Plagiarism on the World Wide Web

It’s safe to say that designing a website isn’t the most relaxing job in the world. Rapidly changing technology, demanding clients and margins that come under constant attack only add to the challenge of creating something truly amazing.

So when someone else claims your masterwork as their own, you’d expect a flurry of lawyers’ letters with more than a hint of legal action. It does happen from time to time, as a source at a leading Web developer claimed in a recent piece of post to a marketing-related e-mail list.

As the person posting the message put it: “It is very frustrating to see another company take credit for months of hard work and sweat.” In their case, a telephone call to the client and offending Web agency – ie the company claiming your work as theirs – resulted in the reference being removed.

And obviously, the real test comes when the impostor is involved in a competitive pitch situation, where they have to prove their creative credentials. Here, as the e-mailing list poster points out: “When it comes to a really serious pitch, these two-bit cowboys will not have a leg to stand on.”

The recent shake-out in the new media sector, which has seen companies like Webmedia axing production staff and AMX Digital bought out of liquidation by the Real Time Group, reflects the changing emphasis in this sector. This roller-coaster effect has made many companies cautious about growing too quickly, leading to an increased use of small design groups and freelances to help on larger Web projects. These partnerships can be short-lived and, in some cases, the companies working together on one job can find themselves pitching against each other for the next.

Added to this, many Web agencies are specialising. For example, a recent change of direction at Lowe Digital sees it focusing on a more strategic outlook. This is leading to partnerships where it proves extremely difficult to understand who is the actual creative force behind the project.

A prime example of this is the award-winning Mini site (www.mini.co.uk) developed by Ammirati Puris Lintas and Good Technology. As one industry insider puts it: “Good Technology built the website and APL took all the plaudits, I guess they [APL] filled out the entry forms [for the awards].” The website, however, credits both parties equally, and by all accounts the relationship has continued to flourish.

The larger the project, the more companies involved. A large website like that of BT or The Burton Group has a number of companies contributing to the design. These companies may, in turn, have used smaller design companies and freelances where their in-house capacity wasn’t sufficient to meet the often demanding deadlines set by their clients.

If that isn’t enough to make your head spin, what happens when freelances who have worked on projects move to a new company, which then claims those projects in their credentials?

So, what can you do? Short of getting a third-party audited list of people who worked on any single project, the answer is vigilance. The simplest remedy is to use the Internet itself to search for listings of clients whom Web agencies have worked with, which may help to uncover false claims.

It is not unknown for dishonest consultancies to include the names of their competitors in the (hidden) meta tags on Web pages that are indexed by search engines – as a result, a potential client searching for your name through a search engine could find the site of your arch rival. In one recent extreme case (in the US – where else?), such action led to legal action.

Clients must make sure that they do their homework and follow up references from potential designers. Designers should ensure they get credit where it’s due, and where possible, be credited directly on the website in question.

When it comes to explaining a company’s competence to a potential client, the last thing you need is someone else’s name cropping up on your work. Yet it’s surprising how many web-sites don’t directly credit those involved in their creation.

Currently, the issue of accreditation appears to be a relatively minor problem. However, as the commercial environment for those companies working with new media becomes more gruelling, and large competitors, such as the systems integrators, ad agencies, direct marketing agencies and so on enter into the fray, who’s to say it’ll stay that way?

Sam Michel (sam@webmediacom) runs mailing group UK Net Marketing, which deals with issues such as accreditation and passing off, among others.

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