Un Rip-off

An anonymous somebody or other posted this link to one of the comment threads here this weekend. I removed it immediately, partly because it didn’t have anything to do with the topic of the weblog post to which it was appended, and partly because I wasn’t sure how to react. If you click on the link, you’ll understand my situation: it’s a French-language weblog that looks very much like what a weblog would look like if its designer was trying to rip me off.

Stealing Home Page

Below: The Bizarro Subtraction.com. Someone takes liberties with the design of this site.

It’s not a case of verbatim plagiarism, but if you take a close look at the page’s source code, it abounds with markup classes and IDs that are identical, at least in name, to my own. To the designer’s credit, there are comments inline that indicate that the code was “inspired from subtraction.com,” but really, inspiration is an underestimation; this design was stolen from me. Granted, it was done so in a not particularly competent manner, but it was stolen nevertheless.

Lethean Sound Journal

After having had some time to think it over, I’m not really even sure how I feel about the whole thing. From time to time, I receive emails inquiring whether an individual may simply use my site design for his or her own purposes, and I always politely reply that I would rather that did not happen, but anyone is free to draw some level of inspiration from my work. I’m convinced, though, that this instance clearly steps over the boundaries of merely ‘drawing inspiration.’ I know at least that I definitely find this ham-fisted attempt at co-opting Subtraction.com to be amusing, while at the same time being pretty sure I’m not at all happy about it. But I’m not positive if I’m actually angry about it. Should I be?

  1. I don’t think it’s close enough design-wise to call a rip-off. Ok, the article header treatment is the same, and the menu uses a similar style as lots of recent redesigns.

    Other than that, what’s similar? Horisontal 1px lines? Sans-serif fonts?

    I respect that you feel akward about it, but I don’t consider it a rip-off.

  2. It doesn’t have to be identical to be a rip-off. In this case it’s too close for comfort. The header style, the navigation menu, even the footer style and the article styles are all copied.

    From what I gather, Khoi’s site design is entirely his and not a template he drew on or any external materials. Therefore, to preserve the unique character of subtraction.com I would recommend that the author of the french blog be contacted and asked (nicely) to remove /replace the elements of the original design. There are plenty of templates he can use. Furthermore, if Khoi should decide to place his design in the public domain, that should be his choice alone. In the meantime, the design is copyrighted and the author is fully entitled to exercising his rights.

  3. Yeah, i agree with the first poster, – and you going after the wrong guys, astersik is more ‘inspired’ ( or ‘ripped off’) than the one you link too.

  4. Your site seems to be under Creative Commons License that allows to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work, and to make derivative works; as long as you give the original author credit (done), not use this work for commercial purposes (seems so), and if you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one (licensed under Creative Commons).

    I would not call this stealing or use any other strong words, as the guy has just followed the license terms of your site. Own dogs biting…

  5. With all due respect, I don’t feel that he has come close enough for you to be too upset. The influence is certainly there, and individual elements are copied directly, but I think that this is just the way that the web works.

    Creative people work out new ways of presenting information; many of these are either so specific to that case, or otherwise not applicable to more general cases, that they do not become widely imitated. But some of the ideas – and I think your 8-column approach is one of them – turn out to be so well suited to other peoples’ needs that they get ‘picked up’ and passed around … kind of like a ‘meme’ of web design.

    People who care about this stuff know where this concept originated, and your ‘status’ as a leader in web design is secure. I think you should relax … let this go, and even encourage others to pick up this theme and run with it.

    Just my 2 cents …

  6. Hey, you’re famous! Isn’t having your site ripped off, and subsequently posting about it, one of the pre-requisites for joining the elite blogosphere illuminati cabal? 🙂

  7. As Janne said, the Creative Commons license seems to cover exactly what the guy from lethean sound actually did. Why would you license your site under a CC license if you don’t want people to share what you’ve created?

  8. Janne and Michael: The Creative Commons License covers the content of this site, not its design nor its code. So you could reproduce a post I’ve written while giving me visible credit, but you could not take liberties with the presentation/design of the site itself.

    Anyway, I humbly admit that I probably see more similarity than others. As I said, I’m not particularly angry about it, so I don’t want to get into a discussion of whether the site is a rip-off or not (and I probably shouldn’t have used that language, but what’s done is done). It’s just a weird feeling, is all. I have no issues with the site continuing as-is. I wish them success with that design, regardless of its origins.

  9. I don’t understand why designers don’t give credit to inspiration in a colophon or about section AND more importantly, shoot an email to the person who has inspired them to run it by and give thanks.

    I converted my site from Blogger to WordPress and had no idea what I was doing in WP. I was a big fan of what Michael Heilemann was doing with WP and noticed he had freely available code and CSS. I used that as a springboard to my site. It really helped me learn CSS.

    My site looks nothing like Michael’s and the CSS has been totally re-worked by now, but why not give credit anyway? He helped me out.

    This world works so much better if we work together.

    I wish I could rip-off your site Khoi, but I don’t even know where to start, the layout is so amazing. I think it’s the best laid out blog I have ever seen. I imagine you are going to get ripped off, riffed on, inspired by, borrowed by, etc… I just think that if there was a feature or design or content or anything on your site that I liked and thought was applicable to my site, I would have the decency to ask you and credit you.

    And stop with with the Asterisk rip-off comments. Keith has given proper props to Khoi and by Khoi’s comments, he seems pleased.

  10. a rip off is always a bit of a pain, and being a designer, i see that it is a site heavily inspired by your site here.

    i think he just took the code, changed the css a bit. he may just copied that ccl link source code without even knowing what it means.

    but, if Janne above is right, than there you go.
    i couldnt find the credit to you on his site , and the link to ccl is not really set on his site. but it is on yours. and it seems that your ccl could have encouraged him, if he knew about it.

    i am pretty aware that you are stating “Contents under Creative Commons License.”
    which probably in your opinion (which is mine, too) does not included the artwork or sourcecode.
    that is to be argued with some ccl-freaks.
    at least you can get him to link to your site and mention your name. hm

  11. As a designer, I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing what this person has done with Khoi’s site. It seems obvious that they’ve taken Khoi’s code, made some changes to some CSS properties and moved a few elements around. That’s not design.

    They’ve kept the distinctive 8 column grid, and the same basic header and navigation layout.

    In my experience, “inspiration” is about pulling ideas from a number of sources, adding concepts of your own and filtering them in such a way that you come up with something new. That doesn’t mean that it will be completely unique, but if you’ve done the work honestly it will have its own integrity. This particular homage/rip-off doesn’t have that integrity, and that’s the problem.

    I share Khoi’s ambivalence – if this were my site that had been used in this way I don’t know how I’d feel. I suspect I’d be upset that someone had done this to my design, but I’m not sure what the damage is. I doubt anyone would think Khoi had anything to do with the site, but when you take the time to come up with a distinctive site that is recognized and well-respected, it rubs the wrong way for someone to come along and use your code as “inspiration”.

    I guess that’s what it comes down to – this isn’t inspiration or homage. It’s freeloading, it’s lazy and it lacks integrity.

  12. Hmm. Potentially opening a big tedious can of philosophical worms, but when you say “Contents under Creative Commons License”, what do you mean by “contents”? The license itself only refers to the “Work”, which is a very general term. Since you don’t specify what you mean by “contents”, it could be read as encompassing the entire contents of the domain subtraction.com, design and all.

    Still, I agree with you that the site is a bad ripoff of yours. The person that did it doesn’t seem to appreciate the grid philosophy you’ve applied to your site so well.

  13. Jacob, you’re missing the point here. It’s not just that. The complete layout and the stuff that makes it the design it is are copied, and like Khoi says, the markup shows an eerie resemblance. Not good. Baaaaad karma.

  14. Just to clarify on Aegir’s point, works refers to all written text and images but does not extend to the site design itself. That is, as the footer states, protected by copyright which in itself is a misnomer as the protection is only extended to the site as a whole – not individual elements like, for example, the navigation menu or the columnar layout underpinning the site (sorry Rob).

    So, to answer your question Khoi, no need to feel angry. Upset, possibly, and certainly frustrated as there is nothing you can really do about it without a spare $30k and a plane ticket to Paris.

  15. I go back to my point though. If this guy shoots an email to Khoi then this is all mute.

    It’s ironic (and often sad) that design is a facet of communication, yet we, designers can be horrible at communicating with each other.

    “Tell me how you feel!”
    “Why don’t we talk like we used too?”

    Oh wait, those are things my wife complains about.

  16. Jim, I agree regarding crediting those that helped you out in the beginning. At this point who hasn’t been influenced by Heilemann? but, some “designers” just don’t follow a certain social protocol.

    I’m of two minds regarding a “rip-off”. One one hand I’d be pleased as punch if someone ripped me off. But, then, I’d be irritated that perhaps someone else would get all the glory. 🙂

    I don’t think Khoi has anything to worry about though. The people that matter know where the design comes from.

  17. Steve, I’m not talking about anything legal here. I’m just saying that this type of inspiration is not good. You’re simply committing fraud on creativity by taking someone else’s idea too damn literally. Forget the legal stuff. Bad karma.

  18. You are an ‘Originator” or course you’re going to be ripped off. Like other originators before you, Apple, Volkswagen Bug, Numerous Writers, Impressionists. You have originated something great. Sure it’s applied Swiss grid but you did it. Your design is beautiful in its simplicity and subtle in it’s complexity. Don’t be pissed at people copying. Go to any museum and you’ll see people who aspire to be great copying the “Masters” It’s a way they learn. How do I know because I’ve tried to copy your web layout for myself and I’ve learned tons just trying to make it work. It is not as simple as it looks. My web design thinking now takes much more into consideration. And now that I’ve learned so much more by doing rather than reading I’ll start making my own designs. Thanks for the inspiration. And one day I’ll get my site updated. One day.

  19. Khoi, “content” is very broad term. You probably wanted to refer to “the textual content” of the site, but I could understand that it meant “the HTML content”, including images.

    From the perspective of your web server, everything that is served to the browser is content. On the other hand, the blogging software defined the content differently.

    Drawing the line is very hard, and easily results in a legal mumbo-jumbo that nobody really wants to read at the end of every page (and potentially could get you sued :).

  20. Don’t forget the source code people, take a look at the two side-by-side. They are strikingly similar (as Khoi pointed out).

    This copy seems to have been taken verbatim source code and CSS from Subtraction, then altered ever so slightly to make it look less like a copy.

    So at first glance it seems no big deal, similar in design but not too close. But Source Code, Source Code…it’s what we’ve spent hours and hours creating and forming into our own.

    It is your signature Khoi and that cannot be denied. The next step is up to you.

  21. Janne – I disagree – I think content is easily defined. The presentation and the content are easily separable. If you look at Khoi’s site with CSS turned off, what’s left is the content (I did that using the Web Developer plugin for Firefox).

    The design, the layout, the things that don’t change day-to-day are not content and aren’t, and shouldn’t be, free for anyone to use.

  22. “you could not take liberties with the presentation/design of the site itself.”

    Based on what legal premise?

  23. Everyone seems pretty chill about it – however, the owner of the site did indeed borrow quite liberally from Mr. Vinh. If you check out the site now, it has a little disclaimer at the bottom:

    “Some css and code courtesy of Khoi Vinh, http://www.subtraction.com.”

    It’s cool for everyone the high road, but if it happened to you, you’d be slightly disconcerted – as Khoi has a right to be. And yes, I know – “talent borrows/genius steals” and all that. Okay, fine.

    I’ll finish by saying that I seem to be reading some pretty loose interpretations of the Creative Commons License in these comments. Very interesting…

    Good, intelligent discussion here as usual folks.

  24. I think it’s a rip-off, and I think Khoi has the right to feel squeamish about it. The way you can distinguish theft from ‘inspiration’ is that the thief in question was too ashamed to email Khoi and let him know about the homage BEFORE the site went live. As somebody who learnt CSS by cut-and-pasting other people’s code, it’s clear to me that this is what the owner of the French site has done – but he’s done it ineptly, and made changes to the site which some people here clearly see as having made significant cosmetic changes. In fact, I think the changes he’s made show a lack of understanding of the way CSS works (he’s simplified things dramatically because Khoi’s CSS is too complex for him to negotiate) – his version should have stayed on the drawing board for him learn from. It’s in fact an insult for him to say he was ‘inspired’ by Subtraction’s elegant design, since he’s not managed to retain any of this site’s inherent elegance or thoughtfulness. That said – well, there’s probably not a lot Khoi can actually DO, other than politely request that the guy removes the design, which I think he has every right to do.

  25. Jacob, ugg, Dave, and others:

    Guys, this is absolutely f**kin’ ridiculous that you can’t see that 1) this site is a total rip of Khoi’s, and 2) that you feel as though there’s a concrete “yes this is a rip” and “no, not a rip at all” point when in fact it’s all blurry.

    Designers can see when the blurry line between inspiration and rip-off is crossed, so when you can’t see that I’m inclined to say you should stop pretending to be designers. Posts like this with people not seeing the point just piss me off, and when the design is so blatantly stolen it just gets me going even more.

    Go write some C# and leave design conversations to designers.

  26. Oh god. Designers are so anal. I see no resemblance except for the “format” of the blog posts (header, date and then indented post content). That format is hardly original.

    Everything on the web is inpsired by something else. Nothing you do is entirely original. Using black and white in a grid like system isn’t exactly something you can call your own.

  27. > But I’m not positive if I’m actually angry about it. Should I be?

    It’s understandable that you would be angry – but, no, why disturb your equanimity?

  28. well this bad guy was lazy, no doubt. also there is certainly much work he saved himself from doing by using yours.

    but still —

    take it as a good thing – he liked what you did, he was so blatantly unable to do this hmself, so he HAD TO RIP it.

    The other posters are right then again – I have seen far “worse” rip offs than this one – NOT to excuse, but just to see that today, its blurred. We stick to old copyright thoughts while we long started to change the world. And don’t say you NEVER ever copied a piece of music, part of a sentence, or some other ideas…

    Keep easy, it is not YOUR problem, it is HIS !

    @ Mike Rundle: It is exactly people like you that should get a life outside the internet. If you are bitter, then eat sugar. Better keep your mouth shut until you cooled down. Do you think you ate wisdom with spoons ? lol, really.. you have an OPINION, so express it THAT way !!

  29. Ok, I think I will post something here too. First, it is ME the guilty one. We talked about it with Khoi & I posted comments (on the next subtraction.com post), but I will write an explanation for clarify & be fair to Khoi & all of you readers. I plead guilty, I took subtraction’s code & adpated it.

    As told to Khoi, I rarely keep a layout a long time, as you can see lethean-sound.net/journal has only 2 posts, that does not mean I have recently started a MT blog, that is just because I am testing a lot of thing (scripts, CMS & stuffs). So, it is very possible if you visit lethean-sound.net/journal in a few weeks, this MT will be vanished.

    Nowadays, I am much more into (web-)development than into (web-)design, so, yes, I stole subtraction’s feeling as a quick way to get a VERY NICE design style.
    But I kept comments inside the code mentionning the menu was coming from subtraction.com and as I explained, I saw the CC licence and my poor english took the word “content” as the whole thing. But it is true that even with such a CCL, I did not contacted Khoi beforehand asking him if I could use his code, and that was bad from me.
    I am lazy, sorry.

    I am working on a layout – mine, not stolen – but I do not really focus on it quite a big part of my time, so for avoid scary default MT template, I meanly copied subtraction.com.

    Will you all forgive me ?


  30. I forgive you, Fabien, and I consider the matter closed. Thanks to everyone for their thoughtful remarks; it was great to get so many different perspectives. I’m going to close out the comments on this thread now, as I feel it’s run its course.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.