September 16, 2000
2:05 AM   Subscribe

Not to extend his 15 minutes of infamy, but, he has a story to tell. Just hear him out.
posted by tamim (56 comments total)
We have a saying in these here parts. "This sort of bullshit could ONLY happen in America". This is EXACTLY the point I was making in other threads about copyright. Namely that it is becoming an unhealthy obsession among web designer celebrity wannabees who resort to outright bullying tactics to intimidate other less savvy designers into submission. The poor guy was running a weblog on a college server - not a Nasdaq-listed, global e-trading portal for Christ sake.

Of course everyone is free to disagree with this, but please guys, leave my ex-wife out of the discussion this time :-)
posted by murray_kester at 3:25 AM on September 16, 2000

I'm not one of Powazek's work admirers. I really think that there are lots of guys out there that can do way better than him. But I gotta admit that Derek acted like a real gentleman in the whole case. If you just go here, and read Derek's e-mails to the copy-cat, you understand that he was as polite as humanly possible (-or even more, I dare to say). Tony acted wrong and acts as if he's the victim - but he's not. So tell him to cut the crap - the page he set up to defend himself does everything else but this.
posted by kchristidis at 4:47 AM on September 16, 2000

My mentor in college once told me that in advertising there are no more new ideas. He was referring to the fact that all of the ideas of today’s advertising is built upon a large history of the medium. In theory you could trace just about every idea behind an ad to another piece of work that had already been seen.

Following his theory, today’s work is a collage of ideas and techniques built upon a history of advertising. This same thinking can be applied to any form of creative effort.

I myself subscribe to that idea and I think our current culture helps feed it into our brain. I’m talking about design annuals and design compilation books. If you have every picked up an issue of HOW magazine then you will know what I am talking about. There are ads for a plethora of design books and each ad featuring the same bit of copy, “pages and pages of ideas.”

That would lead me to believe that I have been given permission to glean from the best of others in effort to produce something unique but built on a collection of ideas from the work of others. And this is generally accepted in the creative world.

Borrowing ideas from others to help create your own techniques is a practice of the ages but the word for word, note for note, or (in this case) pixel by pixel copy of a creative piece of work is not acceptable.

For Tony, he did not just want to copy some of Derek’s design, he “wanted it all.” If I went down to the Getty Museum this afternoon and copied, stroke for stroke, Van Gogh’s Irises and then proceeded to an art show and displayed it as my own work, I would be thrown in jail for forgery.

If this were a court of law, I believe Tony would have convicted himself using his own words, published on his own web site.

"Then I came across I was familiar with weblogs, but this was the one that would have come from my mind. Vibrant colors in a seasonal feel that would visual communicate the change in my mood as much as the content would. Well I wanted it. I wanted it all."

Read it out loud and forget that you know anything about or what it looks like. Read it out loud and forget Tony’s pathetic “feel sorry for me” story in which he tries to rationalize his motives.

Read it out loud and you will hear the word’s of a thief.

posted by Brilliantcrank at 6:56 AM on September 16, 2000

I think there is a distinct difference between being inspired by someone's layout/design/photos and just taking them. Replicating someone's exact design only shows your lack of creativity. Especially since this guy claims he's interested in doing web design, I don't understand why he felt the need to just copy the code instead of trying to think of a way he could create a 'seasonal feel' in his own way.

The thing about copying Van Gogh is that you probably can't. It's extremely difficult to create a replicate of Raphael or Michelangelo's works even if you wanted to, but it's really easy to 'view source' and press ctrl-c and ctrl-v. It takes four seconds and ta-da! You're a master of web layout.

While I think that there is nothing wrong with admiring or learning from other web pages, there's something lazy and uninspiring about just taking it. I don't think that copying a design is a tasteful way to show your admiration. If you really love it, then just write up a little blurb and praise the person in your log. Or do it in private.

The thing is, if this guy really loved Derek's page so much, maybe he could've sent Derek mail saying "I loved it so much and I want to have a similar feel on my page, can you help me?" And Derek might have said "No, thanks." which would have made the guy realize Derek doesn't wanna have anything to do with him and he wouldn't have had to waste all those hours copying the page and then more hours having to replace it with a new design.

And there's always the chance where Derek might have said "Yes" in which case, this guy missed the chance to learn from someone he claims he admired so much.

When discussing writing a novel, it is often said that there are no new plots. Every subject has been visited before. What makes people buy your book is the twist you put on the 'same old' subject. Your voice. This guy took the entire design, not adding any of his voice to it.

That's not the work of a true admirer.
posted by karen at 7:18 AM on September 16, 2000

I feel for Tony. I don't think he really did anything all that wrong. There was only a big stink about it cause Derek said it. I am not trying to be rude but I don't think Dereks design is all that hot, that's just me though. Tony evidently really admired Derek and I seriously doubt he would copy his page exactly. He would just be inspired by it.
posted by FAB4GIRL at 7:36 AM on September 16, 2000

It's kind of interesting. I've been reading Derek's work for a while (like, I'm sure, many others) and am generally able to recognize the 'voice' with which he writes.

Every single one of his emails, to me, seems mildly frustrated by the situation, willing to help, and just wanting to get it over with. Tony, on the otherhand, sees the emails as condescending and insulting.

It makes me wonder how much of Derek's writing he actually read. It's fairly safe to assume very little, which leads me to believe he admired the design, and - as was pointed out above - just wanted it for himself.

I'd like to be able to sympathize with Tony, he seems to be an intelligent person in a tight spot, but he's viewing the entire situation from a different angle, and I'm not able to. It's too bad.
posted by cCranium at 7:42 AM on September 16, 2000

Did he change the site since then? There's an ugly "Tony" in uber-red letters on top, and I guess a small menu. Only think I saw that looked the same was that left to bottom border, but I'm sure I saw those on plenty of game/news sites.
posted by tiaka at 8:04 AM on September 16, 2000

Opps, should have looked more, this is what his site looked like. Well, DUH!, it's a complete rip-off.
posted by tiaka at 8:07 AM on September 16, 2000

Yeah, right down to the paypal link that actually donates to Derek Powazek. Which is amusing.

But what isn't amusing, to me, is the defense - "Oh, I didn't like his [Mr. Powazek's] tone, so that is why I have the right to keep what I stole"

Is that what it comes down to? Steal from me, and if you don't like the tone I take in trying to get my stuff back, you get to keep it? Despite what some people say, it has nothing to do with who the design was stolen from - it has to do with what is right, and what is wrong, and as I recall from my kindergarten days, stealing is wrong.
posted by kristin at 9:30 AM on September 16, 2000

"Vibrant colors in a seasonal feel!" Why spend all that money on a trip to see the leaves change in New England when you can stay in your room and read weblogs all day? And then copy them?
posted by aaron at 11:22 AM on September 16, 2000

I think this situation is fairly simple and easy to understand.

And I think the moral of the story is "two wrongs don't make a right."

Tony was misguided in his appropriation of Derek's work. The image hi-jack was straight-up theft, and the design borrowing was clearly ripping off.

Derek was unjust in his flame postcard, and all of the ensuing mishigas can be traced back to that single missive. There was no call for the belligerence ("sick my lawyers on you") or for his condescending tone ("Really, Tony, you should know better.") A straightforward, "Tony, please remove my images from your site. I worked very hard in creating them, and did not give permission for others to use them" would have sufficed. Instead, the snarky tone pretty much forced Tony to be on the defensive, and you get that silly back and forth.
posted by peterme at 11:43 AM on September 16, 2000

For what it's worth, when someone directly lifts your code and images, you can shut them down if they're at a decent ISP or hosting service, merely by writing to the hosting service. Companes understand the seriousness of this, even when copycats claim not to.

I did it last night; a site that stole everything from me was offline a few hours later. I wouldn't have done it for a heavily influenced site design (those make me feel that maybe I'm not a total hack); I wouldn't have done it for people who grabbed, say, a Style Sheet or a script; I don't do it when someone who genuinely doesn't know better lifts a single image or some text. (If it's a problem, I write to them.)

The guy I shut down was trying to set up a commercial service, and had previously ripped for that purpose. We had that shut down; he responded a week later by totally ripping (except that he forgot to steal my .js files, so his page was riddled with errors). The ISP did what they're supposed to do; they made him take it down. When the behavior appears pathological and the theft is 100%, you don't talk to the creator, you talk to the people who enable him to publish. Talking to the creator, no matter how gently, will backfire, I've found.

People who steal always go to great lengths to defend themselves, and almost always portray themselves as innocent victims. It's classic behavior. We saw it on MEFI a few months back (no names). On corporate sites, the defense is usually "I hired a contractor who swore this was his own work." On personal sites, the perpetrator almost invariably tries to badmouth the person whose work they stole "as an expression of my admiration."

It's the same behavior off-web. It's the heroin addict who steals everything in your house and then blames you for being a bad friend and "not understanding." It's the ex-spouse who runs up your credit card bills, and when you find out, tells you were a bad husband or wife. It's the musician who borrows your guitar and loses it, then ends the friendship when you ask him to replace the missing instrument. What it is, is pathological self-justification to cover a guilty conscience. What it is, is crap.

Influence is unavoidable (we all learn from each other). Coincidental similarity is understandable (there's nothing new under the sun; there are only so many ways to lay out a page; yada yada). Imitation can be annoying or flattering, depending on your POV. Direct theft is always wrong. It's wrong. Anyone who does it knows it's wrong. "As an expression of my admiration for your family, I've kidnapped your children."

What web designers should do, when they get ripped off 100%, is report the violation to the hosting company. And not engage emotionally with the kind of person who would steal. No amount of heart-to-heart talks with the heroin addict who stole all your stuff will make him back down, make him appreciate your POV, convince him to get sober, or get you your stuff back. Sometimes you have to call the cops.
posted by Zeldman at 2:35 PM on September 16, 2000

Sorry Jason, but there's been enough theft links this week.

Umm... for everyone else, there's been yet another copied design by a high-profile 'blog community member.

Yowzers. What's going on this week, anyway? Did I miss a news bulletin or something?
posted by cCranium at 3:54 PM on September 16, 2000

Zeldman, while I appreciate the fact that this has to eventually become monotonous for you - the mental wear and tear involved in protecting your work has to get old real quick - I can't help but wonder why you wouldn't want to try communicating with the perpetrator first.

Now, if you did when this person grabbed Astounding, then I completely agree with your stance. The fact that it's a commercial site definitely changes the situation dramatically, also.

Still, I wonder what would've happened with just a Cease-and-Desist equivilant. I realize that it won't do much in many situations, but sending "Hey, you're violating copyright. Please stop, or I'll be forced to take further action, such as contacting your ISP and informing them that they're serving illegal pages." may take care of the situation.

Again, I understand that you've got more experience in these matters than I - and more than I ever really care to have, to be perfectly honest - and maybe I'm still overly idealistic (*cough*naive*cough*:-) but I just can't help feeling that civility can go a long way.

(which isn't to say I want to stop feeling that way. :-)
posted by cCranium at 4:03 PM on September 16, 2000

7:00 PM Eastern Time (approx.)
I followed the link posted by cCranium and visited the site (I will not link to the site on principle). The site is an exact copy of except for the Yellow parts are changed to deep blue. While a handfull of links are dead, the person seemed to have copied almost everything off of and altered some sentences here and there to match his own description.

7:22 PM Eastern Time
I followed the link posted by Jason and go to the same site. The owner has uploaded a new design and added this to the introduction: "it is better designed, cleaner, well organized, and well it's mine, all mine. i am not suggesting you leave, but in fact suggesting you take a look at my abilities, my portfolio, and everything else i have to offer."

Some how I have a very bad feeling about this whole design stealing trend. These are nothing more than a quick attempt at generating instant trafic.

I no longer think these are some admirers of anyone's work. These are people who know that copying some high profile personal site will generate instant trafic for a rather new site.

posted by tamim at 4:36 PM on September 16, 2000

7:46 PM Eastern Time:
Thanks the cache, I have saved the "about" and "biography" pages from Vinay's site. They look almost exactly like Jason's, with some minor changes in text.

If anyone is interested in archiving these stolen designs, please let me know. I can email you the two saved pages.
posted by tamim at 4:48 PM on September 16, 2000

I've had ripped off from me many many times. More than I care to count. But very few people know about these. Why? Because normally, all it takes is a letter to someone saying "nice site". Once they figure out the letter is from the person they stole from, it's usually enough embarassment for them to take it down right away. And in 90% of the cases I've had, that works fine.

There's only been one time I've felt the need to contact an ISP over the matter, and that was when the person did not return my emails, and his ripoff was simply a "save as.." in IE and and upload to his server (read: and exact copy), yet a lot of the by lines were taken out (giving me no credit).

That was an extreme case. I have no problem asking someone nicely to take down something I created and they didn't ask for, but I'd rather not embarass a person in front of a huge audience of people. I think sometimes there are better ways of getting your point across.
posted by vitaflo at 5:19 PM on September 16, 2000

I was amazed that people think others are ripping off more famous sites to get hits. Personally, I may visit the accused to see how closely they resemble the original, but I don't hang around. And definately don't revisit.

But if it works, hell, I'm off to steal yahoo's design for my links page. Sure fire winner.

posted by c huber at 5:26 PM on September 16, 2000

>>>>I can't help but wonder why you wouldn't want to try communicating with the perpetrator first. Now, if you did when this person grabbed Astounding, then I completely agree with your stance. <<<<<<

Prodigy decided to take down Harold's first offense (the rip-off of Astounding) when they were emailed by regulars who visit the Astounding forum. Harold himself also was emailed, and replied in an almost pleasant and apologetic manner.

But apparently Harold wasn't really all that sorry - he copied the design (totally) of Zeldman only a week later. Why would anyone bother emailing him again? Jeffrey and others went directly to Prodigy this time, and Prodigy shut him down.
posted by the webmistress at 5:47 PM on September 16, 2000

If you guys want an iron-clad defense against these kinds of thefts, be a shitty Web designer. I can offer a lot of advice in that regard.
posted by rcade at 6:35 PM on September 16, 2000

The guy's a thief trying to justify his bag marked 'swag'. If he hadn't of been so chummy with powazek in his links I wouldn't have said Jefferey's "large serif font with box to the left"© was particularly definitive and put it down to the randomness of the universe. But it was ripped off.

I'm not one for copyright on my own shit but Jeff should come down hard on this sobbing posér.
posted by holloway at 7:07 PM on September 16, 2000

'Borrowing' is what you used as an excuse the first time you got caught taking something that was not yours.

This usually takes place at an early age and depending on the method of impression used to drive home the point that 'borrowing' is 'stealing' and is not a good thing, determines how you conduct yourself regarding other people's stuff.

There is no such thing as "Borrowing" stuff from peoples websites. Without permission, taking anything other than what is in your brain is theft.

How hard is it to ask? If you are reading this, you can probably email them.

posted by headlemur at 8:26 PM on September 16, 2000

These thieves always get huffy and pouty when you catch them. Last year I did a site on the historical architecture of Fargo - I used vintage postcards from my collection as well as my own contemporary photos. This guy hoovers up the site, posts it on his own website - and then has the clanking steel spheres to declare it “The Only Site on Historic Fargo.”

I grant you that this is small beer, and as interesting to most people as a braille guide to chick sexing, but I put a great deal of work into the project. So I told him to take it all down, or pay me for my photos. I quoted Avedon rates, and assured him I’d sue if he’d didn’t come up with the money in a week. He took everything down, but his page had the same mopey tone as this Tony fellow - why, history belongs to everyone, maaaan, and I was just trying to hoard it for myself, maaan, and I didn’t have to be so mean, maaan, etc. etc.

Moron. If he’d asked, I would have let him have a few scans. But there's a faint aroma of sociopathy to some of these people - they get infuriated when you challenge them, because they've already convinced themselves that THEY are the rightful owner of the idea, by virtue of desiring it or appreciating it.
posted by lileks at 11:44 PM on September 16, 2000

::: I can't help but wonder why you wouldn't want to try communicating with the perpetrator first. Now, if you did when this person grabbed Astounding, then I completely agree with your stance.

We did. Big Dave of Astounding wrote a very nice, private, conciliatory note to the perp, explaining why we felt it was a problem. The gentleman responded civillly without actually acknowledging what he had done, and without attempting or offering to do the right thing. A day later, he began adding copyrighted artwork by a well-known illustrator to the front page of his site, which was otherwise an exact rip of the Astounding front page. We then took stronger actions and the site was yanked.

Immediately thereafter, SOMEONE spoofed the email address of one of the Astounding Websites founders, and in that person's name requested an "R" rating for our site from RSAC due to "violent content and nudity" (of which there is none, but RSAC doesn't bother to check).

RSAC granted the spoofer's wish, thus blocking access to our site. Obviously whoever did this intended to hurt us, and succeeded. There's no PROOF that this act of revenge was perpetrated by the gentleman who had copied our site and been busted for it, but there's little reason to suspect anyone else of wanting to hurt us.

Shortly after that, someone launched a Denial of Service attack on DevX, taking down Project Cool (temporarily) and A List Apart. As some of you know, A List Apart never came back online, but that's another story. The Denial of Service attack may be completely unrelated to the events I've already narrated, but it came the day after the RSAC gambit, so circumstantially and motivationally, it sure smells like the revenge of Harold. (If it was the revenge of Harold, he may have thought Astounding publisher Glenn Davis was still affiliated with Project Cool; and/or he may have wanted to "get" me by taking down ALA.)

Again, this may all be coincidence, but none of it happened until we had the perp's site shut down; and it happened immediately afterwards. The site went down; somebody had us RSAC'd under false pretenses; somebody launched a DOS attack.

Also, again, we did try to reason with the gentleman first. It was only after he failed to respond that we took stronger action.

Software piracy was also involved in this mess, but I won't go there.

Civility does go a long way with more innocent behavior. I rarely go after people for coping my work. Since there's better work out there (lots of it), I'm usually pretty flattered that anyone would bother. When the situation is more serious, I do write civilly, just as you say. I've tried Vitaflo's approach as well. Simply writing "I like your site" WILL cause a person with a conscience to realize what they've done - with no harsh words and no hurt feelings. Decent people usually write and say "Oh gosh, I'm sorry, I seem to have copied you a lot." And that's usually enough for me. I really don't mind most of it, as I've said.

But there is no reasoning with outrageous predators, I'm afraid. I'm as idealistic as any of you, and I wish it were otherwise.
posted by Zeldman at 1:28 AM on September 17, 2000

I believe I have heard every excuse for plagiarism there is. I teach a basic web design course for credit at an art college, and this week I was grading an HTML tables assignment.

I caught *5* people who turned in stolen work for this assignment. 5! For some reason, they must think I'm stupid and won't notice. All of them turned in copy/pastes of others' work.

This on the heels of an e-mail earlier in the quarter from a disgruntled student. (Background: the school's policy is that late work can only be turned in up to one week after it was due, otherwise it gets no credit. Also, in my classes there are no makeups of missed exams; instead, there are extra credit projects that can be done in place of a missed exam. This way I can return the graded exams in a timely manner.)

The student in question turned in an assignment more than two weeks late, so I had to tell him I couldn't give him credit for it. Also, he skipped class the week of the midterm and then asked two weeks later if he could take the test, when I had already returned the exams to everyone. I said no. The first e-mail he sent in response said:

"fuck you then i will take a 'W' have a nice life bitch"

Then a few minutes later he sent a follow-up that read:

"iam going to drop your class your an unfair teacher, i thought i could take the midterm , i couldnt make the week of i had an apointment you dont understand, i did those assignments like the first one and the last one i sent yesterday i sent them from the computers at school it must of been a computer error or something but i did them "

It's the same mindset as that of the plagiarist. "It's not faaaaair. You don't understaaaaand. If I want to turn in work late/copy someone else's work/skip exams/etc. I should be able to do that. Why can't the world revolve around meeeeee?"

Honestly, I just don't get it.
posted by litlnemo at 4:54 AM on September 17, 2000

I, too, have taught web design. I'm always amazed at the mindset of those who plagerize.

But it's clear that the lines of what is "right" are blurry to a good many people. And, of course, there are many reasons for this: downright stealing, laziness (this seems the most prevalent with students), ignorance, and the accessibility to zillions of ideas that the web offers, to name a few.

I would agree with many here. The first step is to kindly inform and educate. Until we can understand which of these reasons are at the heart of the situation, I try not to assume that I am dealing with a "bad" person, initially. Of course, if that doesn't work, it's time to start playing a little hardball.

Welcome to the wonderful world of human nature, where there's always a surprise around the corner. And the net has simply made access to this world that much easier.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 7:53 AM on September 17, 2000

Oh, and BTW, resumé has two accents: résumé.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 8:05 AM on September 17, 2000

I think people who teach web design should teach about copyright and design theft and asking for permission even before the teach HTML-BODY-/BODY-/HTML. 90% of everyone out there are self taught. There is nothing wrong with that. I think these "Teach Yourself HTML in 3 Seconds" type books need to have "How to Email the Designer and Ask for Permission of a Site You Want to Copy" as chapter 1.

We don't do the educating until we catch someone stealing our stuff.

The very first page I made, in Tripod, (really really "back in the days"), I used a cartoon from Randy Glassbergen. I emailed him first. He let me use anything from his web, as long as I linked back to him and ran a personal-non profit web site. I had 8 links to his site on the home page. I was just so happy that he even let me use his cartoon. He visited the site a week later just to check up and emailed me back that everything was ok.

posted by tamim at 9:07 AM on September 17, 2000

But there is no reasoning with outrageous predators, I'm afraid. I'm as idealistic as any of you, and I wish it were otherwise.

I'm sorry if I made you feel like you had to justify your actions, it was really curiosity, not accusation, that was the tone of my post.

That being said, thank you for the full story. It's opened my eyes quite a bit. Something that's always good, if a little disillusioning.
posted by cCranium at 9:51 AM on September 17, 2000

>his page had the same mopey tone as this Tony fellow - why, history belongs to everyone, maaaan, and I was just trying to hoard it for myself, maaan, and I didn’t have to be so mean, maaan, etc. etc. <

lileks: in the case you're describing, if the guy was actually interested in promoting the subject, he would have just *linked* to your site. that's what the web is good for, for crying out loud. none of us have to reinvent the wheel, we can link to any good source of information.

really, though, it's all typical abuse behavior: blame the victim....

posted by rebeccablood at 10:31 AM on September 17, 2000

I wonder if perhaps a lot of this plagarism isn't due to simple frustration. I mean, you could be the best coder on the planet, but if you don't have some inherent graphical design skills in your right brain somewhere, your site's probably still going to look like crap. So they start stealing code that makes their site look good, rationalizing that "they know how to do it" but just don't know how to make it look appealing.
posted by aaron at 10:39 AM on September 17, 2000

aaron: I'm forced to disagree with that.

A designer I am not, unfortunately. But it's something that I've learned I'm not, and accepted. I think I'm a very strong developer, and I know HTML, CSS and JavaScript quite well. I just can't make it look like I do. I'm also not a fantastic writer, so the entire site is really very simplistic.

Greg's a good example of that, I think. EOD wasn't really ever terribly design-heavy, and before Lance did his design for him, EOD was very simple. Hell, it still is, it just looks a little better. The draw to it was content.

Now, if you want to be popular, and the web is your medium of choice for popularity, and you don't have the design skills or the ability to produce content, but still want to draw visitors.... Well, I could see plagarism due to frustration being a reasonable example of that.
posted by cCranium at 11:14 AM on September 17, 2000

I usually come to the defense the great web designers. I saw them as vangards and leaders toward the future. Their influence would build a better web. But now, I see them as enemies of that future.Instead of trying to influence the world through your designs, you appear to me, not as artists looking to protect your work, but claim-stakers looking to draw property lines around the web. Instead of good-design spreading because of your creations, good-design is being slowly locked away from others.Hubris! There are only so many ways to make a useful menu, so many pleasent color schemes, so many styles of fonts, so many themes, so many topics, so many languges. We aren't Picassos (and even he admitted he was a thief of ideas).May I not-so humbly suggest that instead of anger as a response to imitation, you revel in the joy that YOU have influenced more of the web than you realize. Or is there no altruism left? Maybe its lost in the shadow of the tower you build to your glory.A quote: Ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and the improvement of his condition. -- Thomas Jefferson.Copyrights and patents are there to create an incentive for the artist or scientist to create, but the purpose is the good of all mankind. As soon as the creatives lock their ideas away from mankind, then those rights are no longer valid.
posted by gnudickens at 1:04 PM on September 17, 2000

FYI: I asked Greg if I could have his old design, and he said, appoximately, "Sure; what the hell."

So, when you see it show up on my site next week, please don't start shooting at me. :-)
posted by baylink at 1:05 PM on September 17, 2000

Wouldn't it be a much better world if people without design smarts hired those who had them! -grin

And, I agree with tamim about teaching copyright right from the beginning.

When I taught at the college level, I found a lawyer, here in DC who had worked on Capitol Hill to help write much of the copyright legislation. I had him come talk to the school. The turnout was light. Sigh.

I found him via the Net, when a German webzine wanted to publish my photographs on their web site. Unfortunately, I had an exclusive 6 month contract on for the use of the images. The German guy said that German law allowed for use of images in situations like that. Well, that didn't make any sense and before I approved, I went searching the net under German copyright law. Low and behold, this lawyer appears. I simply called his firm and he told me he had just finished working on a German copyright issue! And, of course, the zine guy was full of BS.

posted by Taken Outtacontext at 1:07 PM on September 17, 2000

::: Hubris! There are only so many ways to make a useful menu, so many pleasent color schemes, so many styles of fonts, so many themes, so many topics, so many languges. We aren't Picassos (and even he admitted he was a thief of ideas).
May I not-so humbly suggest that instead of anger as a response to imitation, you revel in the joy that YOU have influenced more of the web than you realize. Or is there no altruism left? Maybe its lost in the shadow of the tower you build to your glory.

With all due respect, may I suggest you reread the information above?

Most of us are flattered by works that reflect our own humble efforts. Most of us are more than willing to offer help and tips and info to anyone who asks. Most of us acknowledge our own indebtedness to our peers and predecessors. Where is the ego in any of that?

Unfortunately many of us have had our work totally taken, lock stock and barrel, by unscrupulous folks who feel the hours we put into creating our own works are some kind of command-paste shortcut for them.

When a company that's selling services steals your code, design, and text outright - read those three words again: code, design, and text - and presents that stuff as if it is their own, that company is committing theft. Like I would be if I stuck my logo in front of a pirated copy of a Warner Bros. movie, and claimed it as a Zeldman production.

Movie companies can protect themselves. Web designers generally smile at others' derivative works, but must take action to protect themselves against unscruplous outright theft. Again, to be certain you understand what I'm talking about:

I'm talking about taking words, wrestled from the ether and carefully constructed by a writer, and pasting them into your own site, changing just a few words (such as putting your name in the copyright slot).

I'm talking about taking illustrations without attribution or permission, and presenting them to the world as if you had anything to do with them.

I'm talking about taking someone's painstakingly created web layout - usually the result of conceptual thinking, plus hours of trial and error and workarounds due to the buggy nature of web browsers - taking all that, and claiming it as your own.

When someone commits theft at that scale, they are no longer "influenced," no longer an "admirer," they are a wholesale thief.

Only then does a web designer stop being the nice person who's more than willing to let it go, more than willing to share helpful tips and info with the person they've influenced. Only then does a web designer, LIKE ANY OTHER AUTHOR OF A CREATIVE WORK, take steps to protect themselves.

Would you accuse Doris Lessing of lacking altruism if someone stuck their name to a copy of her latest novel? Or would you understand that nobody but the author of a work has the right to sign that work, and possibly be recompensed for it?

All of us have influenced each other and none of us are upset about that. We get upset when someone blatantly steals EVERYTHING from us. That's not about "there are only so many arrangements of pleasing colors." It's about someone else taking everything I've worked on and presenting it as their own. It's about someone stealing my car. Moving into my house. And selling my furniture. What part of that do you NOT understand?

And again, where do you see egotism in the simple and natural need to protect one's work?

Movie companies and book publishers have lawyers. Web designers have their faith in human nature, their kindness, and their willingness to go to the mat in those few cases where someone with no moral scruples whatsoever has completely appropriated all their hard work.

I guess it hasn't happened to you, yet. When it does - when you see your words, your images, your scripts, your layout, everything you've worked on for months or years, on someone else's web page, without permission or attribution, usually altered in a bone-stupid way in order to promote some bogus business or other - when that happens to you, you come talk to me about how you feel.

'Til then I suggest you refrain from judging anyone's behavior except the thieves'.
posted by Zeldman at 1:30 PM on September 17, 2000

What was that phrase? "Condemn not lest you yourself be condemned; judge not let you yourself become what you pass judgement against."

That being said, I sympathize with Mr. Zeldman, Mr. Powazek, and all involved.

It takes something unique (or it should...) to let the world judge what you've created. (That's why all our children absolutely must succeed at school, sports, and everything else they do. A digression, though.)

Generally, I try to be a forgiving person, and I encourage that in others. I try not to get mad at things I can't change, and I try to subscribe to the theory that "mockery is the sincerest form of flattery," (unfortunately sometimes the subscription arrives a month or so late) and I think it's a fairly good theory to apply here.

Take it with a grain of salt, but take it down, nonetheless.
posted by photogeneticist at 3:21 PM on September 17, 2000

There's the line that "mediocrity borrows, genius steals". But then again, you have to be a genius to get away with that kind of theft, and such acts are usually considered blessings in disguise.

I think this discussion has pointed up a lack of what I'll call an "academic discipline" in putting together web pages. As a kid, I plagiarised stories to feed my own imagination, but ten years ago, when I began to write "literature" essays, I was taught to use sources with respect: to give credit where it's due. (Although now, I find that much of my doctoral work involves asserting that one poet bears an unspoken debt of gratitude to an unacknowledged source... but there you go.)

But my point: if you're impressed enough by something on the web to think "wow, I want to do something like that on my own site", chances are you should be asking permission if there's not a big timelag between "Save As..." and uploading your own efforts. And you should consider it a blessing that the people who make web pages are far more accessible than conventional publishers.
posted by holgate at 4:13 PM on September 17, 2000

Zeldman, you know I support so much of what you do and what you stand for. I've written you privately to support you. I don't want to hurt you.But, I continue to hold that "artists" are mistaken about the purpose of the legal protections behind copyright. Your "art" is protected because we (society) wants to encourage it. But why encourage it? because we (society) eventually want to duplicate it.I want you to be able to make a living (heck, I want to make a living too). But somethings are more important than us making a living. Yes, just as somethings are more important than corporate interests, there are things that are more important than personal intrests.Right now, we need the masses to have maximum access, and the web needs to be the best it can be. Some "jerk" who wants to have a webdesign for free can get one, yes. (Apart from the idiots who don't know how to hide that they stole from you, you can't stop them.) But alot of people who otherwise have no skills in this medium, might also begin that path through the source code of sites did you steal in the beginning? How much code did you use from sunsite or david siegal or the dozens of others? I know I did. My site has resembled many sites of those designers I respected.Understand, I *want* people to steal my code (as it gets better) because I want the web to get better. Such is my hubris. If I do something right, I want that to spread across the web like wildfire. If someone else does something right, I want to be able to use it, unstead of being forced to use a lesser solution because they don't want to share their ball.This isn't an academic institution, we aren't subjected to those processes. This is about empowering the world to have a voice and creating the greatest resource for the good of humanity the world will ever know.Doesn't anyone ever dream anymore? Can't your heart sing when you see your vision spread across the web? Why does it only sing when your vision is only for you?
posted by gnudickens at 6:03 PM on September 17, 2000

I suggest on an almost weekly basis on my weblog that people who want to learn how to design a website go to that most wondrous and fabulous of freebie places, elated toobox. They generously give away complete website templates, with everything anyone could want, and the designs are absolutely gorgeous - a real "designer homepage" feel to them. So you go there and you pick out a template. You don't even have to steal it - they give it to you.

Then you head over to full moon graphics, or any other number of amazingly well done full site linkware graphics, that are actually just sitting there waiting for you to use them. Again, no stealing can actually have whatever you like and no one will send you threatening emails.

You put the two together and voila! Instant and very, very nice homepage.

I can't even remember how many sources I've viewed or sources that I've saved to study and pick apart and, yes, even use parts of. No one is talking about a bit of source, or a script. But when you take enough source and graphics and layout so that someone else can actually recognize it as someone else's work, the line has been crossed.

Some of us are already extremely generous with what we give back. Above and way beyond. I already mentioned this in yet another "stealing is bad" thread here at metafilter. The more visionary among the web designers already have sites filled with tips and tutorials and graphics and advice and fonts and any number of things. Some of them even have entire non-profit websites devoted to webstandards and design digests. At what point do they get to say enough is enough?
posted by the webmistress at 6:38 PM on September 17, 2000

Aw, hell. Everybody, there's an easy way around all this plagarism -- just design sites that are so damned ugly that no one would ever want to steal from them...

Feel free to send your detractors (oh, wait, it was an *homage!*) these handy design tips, too -- and remember, "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

I'm with Webmistress. There are tons of free things out there, and most are beautifully done.

I don't have a problem with "working with" source code to see how an effect was achieved. But taking that code -- word for word, line for line -- and calling it yours? Newp. That just doesn't fly. Same for graphics.

My fiance runs a desktop patterns site, and everything is free for the taking -- we mostly ask that the work not be claimed as one's own. (Sweat, blood, and Photoshop, ya know.) But, believe it or not, people *have* tried to claim it as theirs. And we have asked them to take our images down. (And, for the curious, we do say how the images were created -- "teach a man to fish," and so on...)

It's unbelievable, and really, there's just no reason for this to happen.

posted by metrocake at 8:07 PM on September 17, 2000

I still think there's a misunderstanding. I recently visited a site that looked quite nice. I was viewing source and discovered my Style Sheet had been used.

I have no problem with this.

I didn't write to the person who used my CSS. That is, I didn't write to them about that. I wrote to them, in response to their note to me. They'd contacted me to share a story they'd written. I liked it, I wrote back, and I linked to it. No snarky comments about "gee, nice Style Sheet."

It was fine with me and beneath mentioning.

Joshua Davis (Praystation) gives away his Flash scripts.

Brentt Gustaffson ( gives away his DHTML code.

I've been giving away code in "Ask Dr Web" at since I started figuring out the web in 1995. (Though I encourage people to use it as a model only - idea being that it's more satisfying to create something you can call your own. Models help us get started.) I've been giving away images ("Steal These Graphics") and I've been giving away beginning Style Sheets.

I'm not special. A lot of people do this. It's the spirit of the web.

Lance Arthur has Design-o-Rama, another resource that tells how to design web pages. Like me, Lance gives it away. Design-o-rama is entertaining and smart as well as a valuable (free) resource.

I learned HTML by reading an online tutorial and I linked to that tutorial in Ask Dr Web. I didn't swipe the guy's code. I preferred to design my pages my own way. But I learned from his code and linked to his resource so others could learn from it, too.

From Siegel (in 1995) I learned that text didn't have to run wall to wall - that we could hack TABLEs to do our evil bidding. Siegel wasn't the only person who was doing this, but he explained how it worked, and in March '95 it was news to me. I didn't steal his code, I studied it.

But I took his dot_clear.gif (he encouraged people to do it) and I linked to the place where you could get it, too, if you didn't own Photoshop and couldn't create your own transparent pixel. (I don't use this stuff any more, but it's all we had to work with back then.)

I downloaded Lynda Weinman's web-safe CLUT (she encouraged people to do it); later I downloaded Visibone's (Bob Stein encouraged people to do it).

I have a gallery on my site where I list people who've "stolen my graphics" with my permission and encouragement. I make it clear that icons and patterns in that section of the site are up for grabs. If you want 'em, you've got 'em.

Dave Winer used my icons at and anyone who uses Userland Software's Manilla to build their weblog can use my icons. Not from my site, but from Dave's. I have no problem with this. Dave and I talked about it. It's kind of a kick to go to this software developer's huge site and watch zeldmanblah.gif load. It's fun to see my name pop up on someone else's site.

It's been fun to see my graphics on all these personal homepages.

Heather Champ has been doing this forever, too. And Miz Kitty, as Jo says.

So I'd say many web designers are more than generous and less than uptight about this issue.

However, there's a difference between giving certain things away, and putting your whole site up for grabs. Nobody does that. If some fool was reprinting Heather's stories from on his own site, with his name at the bottom, and no attribution to Heather, I don't think she'd be happy about it.

If I'd copied High Five in 1996 and put my logo on the front of it, I don't think David Siegel would have appreciated it. I think he'd have felt ripped off. And he'd be right.

I've been influenced and continue to be influenced by hundreds of thousands of web sites. Influence is cool. Originality is the ability to conceal your source. Which means, having more than one influence.

I've written about that, too. At Dr Web, five years ago. If you are afraid to be original, or feel you have nothing to contribute, then follow the work of several people. Not just one. In that way, you'll be lead to create something that's yours - instead of cloning the work of a single hero or heroine.

Obviously if you're in the web design business and a competitor rips you off, that's a serious problem. It's happened to so many sites and designers your head would spin.

But you don't have to be commercial in your outlook to be harmed by theft.

You write a poem. It's a meaningful expression of yourself. You post it online. A week later you discover it on someone else's site. Without attribution. Without permission. Somebody else has signed their name to your work. How do you feel?

My girlfriend is a painter. She works hard at it. One day someone busts into her studio, signs his name to her canvases, and puts them up for sale at a gallery. Do you mean to tell me that's okay?

I can't believe we're even having this conversation. I respect you and I can tell you're a good human being. I don't understand how these ideas can seem strange to you. Ideas are there to be shared. Influence is unavoidable and good. Downloading someone else's work and signing your name to it is not good. Simple as that.
posted by Zeldman at 8:21 PM on September 17, 2000

Sniff. I still miss Bud Uglly and the rest of Onionhead World. Anyone know what happened to that site?
posted by Aaaugh! at 9:44 PM on September 17, 2000

To accuse Zeldman (of all people) of lacking altruism is almost laughable.

Back in my early days, I actually swiped one of his Javascripts and put it on my site. After a while, broke down to him & Porter Glendinning (the Javascript author), and begged for forgiveness...

Zeldman's response: "Hey, you can only shake the box of marbles so many times". (Sounds a lot like Gnudicken's "Hubris! There are only so many ways to make a useful menu..." speech don't it?).

And guess what? Zeldman & Glendinning gave me the "ok" to use the script, just because I wrote to them. I admire the hell out of both of these guys for it.

Unfortunately, not everybody gets the guilts like me...

My theory on the "design theft" issue....? It's just too easy... it's out there for the taking. And at this point in time there's really no way for designers to protect themselves.

Perhaps if these people read threads like this, and saw the harm they were doing... maybe they'd think twice.
posted by EricBrooksDotCom at 9:45 PM on September 17, 2000

Auugh(!), it looks like Onionhead World is no more...but it does live on in another form!
posted by metrocake at 10:14 PM on September 17, 2000

I think Derek acted in a somewhat heavy-handed fashion. While others may 'know' him and his voice, he comes across, typically, as condescending. He could have sent a note simply stating 'The picture you are using is mine. Please don't use it.'

But he was glib and condescending. Which invokes a bad reaction most of the time.

Me? I've taken code and designs, but haven't used them copy and pasted. Mostly I've pulled them apart to figure out a particular effect and tried to replicate that effect in my own way. In some cases, a calculation could only be done one way, so I've used the calculation in javascript, but I always reference where it came from.

Even 'free' scripts from defunct libraries, I'll reference.

I didn't see the harold site, and it's now under password protect. What happened to ALA is rediculous, and typical of an immature hacker.

The guy should've never taken the photo from Derek. But it wasn't an intential attack, or a business venture, so Derek could have been a bit nicer.

General design is up for grabs.. specific layout and code isn't. But we all know this, right?

I'm just not into writing right now. It's a nice day outside.
posted by rich at 8:48 AM on September 18, 2000

You'll forgive me for coming into this late, I'm sure.


Doesn't anyone find it hypocritical that Derek has brought the wrath of God upon this guy for stealing a picture, and at the same time he's publicly bragging on stealing the entire Radiohead album on Napster?

First of all, my disclaimer: I like Derek. I noticed that I have a tendency to publicly use him as an example. This is nothing personal, believe me. I just disagree with him on almost everything.

But come on. Thom Yorke and Co. worked very hard on their new album. And for Derek to steal their work is THEFT.

You see where this is going?

It doesn't matter that Derek is not taking "Kid A", changing a few notes, and slapping his own name on it. Yes, everyone will still know it's a Radiohead song, just like everyone knew that the poor schlub swiped a design layout from Derek. It doesn't even matter if the guy gave public credit to Derek, or like if you buy the CD after listening to the Napster-given MP3.

What's happening is that the Internet specifically, and digital encoding of music, words, movies, etc. in general, is destroying the uniqueness of an artistic work.

Information may want to be free, but creativity is not information. Inspiration is not information. Fuck John Perry Barlow and his copyright-free wet dreams. I refuse to take advice from someone who has created exactly nothing. I refuse to listen to a plumber about the arrangement of my room.

Copyright protection was founded so that artists would be encouraged to create. So that they would be secure in the knowledge that less talented jackasses wouldn't steal their work or otherwise descecrate them. So that they would feel safe and get rewarded for the fruits of their labor.

Now, however, the ease of replication and appropriation that the digital experience provides is threatening to not only force copyright holders to resort to Draconian measures (you just wait for the hatefuck that Napster will receive, and the copyright legislation that'll come down the Hill afterwards), but it is pissing off anyone who values their own work.

Let's state this clear for the people in the balcony: IT'S NOT INFORMATION. Information theory is a fucked-up rationale for the wholesale devaluation of creativity. They're all just 0s and 1s, right? Certainly someone didn't pour their heart and soul into that song or movie or, yes, their website, did they? No, it's just information, and according to John Perry Head Firmly Up His Ass Barlow, artists will be DELIGHTED to simply create their works and give them away for free amongst the rejoicing masses, and the warm feelings in the hearts of the world's citizens will be reward enough! Have these people actually ever sat down with an artist and recognized the titanic ego that resides behind the placid mask? The mediocre artist merely has an inflated ego. But the great artist realizes that God Himself touched him and chose him to create these works. Does John Perry Barlow really believe that someone like that is going to give his work away for people to do with what they will?

The best minds, those who could make a difference, are staying WAY THE HELL AWAY from the Internet because they recognize it as a realm where their work will be devalued and mangled and stolen. I don't know if I'm a genius, but I sure don't feel encouraged to put my best stuff out here, because it'll just get stolen, ripped off, and put into an email and forwarded to half the world.

The Internet does not respect the integrity of the creative act, because the Internet reduces everything to "information," which is easily changable and copyable. Therefore, the Internet encourages its users to devalue the creative act and the uniqueness of a creation.

So if you're going to whine about your pictures and layouts being stolen, don't use Napster. If you don't want copyright to become the new War on Drugs - "we've got to regulate the Internet because things are getting stolen!" - don't steal. If you're going to work in this realm, you should be well aware that some 14-year-old kid could steal all your work and pass it off as your own.

These are the rules of the Internet. If you don't like them, then either change them or don't play.
posted by solistrato at 12:08 PM on September 18, 2000

John Perry Barlow has never created anything? That's news to Grateful Dead fans.

This "blame the victim" is out of control. Since when does Derek have to defend himself? This is like getting upset at the man who's been mugged because he shrieked off-key.
posted by luke at 2:03 PM on September 18, 2000

(I should clarify that the second part of my comment is more in regard to the people who have said Derek was rude, as if a person in that position has an obligation to be polite. And it's less "blame" the victim than "nitpick until he decides to never again share one of his thoughts with the world" the victim.)
posted by luke at 2:31 PM on September 18, 2000

I had stopped going to his site so I cant link to it off hand, but a few months ago Derek declared that was a site to promote his business and works, and not a "personal weblog."

Derek is a CORPORATION (or a BUSINESS ENTITY). He has every right to protect his brand name.
posted by tamim at 6:39 PM on September 18, 2000

I agree with Luke that we should stick to principles (stealing is wrong) over personalities (how so-and-so reacted to theft of their work).

Some of the really early comments, back in the 1950s when this thread started, were already criticizing Derek. ("I'm no fan of his work, but ...") I find that rude and wrong.

Would you say "I hate her taste in furniture, but it's a pity her house got robbed?" Of course not, it would be rude and wrong.

If you wouldn't blame the victim of a real-life crime, why blame the victim of digital theft? Why use his/her suffering as an excuse to get in a back-handed compliment or outright insult?

A person who's been ripped off doesn't need back-handed "support" like this. Just my opinion, I could be wrong. But it sure feels cheesy to me.

Bigger issue coming up.

posted by Zeldman at 7:58 PM on September 18, 2000



I'm often wrong, just my opinion coming up here, but:

This is going on way too long and people are getting freaked out.

I've had five people write to me today to tell me their site looks like mine but isn't a rip, or to confess that they learned something from looking at my site or my code.

Guys, it's fine. We all learn from each other. If one little thing I did helps somebody else make a more interesting site, I love that. I think all web designers love that.

I learn from other people's sites every day. I look at your code. Oh yes I do. Yours in particular.

Nice people are freaking out here, because this thread is taking on the pogrom-like proportions (to which, sadly, I am now contributing by adding yet another comment).

I think the point has been made. Outright theft of text, code, and images is not nice and not right. Learning from other people's work is perfectly normal and healthy, and we all do it.

Believe me, I don't spend idle hours looking for proof that someone has ripped me off. I hope nobody wastes their time that way.

If this thread, and its predecessor, and the article on Evolt, and the thread on Astounding, and Webchick's article, all taken together, have raised the consciousness of a couple of people, well that's great and that's enough. I doubt people who steal stuff as if it's their birthright are reading this thread or those other resources, but that's another story. I don't think we need to keep throwing shade at each other.

Again, just my opinion.
posted by Zeldman at 8:07 PM on September 18, 2000

Zeldman, I agree with you, but the internet doesn't translate well into the comparison to someone having their house robbed. The whole thing, as Napster and the continuing debate over what is free or not concerning websites (which has been going on since at least 1995) is a grey area.

We can all agree that taking Derek's picture was wrong. However, we also all know that the majority of people out there don't really understand that concept, or even know it.

As such, I think we all need to practice a little thinking when these things happen. Education should be the focus for people we understand are probably ignorant. The more heavy handed tactics that we all have started to instantly jump to need to be served up when appropriate instead of being a knee-jerk reaction.

(As an aside - I think the comments like 'I like Derek's work, but... have been by people who may be perceived as being Derek-bashers of some sort. I think the comments have been aimed at trying to avoid the cult of personality defense that so typifies these types of arguments that erupt around a higher profile web 'personality' as opposed to being back-handed compliments or outright insults)

As for infringement issues, Scott does have a point in that if you are going to preach the line, tow the line. You can't defend your own rights if you blatantly disregard other's rights. I don't think there is any blaming going on, just trying to focus on the issues.

There is a line between influence (as Zeldman noted as being important among designers) and outright stealing. The problem is that on the internet, those lines are very fuzzy and haven't yet been well defined. I think because more than any other 'art form' there is more rigidity to the web, with the code being the builder instead of the stroke of a brush. Someone could paint a rendition of the Mona Lisa and it not being stealing. But if they copied it and tried to sell it as the Mona Lisa, it's theft (counterfiting, actually, but you get the idea).

There are times for education and times for heavy handedness.. I see a lot of talking, but only heavy hands coming down regardless.
posted by rich at 8:28 PM on September 18, 2000

For a 50+ comment thread, I am amazed at the overall civility and the mature tone of the conversation. Please folks, give yourselves a hand! You deserve it.

posted by tamim at 8:55 PM on September 18, 2000

Education really is the key. I have a bunch of stuff on my site that people can use. It's clearly marked. And there's other stuff that's mine. Last year I found a page that was an amazing mish mash of my old layout, background graphic (not the linkware version) and some of my postcard thumbnails - all generated by linking directly to my stuff - it was showing up in my logs (don't get me started about bandwidth theft). No link, no credit. It was a student project for some media course at Cal Berkley. I sent a polite email to the student about copyright issues and the like. The student was mortified and removed it all immediately but the kicker.... "our professor told us to take whatever we wanted from the web." Yes, this was just a student project BUT it's instilling some bad habits. I asked about copyright discussion. There was none.
posted by heather at 8:02 AM on September 19, 2000

Good point, Heather. It's one thing when people don't know. It's another when educators aren't teaching.

Back in the Wild West days we grabbed whatever we wanted. I published a news photo I found in a newsgroup, thinking it was public domain since I'd seen the photo all my life. I was disabused of this naive notion when the owners of the photograph had their lawyers contact me.

Large corporations that don't understand the Internet (oxymoron) often seek to protect their every comma and hiccup. Those of us who've been doing this for a while, freely exchanging source code, tips, etc., often see that corporate uptightness as antithetical to the spirit of the web. Conceptually and emotionally (if not legally) much of this is grey area.

When you stake out certain turf as linkware, others as "my stuff, not to be copied" (as Heather has done; as Kitty has also always done at Full Moon Graphics; as I've always done at you think you're being clear. But people rarely RTFM, and many nice innocent people will lift your logo and text once you start offering anything on your site as a freebie. Those people are not a problem; you can write to them.

Sometimes I look the other way. Grey area, like I said. If it doesn't bother me, it's okay for me. If it bothers another web designer, it's not okay for them, and their wishes must be respected.
posted by Zeldman at 11:37 AM on September 19, 2000

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