take them down, and/or credit me as the inspiration, and they acknowledge my designs were their inspiration. They claim their altered works as their own design. I’d agree I didn’t create them: I’d even say they have the makings of being better.

What would you do?

On one hand I want to insist on them being taken down, as they were used without my permission and look far too similar to my own.

On the other I don’t want to appear hasty, and unwelcoming to a new blogger — especially as I don’t believe they acted maliciously. They’re fully open to me throwing this out there, and having you judge it.

So, consider you were in our situation: What would you do?

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Akila July 2, 2010 at 10:31 am

Ant, I can see why you’re pissed . . . but, I think if they’re willing to credit you as the inspiration for this design, then I would be willing to let them use the boxes. The boxes are distinct from your own design though they are framed in — but I have seen other framed in boxes for RSS, Facebook, etc. They look similar to yours but definitely not the same.

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Nomadic Matt July 2, 2010 at 10:35 am

So people got their banner ideas from you and you got pissed? Sort of a bit of an over reaction. I mean people copy themes and icons all the time on the web. It’s not like they are stealing your posts and saying “I wrote this.” It’s an icon. All they did was put a frame around the box. The insides are totally different.

In fact, i think you are totally overreacting. After all, if they did get the idea of frames from you, then isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

It’s the internet..people copy theme ideas all the time…I mean oddly, you happen to have the wibya bar. Did you copy that idea from me? Maybe you got it from Gary. Either way, now 903754398 blogs have it.

You wanted my opinion so there it is. In sum, you are over reacting.

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Ant July 2, 2010 at 10:50 am

Thanks for opening up the comments, Akila. I agree they have acted decently, in hindsight.

I think if I’d come across these in a different genre, I wouldn’t have thought twice. It was the fact that I knew — and they openly admit — that they had taken my design and used it as the basis for their own.

I’ve always displayed the © Copyright symbol, but now question what does it actually mean? We can’t enforce anything. If the individual had been a business, would I have a leg to stand on? I don’t know. Hopefully we can learn from the experience.

For the record, there is no malice between us. We both view this post as a positive outlet, and somewhere bloggers can learn the correct line of action, and evolve as a community.

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Nomadic Matt July 2, 2010 at 11:10 am

whoops! just realized it wasn’t you who asked for my opinion.

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Ant July 2, 2010 at 11:12 am

Thanks for weighing in, Matt I heard you were coming. That’s what this post is designed to be about, airing people’s thoughts and opinions.

I presume you’re not using the Wibiya bar as an actual comparison, as you know that’s a bolt on tool offered to bloggers, which, granted, I did originally see on Gary’s blog and now realise you have it also.

It’s a fact that the individual copied it. What I’d like to get out of this is, should they have done so? Or should there have been a dialogue about it?

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Gourmantic July 2, 2010 at 11:45 am

I would be a lot more irate if someone had copied my text and photographs without permission! I see themes, buttons and designs that look similar all the time. I didn’t associate the buttons you mention solely with your site so the person may not have thought so either. Just a thought.

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Ant July 2, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Thanks Gourmantic. It’s an interesting theory, and thanks for sharing your opinion. Personally, I don’t see much difference. It took me as long to create the buttons, as it did to create this post.

In my opinion, everything I create comes under the same copyright umbrella. If I released it under a Creative Commons license, with permission to create derivative works, then fair enough. But I didn’t. It was just taken.

It’s really good hearing the different points of view, from established bloggers. I wonder if this is why so many WordPress themes, and Plugins are free? If you can’t beat them, join them.

There’s an interesting discussion point here: about what bloggers will accept, as an unwritten rule. What do other people think?

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Gourmantic July 2, 2010 at 12:32 pm

In that case, I would apply the copyright logo to the buttons (not very aesthetic, I know) and put a Copyright statement on every page stating that all content including design, logos etc cannot be used without permission. It still won’t stop people from stealing but it may make them think to ask first.

Your point about WP themes and plugins being free is what can make people think other stuff is also freely available. Having had stuff copied and stolen in the past, I would like to see stricter rules applied.

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Ant July 2, 2010 at 1:09 pm

True, good point about the clearer copyright statements. I’ll be changing that in a second. I think the thing that annoyed me more than anything about the events of the post, was that I wasn’t asked. It was almost presumed, ‘Oh, it’s on the internet. It’s free.’

The other point I haven’t made above, is that I’m often hired as a designer. Therefore I consider everything I create, as my own, unless I’m contracted otherwise.

If people want to use anything, let’s talk; but don’t be surprised if I want paying for my time and services. If I offer things out for free, I’ll make it brilliantly obvious. I think that’s fair, what do you think?

Should we accept a global free-for-all for the greater good? How can we stop it? Should we even try? What’s your own experience?

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Stacy July 2, 2010 at 8:15 pm

In my experience (I have a graphics degree)…copying layouts, such as the four boxes the way they are, is not plagarism. However, copying the design is. They changed the design of the boxes so I think they’re in the clear. I would be flattered that they thought so highly of your idea.

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Gourmantic July 2, 2010 at 8:56 pm

The attitude of ‘Oh, it’s on the internet. It’s free.’ makes me irate. But it’s all about educating people and pointing out consequences. However, I’m not sure about the best way to change that mindset apart from stating things clearly on one’s site and referring to them if/when needed.

As a designer, writer, photographer or any artist or person contracted to create, we are naturally possessive of our craft. As for accepting a global free for all on everything, I don’t agree. We already give freely on our websites through the information we disseminate. We have a right to choose what is free or paid when it comes to our work or hobby.

Should we try to stop plagiarism? Absolutely. I don’t consider it flattery to be copied. It’s plain robbery.

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Globetrottergirls July 3, 2010 at 6:10 am

It’s only fair that they offer to mention the design was inspired by yours. Of course it is annoying when you dedicate a lot of time and creativity in creating these boxes (which look really cool, btw), but like others have already said – it’s the internet and a lot of people / bloggers seem to ‘steal’ ideas from others – we’ve seen far worse copycats… You probably can’t prohibit that they use the boxes, so we see being credited as their inspiration is a good thing.

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Ant July 3, 2010 at 7:14 am

@Stacy: I’m coming round to that way of thinking. Maybe I’m too conservative, and as a blogger I need to ‘let go’ and skip freely through the the blog fields. It’s definitely making me think twice about the kind of work I’m prepared to produce for free.

@Gourmantic: “Plain robbery.” This is exactly how I feel. Granted, the above example isn’t as clear cut as many examples out there. But the fact is, they did take it. They even copied the exact size and concept. It stinks of the typeface wars between Helvetica and Arial.

If they can’t have it for themselves, they just closely copy it, and there’s not a worthwhile thing that can be done. The only solace is that some people know the truth.

@Globetrottergirls: Thanks. Perhaps there’s room in the travel blog genre for an open source design network, and/or some sort of formal network where people can share creative ideas on a Creative Commons style format? Thinking totally off the bat there.

With our writing it’s easy to find out if people are ripping us off (if you don’t use Copyscape, have a look). However, with the bespoke design elements of our sites it’s nye on impossible to find out, especially for the low key bloggers as people are less likely to point it out. For example, I’m pretty confident that if someone copied Matt Kepne’s cartoon header there’d be a big hoo-ha about it and the counterfeiter would be sent marching with their tail between their legs. I know there was when Problogger’s logo was used as the inspiration for beam.my: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=3723187&id=507133003

UPDATE: The blogger in question has since altered the layout of the four boxes and added some others. They asked my permission to carry on, and after listening to the above I repented and gave it.

I don’t like it, but as I said in the post we were both happy for you — our community — to judge it. (But naturally, I’ll be changing my own design to reinstate some individuality!) I’ve learned a lot from the opinions, and I hope you all have too. Share your thoughts below.

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Darcy July 3, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Sorry, but I’ve got to say that they are in the right here.

I’ve actually seen nearly identical boxes (although as with your “clone” it was also facebook instead of podcast) over a year and a half ago. Long before you had yours up.

As they said, “This is like saying nobody’s allowed to put four framed boxes with links on their pages just coz you’ve got them on urs”.

Heck, I did something similar for a design of my own with RSS/Flickr about four years ago. And I had got the inspiration from somewhere else, I’m sure.

The facts is, it’s ridiculous and spiteful for you to be mad at them. You might as well complain to every person you see wearing the same brand of clothing as you. They might have been doing it long before you.

Also note that this is in no way plagiarism. what are they stealing? The idea of internet buttons with a border in a colour corresponding to what it links to? Mate, that’s been around for over a decade.

I’m surprised this was even worth posting about…

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Ant July 3, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Thanks for the comment Darcy, I’d like to see the boxes you mentioned myself.

Once again, this isn’t a case of mistaken coincidence. This is a clear cut rip off. But, once again, the original matter has been settled.

It had absolutely nothing to do with what clothing brand we wear. It’s not copying someone else’s style, it’s copying someone else’s creations. Completely different.

Saying that is like saying if we read the same magazine, then they’re copying me; when it’s not an issue of copying my consumer habits, it’s an issue of copying my creative content.

Thanks for your comment though, it’s an enlightening viewpoint.

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Anil July 3, 2010 at 10:37 pm

It’s hard to say in situations like these. Sometimes inspiration is indirect and I’d say almost all of our ideas are shaped by the things we read and see. It’s good you got in touch with the other person and they’re not acting maliciously. I had a similar situation once but have since decided to let it go – too many gray areas, unless it’s a blatant copy, the proliferation of ideas benefits more than it harms.

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Ant July 4, 2010 at 8:03 am

True, Anil. Thanks for your comment. I guess the blogging platform, as integrated as it is to the Internet, it’s still very much in its infancy. We’re all learning from our mistakes, and creating an acceptable norm.

In the same way as we don’t all agree with all of our respective governments policies, we don’t all agree with other bloggers actions. C’est la vie.

As you know Anil, I’m moving on with the design of Trail of Ants so if anything, I’m glad of the timing.

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Brooke vs. the World July 4, 2010 at 11:00 am

Dude, I’m gonna say it – I’d be pissed. And, I’m glad you got in touch with them about it. I HATE how every blog looks the same, and how so many people pick up on the ideas of others. It’s like if one person blogs on a topic, 3 more follow in my reader the next week.

But, I guess it’s just the way of the world, and when it comes to the Internet, things like this come faster and appear more obvious. What can you do, really?

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[F]oxymoron July 4, 2010 at 11:52 am

Hey Ant… oh, this is something near and dear to me!

First, given the two images, I think you have a right to be frustrated. However, I think they were in the clear – for the most part – as far as designing “similar-yet-different-buttons.” A shout out, attribution, or a quick line acknowledging your work would have been sufficient, in my opinion.

Now here’s my problem. There’s really not an easy way for both creators and content wranglers to consistently embed and examine photo metadata as it moves throughout the web. I checked your image for copyright information, yet I could find none. This is a problem! For you, me, and all the content creators and those who respect the amount of effort that goes into creating things.

… yeah, I haven’t been traveling much… but take a guess what I’ve been doing this past year!

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Ant July 4, 2010 at 12:20 pm

@Brooke: “What can you do, really?” Indeed. I think there’s a clear divide in blog camps: creators and recreators. Blogging is seen — and sold as — as an ‘off the shelf’ platform, so people literally do that: they shop other blogs, and whip ideas straight off the page.

@[F]oxymoron: Very interesting point about copyright information embedded within an image, and how it erodes in passage. As creators, the Internet is our own worst enemy. It promotes our work, and erodes it simultaneously. (And, I guess… you’ve been studying the ownership rights of content creators?)

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Dylan July 4, 2010 at 9:11 pm

As the offending blogger in question – *dips head in shame – I thought I’d step up and clarify my stance on this.

There is no doubt that I have indeed got the inspiration from Ant. I must also admit that my failing to cite Ant as the originator of my inspiration is a minor, well, failing on my part. But to accuse me of plagiarism and theft? Say that is to deprive fashion designers of their Vivienne Westwood, painters of their Vincent van Gogh and writers their Tolstoy and Salinger.

And what annoyed me the most is the suggestion that, since I got the inspiration (or some may say ‘stole’ the idea) from Ant, I therefore have squandered no effort or time working on these designs. Which makes all the time and effort spent creating these banners – only to be ridiculed and denounced – more the ironic and futile.

According to Ant this is a case of “clean cut rip off” – what more have I ‘ripped off’ than coloured frames and a desire to install them on my website? (Though having said that the formation in which these banners were arranged didn’t exactly do me a lot of favours – I have since altered them) For the record, a riposte to Ant’s presumptions of aspects of my design, the font I used were unanimously Myriad Pro, the colours of the frames were derived from the icons themselves; I can tell you how I poster-edged the icons, how opaque the background icons are (25% for the record). Heck, if you want me to show you’re the Adobe Illustrator CS4 files I WILL present them to you on a silver plate.

Speaking from my point of view, I feel outraged to be assumed to have contributed little to no creative output to the designs, which, as much as Ant’s are to him, are legitimately MINE.

On a different note, Ant and I have both agreed that our presenting this case to the blogging community would attract a lot of opinion and, as we expected, it certainly did.

Don’t think that citing Wibiya as an example of idea-copying is a good representation of this scenario. Widgets and plugins as such are created for the purpose of free public distribution, an intention Ant has not expressed.

With regards to plagiarism, I’ve been led to be more aware on the literature side of things. This isn’t merely the result of my university education, of I was mesmerised with the definition of plagiarism and ways to avoid it – I just think it’s plain wrong to call other people’s work yours. Likewise with any other manifestations of creativity – my ethics simply wouldn’t allow it. And of course, I’d feel irritated, even furious, if some scoundrel decides to copy my work, letter to letter, pixel to pixel.

In my defence, I simply don’t think this is a case of plagiarism. Like at all. But then, I do appreciate everyone who’ve voiced their opinion concerning this matter – it could be a sobering moment to many of us, for us to reflect on the global-free-for-all phenomenon, and whereupon lies the boundary between inspiration and replication. I certainly know where I stand.

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Richard Lai July 4, 2010 at 9:56 pm

Dylan, regardless of whether you intentionally plagiarised or not, it’s very clear — and you’ve also admitted — that your buttons borrow Ant’s style: coloured frames and same text layout, albeit different fonts. In my humble opinion, the accusation of plagiarism is valid since the offending work shares the same object type and purpose as the source of inspiration. There’s simply no need to use the same style, especially now that you two have ended up in this situation.

A successful and respectable blog should be unique, so as a newcomer, Dylan, you’re advised to consider withdrawing this design and try again — not only for the sake of integrity, but also to maintain a good relationship. The core value of blogging is all about helping each other within the sphere, but it only works when you’re welcomed into it.

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Ant July 5, 2010 at 6:25 am

@Dylan: Thanks for ‘going public’, Dylan. Of course, I’d already heard these views and we’ve agreed to disagree. I did already point out the flaw in the Wibiya comparison, which ironically came from a blogger whom you personally asked to comment. (I’m not sure where the spontaneous Adobe tutorial came from, but we appreciate it all the same.)

For the record, in my eyes: you copied the exact, unique size of the buttons; the coloured border concept; the bold black headline; the capitalised, singular call to actions; and the coloured footer; then, originally, even the exact same positioning of the four buttons (where you replaced my podcast link with Facebook).

@Richard: Thanks for the comment. My sentiments exactly. To be fair to Dylan, he did offer to withdraw them and I said I’d put it to the community. Since then, I’ve agreed for Dylan to keep them up. I’ve now taken mine down — not as part of any agreement, but as a reinvestment in my own individuality.

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Dylan July 5, 2010 at 8:21 pm

I singled Wibiya out for the sake of balance and fair banter. As with the tutorial, you do bring out the defensive side of me Ant.

I guess Richard is right, he does know infinitely more than I do in respect of technology and social media (that’s kind of why I asked for your opinion and your opinion I shall oblige). I’ve therefore decided to smite the matter and send it to the grave – the banners (which I still insist upon being my creation but, heck, I’ve lost my enthusiasm on this matter…calling it quits) have been removed from my site and yup, following your advice Richard, I’m gonna take a big step back and attempt the reattempt.

Cheers for being a good sport Ant – though I hadn’t set out with a malicious intent.

Anyway, I do hope that the blogger community are not judging us both as individuals in the aftermath of this debate.

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Ben July 10, 2010 at 8:36 pm

Think you jumped the gun a bit, i mean it’s not like you have copyright for the above services.

Just think how many variations of rss icons there are, if everyone who made a new one has someone email them saying “hey that rss icon is encased in a circle and it has a drop shadow just like mine” then nothing new would ever get made.

A link back would of been nice, sure. But again not essential because he took inspiration from you, and thats not a crime.

Etc etc etc i’ll shut up. On a side note, i prefer Dylans banners, but thats just me. *flees*

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Ant July 11, 2010 at 6:51 am

Thanks for the comment Ben, ironically after I took mine down, Dylan did also! It was a good discussion, one that I’ve certainly learned a lot from, and I hope others can take positives from too. I checked out your blog, nice work. If I ever switched genres, it would be to gardening, or food. But I hasten to add, I know nothing, whatsoever about gardening!

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Ben July 12, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Me neither… i’m just winging it. It was something I could do thats outdoorsy that doesn’t involve too much expense… or so i thought.

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Ant July 13, 2010 at 6:46 am

Sounds like there’s a lot of similarities to travel!

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