Imitation And Flattery In Web Design May Get Tricky With Patents

from the patents-are-fun dept

There was a bit of a dustup between folks at Yahoo and Google earlier this week when Yahoo’s Jeremy Zawodny noted that someone at Google had copied a Yahoo promotional website almost exactly, even using an image that showed the Yahoo toolbar, but which the Google employee tried to blur out. Google’s Matt Cutts responded, in kind, noting that while it did appear to be a blatant and unfortunate copy, Yahoo might not have much ground to stand on considering how the company had blatantly copied some Google innovations in how they presented ads. While both sides seem to want to let the issue lie, some might point out that Google had to pay Yahoo hundreds of millions to settle a patent lawsuit claiming they copied the idea for search ads from Overture (which Yahoo bought) in the first place.

By itself, the debate was simply amusing — and reminded me of an argument online from many years ago when there was a huge debate over copying someone else’s HTML files. Specifically, I remember huge debates over whether or not it was okay for people to swipe some of the creative HTML designs that Derek Powazek did on his site, a decade ago. Powazek was one of the first to figure out how to use the very limited HTML of the day to design artistic websites — but some other sites simply took his HTML source and used it on their own pages. Some felt this was stealing, others felt it was flattery. Personally, I thought it was educational. I used some of Powazek’s amazing HTML to teach myself how to do much more with HTML than you could learn in any book.

However, with the small skirmish between Cutts and Zawodny barely a day old, there’s a separate story that points out how tricky this debate could become soon, if lawyers get involved. Google Blogoscoped, a blog following all things Google, points out that Google has been awarded a design patent (not a utility patent) on their basic UI (an image of which is available here). Given the points Cutts made about Yahoo’s copying of Google’s design elements, it would seem like it would be possible for Google to challenge Yahoo using patents. Take that a step further and imagine how much anyone with a new web design could limit others from using similar design elements if they started patenting their web design as well. While it is annoying when someone simply copies a design you may have worked hard for, is it really that big a deal when the alternative is making everyone completely reinvent the wheel every time they design a website?

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Comments on “Imitation And Flattery In Web Design May Get Tricky With Patents”

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Sanguine Dream says:

I agree...

with comment #1. Its bad enough we live in an age where one can patent a business model if you enough money. If companies start to patent html code, this will get very ugly very fast (and then imagine adding lawyers to the mix).

Copyright makes sense, perhaps even trademark (to eliminate possible confusion when two sites look similar) but patent is overkill and will only cause problems.

patentmonkey (user link) says:

Design patents, copyright, and trademark

I don’t think google would go after someone that copied their design with a design patent alone. They might also argue copyright and perhaps trademark infringment (liklihood of confusion as to the source).

I still don’t think we will see many designers filing for and enforcing design patents on their website designs.

MusicMan says:

The problem is that Copyright doesn’t offer enough protection for some of the innovations.

You can with code recreate the same effect and not violate the copyright because the the code substancially different in content. Use a differen tag or function call to do the same thing

It would be like saying someone who patented an invention was only covered when it was made of plastic, but if made from nylon on alluminum you have no protection.

These are software machines… copyright doesn’t do enough.

Anonymous Coward says:

Copying HTML is a gray area, but copying graphics (artistic work) is a whole different story. If they copied some Yahoo graphics and then tried to blur them out to hide that they were from Yahoo, that’s a huge no-no.

Directly copying an existing website is either flattery, or extreme laziness, but whatever the case, as long as they don’t use any actual graphics or trademarks from the original site in any way, I don’t think the site owners have much of an argument, other than plagiarism. And unless the website is being used to make some sort of profit, the plagiarism claim doesn’t hold up very well either.

james-42 (user link) says:

design patent value?

It is my understanding that design patents are so limited as to be useless. Any variation of the patented design, a different color, or even a different font, would circumvent the patent. But being a designer and not a lawyer, I don’t know how accurate this is, anyone care to illuminate the subject?

As a designer (both product and web), I have ‘borrowed’ HTML (and CSS) bits and pieces from all over. Anytime I start off coping an entire design, I all ways wined up modifying it to the extent that the original design is obliterated. I think that is just part of the process of any moderately decent designer (which is about what I consider myself).

As for patenting HTML (or CSS, XHTML, etc…) what are they going to do, patent a one, two, or three column layout? It think ‘prior art’ will take care of 99.8% of any potential conflicts.

Secesh says:

Jeremy himself prefers Google

OK, I see the point of the article, and shame on Google… but what I found interesting was Jeremy’s screenshot showing the google page.

His default search engine is google — and not just because he was out fact-checking for yahoo. He searched for n800jl on google, which appears to have something to do with aircraft.

Also, since the whole thing is about the yahoo toolbar for IE7, why couldn’t he use IE and turn on the toolbar before capturing his screen?

I just find it entertaining that not even Yahoo insiders use their search engine.

|333173|3|_||3 says:

Copyright would cover the design not the coding, I think, so if I were to be the first person to come up with a page design, then I would hold the rights to it, no matter how someone else produced the effect: an analogy, although an imperfect one; If i were to draw a picture using a pen, and you were to copy it using a pencil, it is still copied.

COnversely, unless a legitimate patent can be found for the TAG, not the use, then copying a snippet would be hard to prove, since it it likely that one method is the most efficient, and so most people would tend to use it.

Mike Brown (user link) says:

Design Patent

It is my understanding that design patents are so limited as to be useless. Any variation of the patented design, a different color, or even a different font, would circumvent the patent

That’s not really true as an absolute statement – like most legal questions, it’s all shades of grey. Compared to utility patents, design patents offer a more limited scope of protection. However, if that protection is appropriate to the invention, then a design patent offers useful protection for it. The shape of the IBM Selectric typewriter was protected by a design patent, for example (while the type ball mechanism was protected by utility patent(s)).

The breadth of protection of a design patent extends only to the ornamental appearance of the “invention”. There are no claims in a design patent, just the drawing (or, to be pedantic, there is one claim – “The design in the drawing”). So, the design patent protects what the drawing shows. In order to determine how broad this protection is, as in any other patent, you need to look at the patented design in view of the earlier patents and non-patent art – the more the patented design is a departure from what went before, the broader the protection.

Color is usually not an issue, since design patents very seldom have color drawings. Color drawings would only have been used if the color were the feature which was inventive – so that using a different color would, indeed, be a different invention and properly circumvent the very limited “invention”. Trying to claim color as an “invention” strikes me as very unlikely to succeed – which is probably why color drawings in design patents are effectively unknown.

A different font probably won’t circumvent a patent, either, unless it was the font which marked the difference between the patented design and the prior art (say, if the patented design was a type font).

Carly Swinson says:

Past Mistakes in Design Patents, Copyright and Trademark

Yahoo! is viewed as one of Silicon Valley’s wake up calls a highflying web pioneer grounded by a progression of awful CEOs, lost business openings, and a sound measurement of hubris. When I previously got online in 1995, the World Wide Web was a bizarre chaos of specialist aficionado locales, scholastic papers, and some shrewd stuff and, after its all said and done. I spent two or three days attempting to comprehend it and asking why this startup I’d quite recently begun working for CNET would try distributing a magazine-like thing on this simple online-announcement board-like thing. At that point someone stated, “Goodness, simply go to Yahoo.” That straightforward rundown of connections made by two Stanford graduates, Jerry Yang and David Filo, was the web. That is the place everyone began their day, and that is the place each new site in the main website dash for unheard of wealth needed to be included. For affiliate website design revglue(.)com/bespoke can be helpful for them. It’s anything but difficult to jeer at Yahoo today, yet back when it began it spoke to something critical: the open web.

Alex Smith (profile) says:

Design of anything is not so easy just like if we talk about logo designing. You can say that its the base of any project, Your logo should be simple creative and explain completely about your business model which is not so easy. If you notice that food brands often use red and yellow colors that express a vivid image of the brand, these colors create and stimulate the need. Free fonts used for fast and bold fast food brands also add a strong logo design redleos(.)com/usa/vintage-retro-style-logo-designers/ . Most health and medical services use red and blue colors that convey a sense of urgency and importance, while providing a sense of reliability and calmness in relation to blue. Non-bold lines are used in the health and medical industry that are easy to read and also contribute to clarity of what is needed. On the other hand, technology companies also use different colors, and few are gray, blue, black and white. Some technology companies also use green to express innovation and growth. Thanks

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