"Stealing" content has been the talk of the online content industry lately, but here's another type of stealing that many people rarely think about -- design theft.
MediaGuardian.co.uk has an interesting article about theft of online design, which claims, "[w]hile most website operators know ripping off content is rife, the lifting of online design -- from entire sites to individual elements -- is just as widespread."
Great point. In fact, Web design theft is so widespread there's an entire site, pirated-sites.com, devoted to spotlighting particularly blatant cases.
I only found one news site in pirated-sites.com's archive, but I'm convinced news sites are some of the worst design stealers out there. (An example: The left-rail navigation of washingtonpost.com vs. that of U.S. News. I think the Post's came first.)
But who can blame 'em? For the most part, news sites have similar content, similar information architecture and, ultimately, similar missions. There are only so many ways that a Web page can present and organize "News," "Opinion," "Sports," and "Features." Plus, consider Web designers' limited font choices and somewhat-limited color choices, along with the philosophy that sites should abandon individualism in favor of usability, and you end up with very little room to move.
Still, that's no excuse. I know from experience how it feels to be ripped off -- my You Write the Caption site on ajc.com was blatantly copied by the Baltimore Sun, and they even admitted it after I e-mailed them -- and I think news sites should keep a steadier eye out for design copycats and maintain originality in their own designs, if for nothing else than for credibility.
For instance, I just plain wouldn't feel right ordering anything from Musician's Friend, seeing that its design is a direct copy of Amazon.com. Because they're not willing to invest in an original design, I can't help but wonder whether their products are similarly second-rate. Same goes for news sites; when I visited usnews.com for the first time, I felt the site was cheapened by the fact that its left rail looked exactly the same as washingtonpost.com's. (Of course, I'm a font and design junkie and thus notice these things more than the average Web surfer, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who has felt this way.)
A final thought: Ivan Hoffman, an Internet law attorney, has published some legal Articles for Web Site Designers and Site Owners, including advice on protecting your site's look and feel. While I don't necessarily condone legal action to ward off copycats, it's interesting to note that it's indeed a realistic option.