Plagiarism in Our Schools

This modest little slice of fame I’ve gotten comes with its drawbacks. One of them is the periodic plagiarism of the design of by unscrupulous or unintentionally errant individuals. I handled my first exposure to this phenomenon last year rather ham-fistedly, overreacting to the essentially innocuous emulation of this site’s design by a basically well-meaning young guy abroad. I rather indignantly and publicly blogged about his offending site, and he graciously removed it — the same effect could have been achieved without the hoopla had I just sent him a private, polite email instead.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Since then, people have sent me examples of other Web sites that have committed the same sort of plagiarism, oftentimes in even more egregious ways. I’ve learned to relax about the whole thing, and to remain confident in the idea that enough people have generously come to regard the look and feel of as intrinsically mine — it now strikes me as somewhat gauche to publicly call out these instances of creative theft, because virtually none of them seem to have hopes of achieving any recognition, or doing any damage to what little notoriety I have myself.

As much as I try to maintain a reasonable attitude about this stuff, though, it’s something else entirely when someone brings to my attention a suspiciously faithful facsimile of not from an individual, but rather from an institution — and one that ostensibly occupies a well-respected place in polite society. Sort of like this one from the Auburn University School of Architecture.

Now I just don’t know how to react.

Right: Through the looking-eerily-familiar glass: the Auburn School of Architecture’s Web site looks just like mine.
Auburn School of Architecture Web Site
  1. “Thanks Khoi for making it available under the Creative Commons License for non-commercial work.”

    Apparently they got the wrong impression somewhere along the line …

  2. Did you read the Colophon?

    “Khoi Vihn (Design Director of A big tip of the hat to, Khoi’s personal website. is clearly inspirational in this derivative of his clean, 2 1/2 column black and white layout. Thanks Khoi for making it available under the Creative Commons License for non-commercial work.”

  3. Interesting!

    The licencing information on Khoi’s site says copyright everything, except the *content* which is under the CC licence. So ripping off his design is not allowed.

    Even if Khoi had put his *design* under the CC licence, it’s a _Sharealike_ licence, so they would also have to have the CC licence on their site — currently everythin on their site is “copyright Е 2005 – 2006 auSoA. all rights reserved.”

    I wonder if it’s just a simple misunderstanding of the licencing of

  4. while i agree with “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” for an academic institution — and a school with a focus in design — to 100% rip the design, well, it says a lot about the integrity and creativity of the school itself.

  5. I bet it kinda feels like you’ve been carjacked eh? It takes academic institutions in ordinate amounts of time and money to design web sites. Many universities are completely inept at producing easy-to-use and intstantly grokable web pages. Auburn’s use of your design style saved them a hell of a lot of time and money while elevating their brand! Just for kicks, put a dollar amount on that*. Of course, subtract a healthy dose of good karma from the total.

    If you can, post, brush off, move on.

    If not, attempt to extract (* – karma) from Auburn or attempt to -(*)(Karma). Be warned that some methods involve the use of voodoo dolls as opposed to lawyers.

    New line of Subtraction Dolls anyone?

  6. Those silly Alabamians, can’t trust them with anything! They could of at least spelled your last name right.

    It seems like a misunderstanding since they publicly stated you were the inspiration (or victim I would say). Regardless, it’s no excuse that a reputable school such as Auburn let this fall through the cracks.

  7. Can anyone confirm that the University did the work on the site or did they hire a contractor or firm to do it. I was involved in the bidding of a University website a couple of years ago and saw bids as high as 125k for the project.

    The worst part is the copyright they’ve placed in the footer. I wonder what they do to students who turn in plagiarize assignments. That’s very hypocritical.

  8. According to one of the CSS documents: I believe the appropriate person to contact would be Rusty Smith: . It should also be noted that Smith credited this site in the CSS document as well.

    With credit being given in two places, my inclination is to agree with Stewart that this may be a misunderstanding of the CC licencse. If anything, this has pointed out the need for me to fully understand the defintions in the Creative Commons as I start to release content under it.

  9. This kind of CC license misunderstanding seems to happens rather often.

    It might help to add a short copyright notice to the top of your CSS files, like I’ve done here.

    I had a lot of design plagiarism before I added the notice. It has never happend since, although that may also be because I haven’t updated my personal weblog in ages…

  10. Khoi, you seem very anal about all of this. Really, you should be getting in touch with those involved, not publically writing about in in an [apparent] attempt to round up a posse. Please keep your playground tactics underwraps in future.

  11. The designers of the auSoa site have misunderstood your license statement: creative commons license regards only the contents not the “look and feel”.

    However, in my opinion, the auSoa site is not identical to subtraction. Moreover they made an excellent work in adapting WordPress to a non-blog site.

    The problem is that they are a school of architecture and they have to teach their students to design original buildings/landscapes/interiors.

    Clearly your site appears as a strong influence for the design. But please don’t overreact: your site (as 99% of sites) is not entierly original in his look and feel. A strong influence can be found in some Massimo Vignelli’s works for newspapers, magazine and posters. Luckly for you Vignelli is not a famous webdesigner…

  12. There is a collective thinking that everything on the net is ‘up for grabs’. I’ve known a competitor to one of our clients to make a wholesale copy of a site for their use. After a series of ‘cease and desist’ e-mails an amicable agreement was reached.

    Ditch the CCL and make the copyright notice clearer, along the lines that everything is copyright except where explicitly noted. That doesn’t stop someone approaching you to ask if they can reuse some portion of it.

    With respect to the specific instance you cite, I think an e-mail is in order.

  13. Well, I finally sat down to read The Tempest last night and discovered to my chagrin that Shakespeare had brazenly stolen a character from one of my poems. Fie! That bastard strikes again!

    I don’t know, mate. Looks like you’ve entered the Commons. A hallmark of gaining entry seems to be that it doesn’t really matter what you think about it. Taking it with good grace and humour is almost invariably the best policy though.

  14. Markus and Joseph: I wonder how much more like my site a design would need to look before you would say it’s a case of plagiarusm. This, to me, is as close as one can come without matching every detail on my site, line for line, word for word. Plus, the CSS is rife with rules that I wrote myself.

    I admit that the Creative Commons License is potentially a bit ambiguous here. I’d rather avoid adding a disclaimer in my footer along the lines of “Contents under Creative Commons License — but not the design or look and feel.” But I also think that this case, to me anyway, seems fairly straightforward.

  15. Khoi, the license statement on your site is not ambiguous, in my opinion. In fact the designer of the auSoa website has made a huge mistake in evaluating your license: he considered your theme under a cc license and he ported it to WordPress (moreover he does not release the new theme under a cc license).

    However I suppose that copyright is not an effective tool to protect the xhtml/css code of a website against plagiarism. A future web conference (alistapart?) should discuss this issue in detail with lawyers and other experts.

  16. Despite the fact that Rusty is on staff, I’d strongly suspect that there was compensation involved for this project, which really elevates the issue from plagarism to infringement. These matters are, understandably, taken *very* seriously by educational institutions, who not only have to encourage originality but vigorously discourage any hint academic plagarism. I’d wager that the Dean of the Architecture School and others who approved this project have been blissfully unaware of Rusty’s well-intentioned ‘inspired by’ approach, and frankly, they should be made aware. It’s not something that should be condoned by a creative professional in any setting, particularly an academic one. And I agree that the CC license is not ambigous. Anyone who teaches at the University level should know better, and understanding the fine print of contracts and agreements is a big part of being an architect. I’d encourage Rusty get schooled a bit on this one, and I’d think the Dean is just the guy to do it.

  17. I think your licensing is mildly confusing: “ and all contents copyright”, then “Contents under CCL”. So are the “contents” “CCL” or “copyright”?

    I also think you could have solved this with a simple email. Continuing to publicly flay people is childish and ignorant, and even more so given your first paragraph.

  18. “Contents under Creative Commons License — but not the design or look and feel.”

    Khoi, I have to agree that you seem to be contradicting yourself with the copyright and the CC license. Also, I am not sure how everyone else interprets the word “contents” but I know that in my contracts for projects, “contents” refers to all pictures, images, and text – including the site design. I would suggest writing something like this so you have a legal leg to stand on in the future. I totally understand it is not about suing someone, but rewording your footer could prevent at least a few clones from popping up.

    All writings are protected under a Creative Commons license. Site design and layout are copyright 2006 and may not be replicated without the express written consent of the author, Khoi Vinh.

    I agree that the legal issue of code needs to be clarified. As far as I understand it, you can patent a process (such as Apple patenting the One-Click), but I am not sure about code structure.

  19. While I think it’s a great site that you’ve got here, the thing that makes it great is the content. The layout is certainly nice, makes for a great read. But my gut tells me that since it’s not really a money-making site, and you didn’t really pay for it… shouldn’t you regard the ‘copying’ as a sign of flattery and not theft? ESPECIALLY by an institution that can pay big bucks for something completely unique? (I would)

  20. I guess the operative word is “contents” and call me literal, but I’d think that this site is (1) structure, design, markup, graphic elements, plus (2) the stuff that is presented within that framework, and that the latter = contents. It’s clear that the intention of the CC license is share the thinking and writing that is the content(s) of this site, not the site structure and markup itself, which clearly has value as a commodity.

  21. Steve, the “flattery” rationalization needs to be resisted in all instances such as this. Sure it’s flattery, that doesn’t make it right. Creative work has value, and that value should be respected — especially by an institution that can pay big bucks. If I decide to re-record a Rolling Stones song I’m flattering them, but I also need their permission to present the work as my own. Again, this is an issue that an academic institution needs to be especially sensitive about — students are tempted to flatter sources all the time and present inspired by work as their own. This usually means you’re expelled.

  22. I can’t believe what I’m reading. I always get the feeling that the people who comment saying “it’s not a big deal” or “Khoi, why would you lambast them publicly, you idiot” have never had this happen to them, and can therefore take their opinions regarding this situation and (do something with them.)

    Tom is right, “contents” = your writing. How many web design blogs have CC licenses on them? Are they permitting every University and non-profit organization in the world to just steal their design and call it their own, under a misinterpretation of the CC license? Of course not, because that’s not what the CC license is used for. I imagine many designers are re-evaluating their usage of a CC license right at this very moment, because of this very situation.

    Now the question arises, did they email you first? If not, then it seems as though they’re using a misinterpreted CC license as their shield in case the shit fan turns in their direction. If they were fully on the up-and-up, I imagine they’d email you ahead of time, ask you directly about the CC license, talk to you about their intentions, etc., in an effort to actually be commendable in the design process of their website. Because they never contacted you ahead of time, I can only believe that 1) they’re complete idiots who actually think a CC license grants them your design usage, or 2) smart enough to try and cover up something they knew deep inside was morally wrong.

  23. Thanks for your thoughts, everyone. I was more interested in getting people’s feedback than anything, as I don’t have a specific plan of action I want to pursue right now.

    Just to be clear: it’s not my belief that the copyright and the Creative Commons License are in conflict. To be clear, the license specifies that the work has to be attributed (arguably, it was). It also has to be noncommerical (I believe this is a commercial use). And it needs to also display its own CC license (which it doesn’t).

  24. While I think it is reasonable to assume that Rusty may have misinterpreted the CC license, Tom is correct. We’re not talking about a random personal site, but one from a well-respected academic institution that has stringent policies for identifying and punishing plagiarism.

    Although Rusty cites as inspiration, that doesn’t cut it. The site is not a derivative work, but essentially an exact copy. If an architect designs a building identical to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bibao except that the outer skin is aluminum instead of titanium, is that work “derivative”? I don’t think so.

    In terms of a remedy, the Dean should be contacted privately. We can keep publicly commenting and complaining about it here, but that isn’t going spur Auburn to pull the site down. Getting a senior academic/administrative person involved should be the first step.

  25. Copyright and the Creative Commons are not exclusive. The CCL is simply a grant (license) of usage rights to the copyrighted material. Khoi can claim copyright on all of media he creates on this site, regardless of how he chooses to license it, and he may decide to offer it under licenses at his discretion.

    As for the AUSoA, I believe they have violated the CCL in this case by not honoring the “share-alike” clause. They may also be violating the “non-commercial” clause. It looks like the only part on which they’re in the clear is the “by attribution” clause.

    The “damage” is done, though, concerning the look-and-feel of this website. It has been licensed to the Creative Commons, and, although Khoi may choose to stop distributing the material, he cannot withdraw the license from those who’ve obtained it legitimately.

  26. Damn right it’s a commercial use. It’s a site that markets what I’m sure is a very expensive degree program at an elite university. I’m sure it’s likely that the people involved creating it spent compensated work hours working on it. I’d be surprised if more any of the more experienced faculty and administration has even read the site’s colophon and are even aware that the design is appropriated — I’m sure that approach would have been discouraged if it had been thoroughly communicated.

  27. Khoi,

    Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If you were to take a step back and allow yourself to look at this without your personal feelings on what you believe plagerism is, you might find yourself being very flattered.

    These people are probably on shoe-string budgets. They want a design that they think is effective and brilliant. They copy yours. How amazing to be so well known.

    Even if thousand sites, or a million sites, take your look. You have bragging rights to a design wave. You get to be the epicenter of a movement. I just don’t understand your (and others on this post) pure anger over the matter.

  28. Well, the site’s been changed, so I guess they saw this thread.

    I’d like to make a brief comment about this all being done in the public eye and not just as a simple email exchange. Presenting it in the public means that people will see and LEARN from others’ mistakes. If all such transactions were no handled via email, how would anyone know it’s so wrong to copy site designs? These sorts of posts provide excellent examples for why it’s wrong and the consequences of doing so.

    If a site design was copied publicly, then the response should be allowed to be public as well.

  29. Chris, bragging rights are nice, but your argument above can be reduced to “original work is of little value.” If that’s what you believe, it’s hard to imagine you’re going to get very far as a designer. Design has value. I understand why crass businessmen want to have the right to knock designs off and crank out cheap copies — it’s always good business (just watch Antiques Roadshow some time on PBS). What’s always harder for me to understand is why true designers don’t want to fight to defend against it.

  30. Koi:
    I have just been notified by your friend Mike Rundle at of your concerns with regard to the School of Architecture Site. I have read your post and through all of the comments with a great deal of embarrassment. It seems that I clearly did not understand the terms of your copyright. Upon receiving Mike’s notification I immediately took down the site and replaced it with an older version. I sincerely apologize; I am relatively new at this and clearly have quite a bit to learn. I will meet this afternoon with my Associate Dean for Research and Academic Affairs to discuss this matter. Needless to say I am mortified by my own naivety and the inappropriate intentions that it implies; I harbor no intentions to claim your work as my own.

  31. I totally agree with Joshua Lane. And I think Khoi made it clear that he usually sends an email to people personally if the site is a personal site. But because of the fact that this was a College of Architecture that teaches creativity, I think it should be brought out into the public so others at their College and others in the community are aware of what happened.

  32. Chris, you’ve gotta be shitting me. His hard work went into this design, and for somebody to just come along and bypass the creative energy that went into this site is obviously infuriating for him and for other designers who see this happen to their own work (myself included.)

    Copyright is around for a reason, to protect the creative process. If, like you said, a thousand or million websites copied the look and feel of, then why would Khoi want to design anything anymore? Why would any designers, artists, poets, or writers want to produce anything if anybody else could just stroll by and steal their hard work? Nothing would be unique, creativity would be killed, and people would stop creating anything.

    “These people are probably on shoe-string budgets. They want a design that they think is effective and brilliant. They copy yours. How amazing to be so well known.”

    That has to be most disturbing comment I’ve read in months. Copying people’s work, how incredibly flattering and smile-inducing. Shoe-string budgets? Do you know how much money Universities make? You don’t think they could pull out a few thousand dollars out of their 8 figure warchest and pay a designer to design something unique and original? Give me a break.

    Oh, and I love this quote from your portfolio:

    “My portfolio has been done in Flash. One of the reasons I chose Flash was to demonstrate many pages of portfolio without making the user load many pages or graphics. The other reason I chose Flash was to help protect my work from would-be plagiarismos.

    Emphasis mine. Ironic and hypocritical double-talk is all you.

  33. I got the same feeling as Rundle when I read the attribution: instead of sincere it seemed like an attempt to point out a loophole they found. Khoi released this under CC. So what we’re doing is all right. Really! it is!

    And now that the site’s been taken down voluntarily, merely after being linked, it doesn’t seem like they were confident what they did was right.

  34. Between my own experiences with plagiarism and those of my friends and colleagues in the design blogosphere, I’ve seen a great many site design ripoffs. Just about every single perpetrator that cared to respond to accusation has cited the old “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” side-stepping, of course, the fact that these situations could better be described as “theft” than “imitation.” Guess what? If somebody breaks into my house and steals the three-piece suit that I custom-tailored for myself and is wearing it around town, they are not imitating me. They have stolen from me. Period.

    Defense of this behavior needs to stop. Now.

  35. Regardless of the fact that Rob would likely never own, much less make, a three-piece suit, I whole-hartedly agree. I’m really missing the point where this isn’t common sense. People are familiar with plagiarism is the writing world, right? Yes, I know it still happens, but even those people don’t have illusions of it being a just thing. Is it that great of a leap for someone to consider design the same way?

    When this has happened to me in the past (I usually favor a private contact), I usually try to tell them why it’s wrong. Not just because I feel slighted, but because if someone sincerely doesn’t know, I feel it’s my job as the artist—and a designer in general—to educate them about design and visual works.

  36. Chris F.: Just to be clear, this blog post wasn’t motivated by “pure anger,” as you remarked. I never expressed anger or vitriol at the school at all, I don’t believe, or if I did or gave that impression, it wasn’t my intention.

    Joshua E. Cook: Thanks for your comments clarifying the licensing issues. I don’t intend to withdraw the license from those who’ve obtained legally up until this point, and I don’t intend to stop offering the license. In the end, I think it’s better to let folks make derivative works from this content, even if some people misinterpret it.

    But it’s a good lesson for me that I should probably add some clarification to the footer to discourage people from making works that are more or less exactly a facsimile of mine.

    And Rusty: Thanks for your note. I appreciate your comments and willingness to remove the work, and I don’t harbor any ill feelings.

  37. Well, they’ve retreated to another design, so either this post was sufficient or you’ve spoken to somebody at the school.

    I agree with the commenters who’ve said that your CC license is unambiguous, and I’d wager that the perpetrator willfully misinterpreted it.

  38. Emulation is a form of flattery. I’d stand tall, if I were you, knowing that the designs you create are seen as benchmarks in the industry.

    Your design is completely and entirely who YOU want to be on the Web. Imitators are simply looking up to you and thinking… Ooooh I want to look like him too. I’d say you’ve done a pretty darn good job blazing an aesthetic path. However, I’d draw the line of someone named their dog “Mr. President.” Thems fightin words.

  39. I encountered some similar confusion last year with the copyright/CC notices on my site. I changed the language then to say “Site and all contents copyright unless otherwise noted” and “Text and photos available under CC license”. I think in the end it’s better to be overbroad about what’s copyrighted and over-specific about what’s available.

  40. I teach at a school of art and design in Milwaukee. The conversation that has been happening here is a great example/read for young art and design students – and just more reason that a good analysis and understanding of these issue HAS to be included in the classroom.

  41. In answer to your question above, it was plagiarism for sure — I didn’t mean to disagree with that at all. I only meant to suggest that in the wider world, plagiarism is a pretty ordinary occurence. Fight the good fight if you have the stamina though!

  42. In regards to Rusty’s comments, I think that was a fantastic and genuinely respectful response. It’s nice to see a professional own up to a mistake; you have no reason to be ashamed when you stand up and admit in that manner.

    Some of the other posts I’m not too sure about in that regard – I’m impressed by the amount of people attempting to turn this into a semantic argument of what is design and what defines it in the industry. These are questions we’ve debated for years on the internet, and people debated for years before us – if you don’t get what it means, take some time to learn more about this profession and the theories that define it. Our job is not to teach the masses what you should have been learning on your own time. Do a google search, ask an Art or Creative Director, talk with your teachers, visit your local library – learn more about this subject before you dig up a long dead argument. If you think it’s not dead, then you’re out of touch with this ideal and, again, your time is best spent learning more about it before you debate.

    …and of course, you’re entitled to your own opinion; but I’m entitled to call it uneducated and boring.

  43. Brad:

    “Our job is not to teach the masses what you should have been learning on your own time.”

    I absolutely disagree, that is precisely one facet of what our job is, and the matter of the site design theft above should be more than enough evidence to support that. You can hardly claim that someone should know better, if you aren’t willing to tell them yourself. Merely telling someone they should have looked it up only makes us worse communicators, and raises walls between us and the people we design for.

    I would like to think it is common sense not to copy someone else’s work, but with the proliferation of online media and the extreme availability to see the underpinnings in another designer’s work, it is clearly not as cut and dry as we would like. And even if you feel like this is uneducated and boring, you are a part of our industry and you can’t skirt the issue. So, I remain of the opinion that design needs to educate, and as designers we signed up for the role as educators.

  44. This is one of the many reasons I use “all rights reserved” and I don’t publish full-text RSS feeds. That way, if either my design, my code, or my content is ripped, there is no ambiguity. If you want to use my stuff, just ask… but I’m not going to issue any sort of license (CC included) that has any opportunity to be misinterpreted.

  45. @ Santa Maria: I can see that, and it’s very contradictory in terms of how I run a department; I have to teach designers everyday. I think I’m writing a bit out of passion; this subject seems to be discussed weekly, and for those of us who see it all the time, it’s becoming old and frustrating. Almost every major blog has similar if not the exact same post, but like a broken record we keep defending the opinion. I imagine this is a plight not limited to the design industry. To educate is a responsibility for sure, even if it’s repetative.

  46. All:
    As I am sure that you are all aware, plagiarism is the most egregious act that one can be accused of in academia. Although it is quite difficult and embarrassing, I actually do appreciate the public vetting of this issue.

    While it may or may not be the role of designers to educate, it is indeed my job. I am currently teaching only a single class: “Introduction to Digital Media.” While this class deals mostly with digital drawing and modeling (and not design-related issues), you can bet that the topic of discussion for the next class (Tuesday afternoon) will be this one, with myself as the primary case study. The comments left here have given me a good leg up in beginning to understand the issues surrounding copyright and particularly creative commons licensure. I of course still have a lot left to learn before Tuesday’s class.

    Thanks to all for the discussion.

  47. I have to say, this has been a fascinating thread to read. I’m extremely impressed with the level of discourse going on here, and how all this was handled. All things considered, it could have been much more hostile. Instead it’s become a really interesting learning experience — for me at least — in ethics, particularly with regards to the web and plagiarism. I think Khoi’s treatment of the issue was spot on. And I think Rusty’s response was wonderful. Not only has he changed the site (almost immediately) and owned up to his honest mistake (hey, we all make ’em), but he’s throwing himself on the fire to educate his students. I don’t think you could ask for a better resolution to this conflict. Both Khoi and Rusty should ultimately be commended. As should everyone here for the insightful commentary. It’s posts like these that make Subtraction such an enjoyable blog to read.

    Oh yeah, and the wonderful design as well.

  48. It is tough to decide on which is the lamest fact here: The fact that this IS actually a design school, or they actually believing, naively, that they could get away with something like this and not getting noticed by none other than Mr. Vinh himself.

    Proof that the term “design inspiration” can be, and actually is, widely and grossly expanded at will.

  49. Systemsboy: Thanks for your comment; it’s a nice wrap-up for this thread just before the weekend. In some respect, I started to feel a little guilty about this post this morning.

    If I had been thinking clearly late last night when I blogged this post, I would have removed the school’s name from the screen shot and refrained from linking to them altogether, to avoid bringing embarrassment on anyone. It wasn’t necessary to call the institution or the developer out.

    That said, I’m happy it’s turned out to be a positive discourse. Rusty Smith has been very gracious and cooperative, and for that I’m grateful myself. And I like to think that the various comments in this thread have been at least a little illuminating for readers and participants. So, things end on a positive note!

  50. There has been a certain amount of slander in some comments directed toward Rusty Smith. Comments speculating that Mr. Smith callously copied the design; that he assumed attribution plus feigned ignorance of the license was enough of a defense. The attitudes motivating those remarks are very disappointing. I find Rusty’s willingness to step forward in this forum as a sign to the contray.

    @ Rusty Smith: I am very impressed by the humble posture you have taken and even more so by the action you plan to take in the classroom — a sort of self imposed community service. I am curious what direction the classroom discussion will take. Would you be willing to share the results with us in this forum?

    A few questions:

    – Do they understand the meaning of the commons license when they read it on their own?

    – Do they have a different sense of the “rights of the author” when the work being infringed is their own vs. a peers work?

    – How do they feel about excuses such as “flattery” or “everything’s already been done, everything I do will be a copy”?

    – While their is a legal distinction between stealing and plagarism, do they see an ethical distinction. Is it more acceptable with in their worldview to steal an idea than physical property if they are both worth the same amount of money (for example a $2,000 website design vs. a $2,000 computer)?

    Of course if anyone else cares to share an opinion, go right ahead. What is the value of an idea?

  51. Mike Rundle: You are the design facade that I have to fight against in my day-to-day dealings with the world outside of design. You are taking this *far too seriously* and many people think designers are flakes and impractical because of the voice you’re giving.

    I enjoy working as a designer and I am getting paid to do what I’d be doing anyway. If you want to make graphic design out to be some social necessity that balances out the universe that’s your thing. Don’t try and make that my thing or any one else’s thing.

    I’ve had my work plagerised(sp?). In fact, a person came into an interview at a company I did a brochure for and told them they did the brochure. But I was flattered when I found out because I knew that I was designing things that were good enough for others to aspire to. Now just because I’ve said that, doesn’t mean I need to make it easy for people to copy my work. Hence the intro to my portfolio. It’s just not anything I care to get in a bind about because my creative energy is going into designing original work. While copy-cats can only get so far.

    Sorry to use your comments section for an argument, Khoi. I felt the need to defend myself.

  52. I’ve always liked this site because I thought it was the best Vignelli rip on the Internet (and I once called someone for an interview because their resume was an excellent Vignelli rip — education is so bad these days, I’m impressed simply when people know where to steal). You kinda skipped over the last commenter who noticed this as well. I’m wondering if you see any debt there, and perhaps how it should be acknowledged when claiming copyright.

    I’m being a little glib, but I’d bet a good bottle of bourbon that many of the irate posters here don’t even know who Vignelli is or how he influenced this site.

    I don’t follow these disputes closely, but I’ve never seen a rigorous discussion of how a very small number of print designers influenced much of the good web design out there, and how to draw the lines of proper credit. Can a programmer get limited recognition for recreating a classic print layout, and for how long? A ‘traditional’ designer would argue that programming is just a design tool, and that since technology always overtakes the technical accomplishments in successive generations, very few purely technical innovators are remembered (those who master design and technology are venerated more). If a WSIWYG CSS/HTML editor is ever perfected, these lines will be redrawn considerably.

    While this site may be unique and/or innovative in may ways technically (and this I can’t validate, being a mostly inept ‘programmer’), it isn’t very innovative to a print designer, even though it is an excellent design.

  53. A Vignelli relationship has been suggested twice; though both times by varyingly anonymous individuals — unless “99” is the super secret sarcastic pseudonym of Mike D. (Apologies to Mr. Davidson. I hope you enjoy the phonetic alteration.)

    It would be more productive if either 99 or Markus offered links to relavent samples of Vignelli work. Is this proposed relationship a general stylistic correlation or something more specific? Derivative work would seem to require evidence more than vague references.

  54. Anyone with a decent education in graphic design should easily recognize the strong influence of Massimo Vignelli on Khoi Vinh’s design for

    Unfortunately the work of Vignelli is not fully documented online. Moreover the only great book about Vignelli is not longer in print. However the works I’m referring to are the redesign of The Guardian newspaper and the posters for Piccolo Teatro in Milan.

    Please notice that I’m speaking of “influence” not “copy”. Khoi is a bright and original web designer and is simply awesome. I love it.

    N.B. If anyone need a further demonstration about Vignelli influence on Khoi, please read the following comment by Khoi on

    “My favorite design book of all time is “Design: Vignelli,” from which I’ve stolen so much (it’s now unpublished and goes for a ridiculous premium in the used book market). It’s not much for design theory, but it’s gorgeous.”

  55. A little correction to my previous comment: the newspaper designed by Vignelli in 1971 was The Herald (not The Guardian).

  56. My email was submitted as requested by the form (it is a real address). I won’t bother with Vignelli cites because there are plenty (written) on the Internet, and the name is spelled correctly. Do some homework.

    Or ask Khoi: As for direct influences, I’m a devoted fan of the work of Massimo Vignelli, who is responsible for some of the most gorgeous grid work ever, and I return to it again and again, regardless of the technological climate. Really, what I’ve been trying to do for the past few years is to achieve a clarity of purpose in online design that can, at least fleetingly, match what Vignelli has managed consistently over his career.

    Vignelli designed the signage system for the NYC subway — though very little of the original elements exist today (Scott Stowell [worked at M&Co back in the day] has documented more than once how far afield the MTA has strayed); he created some of the seminal grid systems for magazine and book layout (the entirety of MIT Press seems to have absorbed his rules, particulary the Oppositions series, a house publication of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies from the 70’s), on par with the work of Josef Brockmann. Every important designer over the age of 40 seems to have passed though his office in one form or another (including Michael Beriut).

    On edit: I did included links to most of the above, but I do believe the comment was rejected for too many links, so I’ve removed them.

  57. Addendum: here’s the kind of evidence you can’t fabricate. Vignelli actually designed Oppositions. I just always assumed it was a derivative, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. Take a look around the site. Doesn’t the recurring use of Bodoni remind of Pentagram a wee bit?

  58. If you start nick picking then no one would be able to write any new CSS because they all start looking the same. This is why Web Standards have their pro’s and con’s. THings start to look very similar. As I understand the Auburn site is complete rip off, the post by Ethan ( is similar but you can’t blame him for getting inspiration from

    Inspiration comes from visual stimulation, and at times the only way we can learn something is by imitating it and making it yours.

    I am sure Khoi has plagiarized some in his time, and i’m sure some code was taken from books, websites, etc. I am sure his influence of how he came about the design for came from another form of design that was similar.

    How can you tell people that they cannot format their content in a similar matter to when the content is style in such a simple manner that it almost has no style. It’s just black and white, with the typography set in a standard format.

    Anyone can make box links just like and not be under copyright infringements. Because didn’t invent the technique. It’s just a black box with text align to the top. Big deal. I don’t need to give me that idea.

    As i understand this guy at Auburn just copied your CSS styles verbatim, and for that, yes that’s illegal. But if i decided to build a website from scratch and it happens to have the same structure as your site, that’s not infringement.

    Just cause your house has 4 exterior walls, and mine has 4 exterior walls, doesn’t mean i have to tear down my wall.

    My $.03

  59. @ 99 & Markus:

    Your quoting Khoi himself saying that Vignelli is one of his stronger influences. So what is your point?

    AUSoA took an entire design and reused it outright (and apologized). Khoi honestly states that Vignelli is an influence. Vignelli never designed a website. He has no work according to you that has been directly ripped off in the design of the site.

    So are you just pointing out that Khoi, like every designer, has appropriated stylistic elements and conventions from design history? Appropriation has become a part artistic tradition. Building on the past.

    How does that relate to the AUSoA issue?

    99 wrote:
    “I don’t follow these disputes closely, but I’ve never seen a rigorous discussion of how a very small number of print designers influenced much of the good web design out there, and how to draw the lines of proper credit. ”

    Is it the standard practice of print designers in your experience to “draw the lines of proper credit?” How would a print designer do that. I personally have never come across any contemporary print designer’s work in the wild that included an explanatory brief outlining thier educational backaground and exploring their influences and the influences of the particular design.

    On web some designers have taken to including colophons along with their sites. It is an uncommon practice even for the self-publishing community and in my experience never done on websites made for clients.

    How do you appropriately attribute your influences? Khoi created Subtraction, and has written about his work, such that you can quote him. But unless you become a design celebrity and Phaidon offers to publish your monograph what channel exists for public conversation about every designers work?

    @ Markus: Please be more considerate than this: “Anyone with a decent education in graphic design…” It is just rude.

  60. There are two discussions here:

    1. Plagiarism versus influence in design.

    This discussion is very interesting, particularly in the different viewpoints offered up. This is obviously a highly subjective area and has been discussed at length both here and elsewhere throughout history (“Good designers copy, great designers steal” and suchlike). And indeed I look forward to any follow-up that Rusty Smith can provide if he does give such a class to his students.

    2. Ambiguity of licencing

    But I think the key discussion, that has been marginalised by the abovementioned discussion, is that of the ambiguity of the licence on this site. It seems clear that the plagiarism was made based on a misunderstanding of the licencing — both the wording of the licence text in the footer (specifically “Contents”) and the meaning of the licence (“Creative Commons Licence”) itself. And though several commenters (and Khoi himself) have defended the licensing, claiming that it isn’t ambiguous, and that “people should make themselves aware of the Creative Commons Licence and what it actually means”, I’m afraid that argument isn’t really good enough.

    If people are confused — and they clearly are — then that’s all the evidence you need. Far better to simply and clearly explain the licencing in plain English, as Daniel Schutzsmith, 14 Jul 09:20am, has done. As it stands, “Contents” is ambigious in the context of websites. I, personally, would likely assume that “contents” in the context of a website is as likely to contain the writings and the code as it is just the writings (and the pictures? who knows … perhaps the pictures are individually attributed…?).

    An alternative approach, instead of drastically re-writing the footer text (which Khoi does seem opposed to doing, for whatever reason (that’s his choice, of course!), would be to drop a “What does this mean?” link in at the end, either pointing at a dedicated page describing the licencing of the site in detail, what can and can’t be reused, or even just at this post, which really covers all bases.

    Or do nothing, and gripe whenever people misunderstand the licencing (deliberately or otherwise).

  61. Keane: I think you’re right. Adding a little link to my footer that takes the user to a different page with a human-readable, non-legalese elaboration on what these license mean is a great idea. I’ll do that. Soon!

  62. As this discussion has demonstrated, the case of auSoA can’t be labeled as “plagiarism”.

    auSoA’s designer Rusty Smith, misunderstanding the terms of subtraction’s license, used what was, in his opinion, a free theme for the design of the auSoA’ website, thanking Khoi in the colophon for making the theme freely available. When he was notified about Khoi’s concerns and about the real terms of subtraction’s license, he immediately took down the site with a great deal of embarrassment.

    Therefore Khoi’s behaviour in dealing with this issue is very questionable: in my opinion a polite private e-mail was a more elegant and effective choice.

    Regarding the issue “plagiarism versus influence” I think plagiarism is always bad while influence is inevitable (especially when the designer has a good design education) and in most cases is a good thing.

    However influence in web design is a very complex theme.

    When a web designer is under the influence of a great graphic designer, often not longer active, most people ignore that influence even if it is publicly acknowledged: they simply don’t know the master. As a consequence the young designer is generally overrated in the web design community.

    Instead when a web designer is under the influence of an active and famous web designer the public is aware of the master’s work and could easly accuse the young designer of plagiarism, even if it is not the case. As a consequence he could be underrated in the web design community.

    It’s a controversial issue but this debate is really interesting…

  63. What’s disturbing about this discussion is the inability of a certain sub-set of people to debate without falling back to inappropriate personal attacks. Questioning someone’s education and/or background is beyond rude, it’s a good way to lose the debate. As is suggesting that the debate shouldn’t be happening.

    When something is stolen, it’s always best to make it public. Be loud. It’s important, most especially now, when the relative merits of ‘design vs. functionality’ are being so hotly contested. Don’t devalue someone else’s work because you don’t know what went into it AND it’s not your work.

    I’ve written songs, a house I designed was built, I’ve designed UIs for software, I’ve built entire Business Process schema for several businesses, and I’ve done websites and print work, and even film production and if at any time someone purloined my work, I’d have a very public debate with them. Because I want to know that their disregard wasn’t malicious; I would hope it was misplaced enthusiasm. Those people who are excited about and love design that much (kinda like, oh, me!) are the one’s who will get the word about plagiarism and theft and WHY they are wrong.

    Then we all win.

    Khoi, you’re debate design is nearly as inspired as your site’s structure. You really are a Communication Guru, even if you were a bit off after blogging this. Keep smiling, perhaps you’ll get a guest spot talking about this very issue at the school… I hear it’s pretty there…

  64. I think that, since it is a non profit school, the use of the “design” is legitimate (if a little disappointing) under the fair use laws of copyright material by educational institutions. So if this was designed by a student as a project, class, credit, etc. it is legal for that student to “adapt” the design from existing materials. If paid staff did it, I am not sure but that would seem to be a violation.
    But I would also add that this design itself is adapted from Swiss print material using a grid system. I’ve seen similar designs used in numerous 1950s and 1960s usually Swiss books about design or for corporate reports or art books.
    Nothing is new in design!

  65. Interesting discussion despite some of the back and forth venom from both sides of the argument.

    Khoi, your site is well designed and reminds me a lot of the NY times, Josef Mueller_Brockman and others mentioned by previous posters(they said it first!)

    That being said, as another poster mentioned, the site is so austere, that it would be hard–not to copy it, by someone with an understanding of grid systmes and rudimentary design principles.

    The wonderful thing about the web, as you know, is how it is a great enabler to educate, re-engineer and copy ideas without any physical limitations or barriers.

    Anyway, keep up the great discussion on this site and looking to future versions illustrating good design princples.

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