Copying an Author Website Design: What’s Legal, What’s Ethical

mirror_imageWe recently received a request from a new client. He loved a previous author website design that we had built, and asked us to pretty much duplicate it exactly — just replacing the other author’s photos with his own.

This led to quite a conundrum for us. And here’s why….

Legal Issues
I’m not a lawyer. Nor do I play one on TV. But I do have to wonder what an author actually owns the rights to in terms of their website design. The site in question (which I will not identify, for obvious reasons) was a uniquely-built website that a client paid top dollar for. We designed and coded it from scratch, and gave him a wonderful final product. It was not a template, nor was it ever intended to be a template.

That leaves me wondering … does this client own the rights to that design? How much would need to be changed for it to be a different site?

As authors, we hear about plagiarism all the time. We are careful not to plagiarize. We understand just what is okay to copy (and source) and what is not. This is far less clear when it comes to design.

Ethical Issues
Let’s just say, for the moment, that it’s perfectly legal for us to take the design that we built one client and repurpose it for another client. That still leaves another question, though … is it ethical?

In other words, if we promised one client a unique website, and collected payment for a unique website, would it be unethical for us to then, essentially, turn it into a pre-built template and re-use it for another client?

Our feeling is that this just isn’t fair. Legal or not, it’s not ethical.

Finally, I should ask the question: Why would an author want a website that’s identical to someone else’s? It’s one thing to say, “I really like this site, and I want to copy this, this and this” from it. It’s another thing to say that you want a site that matches it exactly.

There is the chance that someone — an agent or publisher, perhaps — will stumble upon both sites and wonder how they got to be exactly the same (and what that says about the authors in question). It’s also possible that the author whose site it was first would find the second one and be … well … a bit peeved that someone else copied their work. In my opinion, the drawbacks of this kind of arrangement would far outweigh the benefits for all parties involved.

So what do we do? Well, we’ve told this client that we cannot copy someone else’s website entirely. We can take bits and pieces, but we cannot replicate it to a tee.

Much like plagiarism, there’s a fine line here. But it’s a line that we had to draw. And I know I’ll sleep better because of it.