One evening not too long ago I was looking through my web site traffic logs, looking for patterns that could help me improve it. I was in the section that shows the pages visitors enter and exit my site. The page addresses begin with my domain name, such as http://www.zmoon.com/webdesigntips.html. However, on this occasion there were several listed that started with some name I didn’t recognize.
An Unpleasant Shock
When I clicked on the link, I had a very strange sensation. I was looking at the home page of my site, but something was wrong. My trademarked logo was there, all the buttons were there, the text looked right, but the name had changed! Instead of “ZebraMoon Web Design,” it said, “Autumn Web Design.” (Name changed to protect the guilty.)
As I clicked through the site, everything was intact: all the graphics, all my copyrighted articles, all the text were just as I created them, but my name had been replaced by his. If I hadn’t been so angry, it would have seemed funny to see my clients’ testimonials saying what a great job Greg from Autumn Web Design had done for them.
Yes, my entire web site had been hijacked!
What He Did and How He Got Caught
It’s easy enough to download a web site to your computer, although if you don’t know how, you won’t learn it here. Once he had the pages, he just changed the text so it would appear to be his site. Then he uploaded it to his server and was instantly in business as a well-established web designer.
Of course, since he was more of a thief than a real web designer, he didn’t look much at the HTML code. If he had, he would have removed the code for the invisible counter that’s on each of my pages and I would never have caught him. That code creates the traffic logs that I was reading when this all started.
Time to Call in the Cavalry
Although he had his real name and phone number on the contact page, I decided not to contact him directly. I called my attorney and had her send a Cease and Desist order by certified mail. I also contacted the Computer Crimes division of our local police department. They had never heard of such a case, but promised to do some research.
In the meantime, I received my copy of the Cease and Desist order. A week later, the site was still up. I couldn’t believe the nerve of this guy.
The computer detective called back and suggested I contact the Economic Fraud section of the district attorneys office. They had never heard of such a crime either, but thought they would have no jurisdiction over someone out of state. They suggested I contact the Texas state Attorney General’s office, since the perpetrator lived in the Houston area. I eventually filled out an online complaint form and waited to see what happened. It took another few days, but eventually Greg took all my content off his site. Now he just has my logo and three of my buttons left.
What This Means to You
Since this is the second site I’ve had copied in the last six months, I have to believe the problem is more widespread than we ever imagined. These two people made mistakes that led to their discovery, but how many other sites might have been stolen by more clever thieves? If someone has copied your site, how would you ever know? And what could you do about it?
Only about 30 states have laws regarding internet crimes, and no Federal legislation has ever been passed. Most of the time it would hardly be worth your time and expense to try to prosecute anyone unless you could prove thousands of dollars worth of damage to your business. And of course if someone in another country steals your site you may as well just try and forget about it.
What (Little) You Can Do to Protect Yourself
There are many good reasons to track your web site visitors, and now I guess you can add catching thieves to the list. The question is, what do you do once you realize you have a problem? The first person to “borrow” one of my sites wrote to my client admitting he’d liked the design so much he copied it. He thought that if he changed the text there was no problem. In this case I decided to call him directly and let him know about my interpretation of copyright laws as they pertain to the “look and feel” of a web site. With the current laws, I doubt I could have won a court case against him, but luckily he backed down and created his own look. If Greg in Houston hadn’t pulled the site after receiving a letter from an attorney and being contacted by his state’s Attorney General, I doubt it would have been worthwhile to pursue him.
In a lot of ways, the World Wide Web is still like the Wild Wild West. The laws are not adapting as quickly as the technology, and catching and punishing law-breakers is a sometime thing. At this point about all you can do is monitor your site, write your legislators, and remember that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Good luck!
Copyright © Les Goss 2003
Editor's Note: There is one additional thing you should do to help protect your copyright in your website: Register the copyright with the US Copyright office. Registering your copyright will give you the right to collect attorney's fees and punitive damages if you sue for copyright infringement and win.
Les Goss is the head honcho at ZebraMoon Web Design, where he educates his business clients as he builds their web sites.