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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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What Should You Do When Someone Rips Off Your Site Design

Comments (24)

I recently received the following email.

I am in a bit of a dilemma and would really appreciate any insight you all have on what to do.

Last month, my team worked with a designer to create a new homepage for my startup. Yesterday, I saw that another company ripped off our entire site design. They have also just recently pivoted into doing exactly what we do.

You can compare the two sites here: Us Them a week ago Them now.

It doesn’t feel right that they can so brazenly steal someone else’s work like that. You would think they would have a reputation to uphold.

Anyway, my question for the group: How can we turn this negative into a positive for us?

My response was:

Welcome to the world. It sucks, but it happens all the time.

There are two approaches:

1. Ignore them and just kick their ass.

2. Make a big deal about it as a way to get more attention for you. Do this in a classy way. Don’t be whiny about it.

So you know, I generally choose option 1. I find that option 2 is very hard to execute and usually a distraction. But if you can do option 2 correctly, especially for a consumer service like yours, it can generate a lot of interest.

After a week or so, a draft blog post, and a little more back and forth the sender concluded:

For a quick update on this front, I think I did want the noise, to hopefully drive more awareness and because I was still kinda mad.

But, after putting it out of my mind for a few days and focusing on making progress on our product and marketing strategy, I feel calmer about the whole thing. Best case scenario we embarrass them – which doesn’t seem as fun anymore now that I’m not as actively mad – and get some sympathy and signups. Worst case scenario it backfires on us. Either way it’s a distraction and a lot of noise that isn’t really my style.

Our team is better, our technology more scalable, our wit sharper. They are right in some ways to make their site a cheap knockoff of ours – our site is great. But they’re fighting a losing battle. So I’m gonna go with option A of ignoring it and kicking their ass.

So yeah, your advice ended up being right on. Thanks for suggesting I sleep on it for a few days and again just for being responsive and helpful overall – it really did mean a lot.

I was proud of this person. The high road is always more fun, especially when you toss boulders down on the person on the low road and crush them before they make any progress toward the top of the mountain.

  • http://AdlerVermillion.com/ Eric Adler

    “Moral highground? Thats some expensive real estate.” ~ Larry Ellison.

    • http://www.feld.com bfeld

      That quote seems to be well attributed …

  • http://www.yousocialmarketing.com/ Chris Webb

    Excellent post Brad, thanks, I really needed to hear this today.

  • http://www.iamdanellis.com Dan Ellis

    If you’re early, it probably doesn’t matter- just go win. However, if you have invested significantly in paid media with multi-variant testing, you can copyright a landing page style and layout. Any competitor/offender then can be sent a DMCA takedown notice.

  • Sheldon Mak & Anderson IP Law

    Dear Infringed-Upon Web Designer: Have you considered copyrighting your original web design? It’s not too late! Although there are different advantages to registering it after it’s been copied, it may give you piece of mind and protect you in the future. Our copyright attorneys offer a free initial consultation. What do you have to lose? Sheldon Mak & Anderson, Intellectual Property Law (626) 796-4000.

    • RBC

      sorry to be pedantic, but if you are going to shill your services … it is *peace* of mind! And as Brad pointed out in the post, the main loss is the attention to executing your game plan.

      • Sheldon Mak & Anderson IP Law

        Thanks, I know. I caught the typo after posting and could not revise! Whether the injured party decides to seek our services or not, I think it’s important for businesses to know that they can protect their ideas.

  • Jana

    When I was in China twice, over a period of the last ten years. China has no regard to our copy writes, or legal rules.They just print and reproduce it, no matter if it’s a winter coat, music cd, video game, etc… . Every country has their own laws. The other thing I have learned as a entrepreneur is this: Most likely someone else has thought of your idea before you. They most likely attempted it before you, and probably had failure, maybe only because it was not right time for the idea. Still, if it’s U.S. and you have all your p’s and q’s legally documented, then you do have the right to pursue a cease and desist legal action. Yeah that is time consuming and takes you away from your work on your beautiful startup, but these things are part of our startup obstacles. If you recognize it as an obstacle, then you can play the game. If you let it derail you, then they win. Always remember: Your Idea Is Awesome, and Even If it’s Similar To others or they steal it, it’s Still Yours. Your idea, could be just like Facebook. An idea already taken, but not Glorified. Fight the thief’s and seek your GLORY! Us entrepreneurs have one thing the lazy life thieves don’t have. We have the gift. They can’t take that from us, unless we let them. I know you will not let that happen. And all of us treps, VC’s and Angels, will not let hurtful evil takes derail you. We Stand Be Side You! It’s a small community with a TON of power! They may hang around.They may seem like competition, they may cut into your dollar, but see it as all good. Cause you are focused on the idea in your mind, while watching them. They can’t hurt you, cause they don’t have your brilliant mind.They just want to trick you into thinking they do.

  • http://www.startupmanagement.org/ William Mougayar

    This “copy” thing applies equally well to ideas & products too, although the “website copy” is more blatantly visible right away.

    I would say this to your friend:
    Someone can copy your ideas or website, but they cannot copy your brains, experience or team. And certainly they cannot copy where you are going, because only you know it. They will always be in the rear view mirror, as copycats, whereas you are the original thing and the leader in what you do.

  • yazinsai

    If only copying execution were so easy..

  • Carl Brackpool

    #2=fail. Bad Karma doesn’t trump bad Karma. Comparison/Challenge Marketing (promoting you by attacking them) still rises the tide of both boats and early stage is not a good playground for the fights. Maybe later, after you/both have a brand (that quantitatively suffers from theft of logos/copyrights or trademarked catchy buzz-phraseology) you can point out that they suck…if in fact they do. However, be careful…b/c if they end up with better product, you’ve churned a ton of sub’s away towards the rivals. (You don’t want to be in the “Dish vs. Cable Customer Win-Back” arena…yuk.) PLEASE don’t hire an NPE to tiger crouch for the right pounce. Just keep the billable hours low (sorry, lawyers); use your IP firm to defend you with some class and only if you get dragged kicking and screaming into deposition hell…aka time/life suck. If it comes to copyright AND AT THE APPROPRIATE TIME WHEN YOU CAN AFFORD LIFE/HOURS EXPENSES, then put your @$$clown infringers on notice that you have some quality legal hulks locked in the gimp box ready to release upon the world. Good luck to that startup guy/gal…I like that Zen proved the best path again…no need to get physically ill from being mad…and all that, for business Just make a better product/experience…smart people will use your widget, app, service, etc.

  • ObjectMethodology.com

    Since there are a gazillion people on the web doing just about everything you’re gonna’ run across dups. Shouldn’t your “branding” be built around logos, trademarks, etc. that you can *own*?

  • Sue

    I agree with the friction, waste-of-time argument and approach here. But I think it is worth noting that intentional copying of copyrighted material (websites are included) is illegal. Copying is nearly impossible to prove, of course. Site owners should be sure to have a copyright notice on your site, and if you want to formally register a copyright, it’s unbelievably simple and doesn’t require any legal help. All online. Way simpler than other IP registrations. And way cheaper. For reasons similar to your rationale, Brad, I rarely if ever do this, but just mentioning that it’s a 10 minute < $100 experience online.

    Also, registering a TM is WAY more important. I think heaps of entrepreneurs skip this step of search and registration. I think more than prosecuting incursions, the most impt reason to do this is defensive…to avoid losing a lot of work by getting a solid C&D letter from a rightful mark owner.

  • http://www.cazoomi.com/ Clint Wilson

    Great weekend read here in the Philippines:) & we have seen this happen many times in our integration as a service vertical, with new entrants over the past few years, but just move on & ignore them, as remember that those customers choosing your solution are not the same folks choosing your competitors. Build & iterate your site for your customers and you will be quite successful IMHO.

    ~Clint
    @cazoomi

  • http://webakedesign.com Funky Jamma

    I usually just send them an email. Most cases they apologize and make changes. Sometimes they are stubborn so I go on docracy and get a cease and desist letter template, Fill out the information and send them that. It usually scares the crap out of them because they don’t want to deal with a law suit. Very rarely does it not get rectified.

  • darshu

    That’s some sound advice. I even thing it’s the thing to do when someone knocks off your entire site, like the Samwer brothers did to Airbnb, Pinterest and others. Just focus on being the best at what you do, and “…let that which does not matter truly slide.”

  • http://www.daniellemorrill.com Danielle Morrill

    At Twilio we’d get frustrated sometimes when we’d get copied (usually marketing stuff) but the phrase “they can copy our hands, but not our hearts” floated around and stuck. It’s easy to copy the surface-level stuff, but much harder to rip off the thoughtfulness and strategy behind it. I think it was John Sheehan who said that (now CEO of Runscope)

  • channel_one_networks

    We are so lucky no body copies anything we do… they just think we are stupid. We have had people complain to our advertisers and try to destroy us as explained in option two.. there we’ve had to fight back directly at the person and try to make them look like a thug or whore.. that works except in the case of the NRA who came after us en mass and threatened to kill us all… that involved cops, lawyers, arrests and cost us $50,000 lost ad revenue in one given April our customers who were threatened by NRA members. But do gooder leftists can be just as crazy as was the case during a series of news reports certain people didn’t agree with.. then we have had government agencies try to kill us and we just fight back dirty with them . So when you bring in a “free press and media” the stakes go up. Most media will never talk about this because it is always a sensitive issue. If someone outright steals our work we usually say thank you and ask for a credit line… that helps more than anything. – Jann Scott ceo

  • http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=8465000 AlexHammer

    I agree with you about the high road.

    I’ve learned that only through a lot of painful experiences.

  • Khristopher Buddy Lalemand

    This blog post is eerily familiar to me as I had it happen to me just the other month. More precisely, I had a business partner, unknown to me, hire an outside development team and designer to reproduce what we were building (he was a 2% minority share holder – a holdover from a previous pivot). I would send him mock ups asking for his thoughts on our new design and he would (from what I can gather) simply forward them to his designer. I would send him marketing copy and he would copy and paste it into his site. Three months after they launched their site I discovered this and went straight to a lawyer to, “Do whatever I can to destroy him.” But, after a week of being distracted executing I kind of forgot about it. It is what it is. What it is is sucks, but I’d rather spend time getting paying customers than in my lawyer’s office spending $500/hr.

  • http://www.betterpointment.com/ Rich Weisberger

    Great Advice. Go one step further and be “completely honored and flattered”. Many a song writer have taken this approach and so should designers.

  • James Clift

    “They copied all they could follow but they couldn’t copy my mind, so I left them sweating and stealing a year and a half behind.” -Rudyard Kipling

    Hat tip to Ryan Holmes: http://venturebeat.com/2014/05/06/hootsuite-ceo-to-salesforce-social-studio-is-an-out-of-date-copycat/

  • David Cohen

    “you can steal ideas, but you can’t steal execution”. -do more faster.

  • Denis Arunović

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