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Protecting your Work
By Virtual Mechanics
"I spent a lot of time and resources developing my web site, creating graphics, adding some special unique effects
and more. Shortly after I posted and announced it to the world I discovered that many people were taking my ideas
and code and using them on their web sites."

"This code represented a significant effort on my part to showcase and illustrate my skills. How can I protect it
from copycats that would pass it off for their own work and dilute its value?"

This type of question and concern is very common on web design newsgroups and mail lists. New users often expect to get an answer about a special code, switch or encryption method that can be used. More experienced users know that there is no such thing but are constantly looking for some trick or idea that will work anyway.

There is also a large body of people that question the desire to hide your code. "...the World Wide Web was built
upon the concept of open standards. Its success to a very large extent can be directly attributed to its openness and free transfer of ideas. Any attempt to restrict the openness is contradictory to that concept and would if
successful, ultimately result in its degradation and usefulness. Besides, we dare anyone to show us a unique web
site that to a substantial extent did not borrow ideas and code from some other existing source..."

So who is right and what can be done about it in either case?

Here is this week's analogy. Imagine building the largest and best-equipped market town in the province. In order to
protect the shoppers and merchants from thieves you hire a large police force to keep them out. But the police do not know who the thieves are or believe (probably correctly) that there is a little bit of larceny in all of us and consequently keep everyone out. The market town of course starts to decay so the police are dispensed with. Pretty soon the market starts to flourish which of course attracts thieves that start to rob everyone blind. The merchants and shoppers stop going to the market town or if they do, they leave their most valuable goods at home.

As with most things people have a tendency to paint their views in black and white. This is especially true of the
Web were many people still have an idealistic view or an unnatural fear of it.

So just how much of a problem is the Web's openness?

The first thing to recognize is that it is a problem. Not necessarily because a lot of good ideas and hard work are
being taken but because a lot of people perceive it to be a problem. If someone believes that their work and effort
will probably be stolen then they are far less likely to put as much time an effort into it.

The majority of people designing web sites probably overstate the problem. The level of concern should relate
to the true cost of having someone copy or use your work. Will it result in a direct monetary loss to you or is it
related more to your pride? The fact is you probably did borrow many ideas and code from someplace else no matter how many unique ideas you have added.

There are many cases however, where taking somebody's work will result in a direct monetary loss to them. An artist posting his or her work may be dependent upon its sale to make a living. At this extreme case, Napster and were not sued by the music industry for pride.  There are big bucks involved.

An interesting example of this was recently posted on an SVG mail list where a cartography company (map maker) wanted to post their maps using SVG. They were concerned that since SVG is vector based there would be nothing to stop anyone from taking the information from the maps and producing their own. Maps are all about resolution and SVG vectors have it all. For them the ability to post their maps online means fast, reliable, low-cost distribution. It also means that there is nothing to stop anyone from stealing it.

What about copyright? Copyright law protects everyone's intellectual property as soon as they create it. You do not even need to register it. This newsletter for example, is copyright protected even without the little copyright notice that is included. So are your web pages. If someone copies and pastes the code from your web page to theirs without your permission you have every right to sue them.

But how practical is that? I'm not a lawyer so this is a non-legal observation. (Unless you can demonstrate a significant monetary loss it will probably be an expensive exercise. Lawyers and courts cost money and are time consuming. If you are a company protecting a trademark or if the copyright infringement results in a demonstrable financial loss it may be worth your while. If you think that someone has copied your family web-page design, it may
not be worth the effort.) End non-legal observation.

Even if the copyright infringement does represent a significant loss for you, it may be impossible to prove. In the case of a map the value is in the coordinates. Unlike a song being downloaded from Napster, the source of a set of
coordinates may be difficult to identify.

By far the best solution is to prevent the theft in the first place. But that of course is when the openness of the web becomes a problem.

What can you do to protect your work if you truly believe it should be?

Source: "IMS Web Tips" is a weekly news letter for all web site managers regardless of experience who are looking for detailed information on creating, maintaining and promoting their web sites.

To subscribe send an email to or visit for subscription information and a list of past articles.

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