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Web Designer's Guide to Copyright - WEB 1600 & 2010: What is Plagiarism?

A guide to intellectual property and copyright resources for web technology professionals.

Famous Cases

Web Design Plagiarism

Inspiration vs. Plagiarism

Even professional web designers look to others for inspiration, or as a means of determining which styles and functions the client would like to see in their own website. But when does a little borrowing become too much? This guide will cover copyright protected elements of web design, as well as the repercussions of web design theft.

What is website plagiarism?

Plagiarism is the act of taking or copying any original work without clearly acknowledging the work's creator. In web design, copyright applies to three overall points: (1) the visual look and feel, (2) the underlying source code, and (3) any content posted online. If you did not create it, and there are no stated terms of use, then request permission from the copyright holder. Using it without permission is considered theft, and can result in legal penalties.

But how would they find out?

Many companies patrol for copyright infringement with the help of third-party services, or by developing programs called "spiders." These spiders search the web for specific criteria (names, images, content, and more). Upon finding a match, they will flag the website for review. Google alerts can also be set up to monitor key names or phrases.

Copyright infringement can even be found and reported by everyday users. Consider that increasing web traffic also increases the risk of being caught. Plagiarism is never justified, and can lead to serious (and sometimes financial) consequences. 

For professional web designers, skill and integrity go hand in hand. Take only the credit that you deserve, and your reputation will flourish. Steal or copy from others, and evidence of your misdemeanor will always be on the web. 


Ethics deal with moral principals, and help us distinguish between right and wrong. Computer Ethics (CE) or Information Ethics (IE)* pertain to the relationship between the creation, organization, dissemination, and use of information, and the ethical standards and moral codes governing human conduct in society.

*There is no official code of ethics for web design. Some professionals will, however, create and post their own as a guideline and proof of ethical practice to clientele. 

The Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics
  1. Thou shalt not use a computer to harm other people.

  2. Thou shalt not interfere with other people's computer work.

  3. Thou shalt not snoop around in other people's computer files.

  4. Thou shalt not use a computer to steal.

  5. Thou shalt not use a computer to bear false witness.

  6. Thou shalt not copy or use proprietary software for which you have not paid.

  7. Thou shalt not use other people's computer resources without authorization or proper compensation.

  8. Thou shalt not appropriate other people's intellectual output.

  9. Thou shalt think about the social consequences of the program you are writing or the system you are designing.

  10. Thou shalt always use a computer in ways that ensure consideration and respect for your fellow humans.

Created by the Computer Ethics Institute and first presented in Dr. Ramon C. Barquin's paper, "In Pursuit of a 'Ten Commandments' for Computer Ethics."

Pellissippi State's Academic Policy

Pellissippi State Community College policies on the use of copyrighted materials are covered in detail in the Policies and Procedures Manual.

The college policies on copyright "apply to anyone at the College who wishes to reproduce, alter, or perform works that are protected by copyright" (Polices and Procedures Manual 03:16:01, Introduction).  The college intends "that all college members adhere to the provisions of United States Copyright Law" and the college's policies and guidelines on use of copyrighted materials.

For questions not covered here, please consult the manual for detailed policies. Librarians are also available for researching questions regarding copyright.

Works Covered by Copyright and Fair Use

In general, works do not have to be published or display a copyright symbol (©) to be covered by copyright.

Possessing a print, audiovisual, or digital work does not confer a right to reproduce, distribute, or display the work.  Neither does non-profit or educational use alone confer the right to copy, perform, or display a work. Any copies or reproductions must meet the criteria of Fair Use, which include consideration of:

  • The purpose of the use.

  • The character of the work.

  • The quantity of copies made.

  • The effect of the use on the potential market of the work. (Policies and Procedures Manual 03:16:01, Section I., B.)

Works That May Be Used Freely

Some scholarly works may include notices that give permission to copy for educational purposes. There are also some works that are not covered by copyright and may be used freely.  These are said to be in the public domain and include:

  • Works published before 1923.

  • Works that do not include a copyright notice and were first published before January 1, 1978.

  • Most U.S. government documents.

A work's copyright status should be researched thoroughly before assuming it is in the public domain. (Ibid., Section II.)


PSTCC policy includes guidelines for copying portions of multimedia works that may be copyright protected.

  • Motion media: Up to 10% or 3 minutes of a single source, whichever is less.

  • Text: Up to 10% or 1000 words from a source, whichever is less. An entire poem of less than 250 words, but no more than 3 poems or excerpts by one poet. No more than 5 poems or excerpts from one anthology.

  • Music, Lyrics, Music Video: Up to 10%, but not more than 30 seconds total from an individual work.

  • Illustrations, Photographs: No more than 5 images by one artist or photographer. No more than 10% or 15 images, whichever is less, from any single published work.

  • Numerical Data Sets: Up to 10% or 2500 field or cell entries, whichever is less. 

  • Internet sources: Although it can be difficult to determine what is copyright protected and what is in the public domain, the multimedia creator is responsible for adhering to copyright law. (Ibid., Section VII)

Additional Reading