November 22, 2000
12:30 PM   Subscribe

Steal a design, win an award. Sumerset Custom Houseboats won several awards in the 2000 Inc. Magazine Web Awards 2000, including the top prize in the General Excellence category. According to a company press release, the site was chosen for its "simple, functional, yet elegant design". The only problem is, they stole the design from IBM's site.
posted by jkottke (33 comments total)
I stole from Zeldman and Dack. Total disclosure.
posted by ethmar at 12:38 PM on November 22, 2000

that really burns my butter...

posted by o2b at 12:38 PM on November 22, 2000

I wrote to Sumerset and Inc. I'll post any replies here.
posted by jkottke at 12:41 PM on November 22, 2000

I dunno. I'll say it's "derivative". I'm seeing the typical faux frameset (yawn) with a nod to (yawn), and an apparent inability by Sumerset to use the CSS attribute.

It can be argued that this is flagrant theft, I'm more inclined to say it's "uninspired".

But that's just me and I'm cranky cuz I don't get to go home early today.
posted by ethmar at 12:52 PM on November 22, 2000

Great, it stripped off the word "HOVER". Oh well. I didn't write it as a tag per se.

Now I'm really cranky.
posted by ethmar at 12:53 PM on November 22, 2000

"dunno", ethmar?? things like 'bgColor="#006699"' and 'width="762"' make it more than a 'derivative'.
posted by jamescblack at 12:59 PM on November 22, 2000

Actually, if you view the source on the press release, they left in a little bit from when they stole IBM's code:

<form action="" method="get">

This is more than just derivative.
posted by jkottke at 1:06 PM on November 22, 2000

The funny thing for me was reading the Inc award page, and having a blue ibm banner ad show up on the page. I can't seem to get it to show up again, or I'd save and post it here.

The sumerset site smacks of a 9th grade book report: go out and find all the encyclopedia articles you can on a subject, copy the sentences, but change the words enough so the teacher thinks you wrote it.

Apparently the teachers on Inc's staff let this one slip by.
posted by mathowie at 1:27 PM on November 22, 2000

Well spotted Jason.I can't believe they've published it, let alone won an award with it! Awards for Xeroxing.
posted by williamtry at 1:33 PM on November 22, 2000

I started off thinking that this wasn't blatant, but the more I looked, the more obvious it is that the designers lifted all their ideas from IBM.

Of course IBM's looks polished and Sumerset's looks like it was pasted together in Frontpage.

Try clicking on news in both top menus - They forgot that they were suppose to use the grey background to indicate location. Or maybe they didn't get that in the first place.
posted by y6y6y6 at 1:42 PM on November 22, 2000

Looks like the removed the offending <form> tag.

All that's left is a forlorn, mismatched </FORM>.

posted by idiolect at 1:42 PM on November 22, 2000

Oh my, the sites that won some of these other awards from Inc. Talk about the best of the worst.
posted by brian at 1:53 PM on November 22, 2000

Exhibit A.
Remember when IBM was running ads on TeeVee with some goofy-looking guy saying that IBM would sell a "web starter kit" with their servers. I think it would include a domain name and "IBM would build a website for you"? Could they have bought their success?
posted by rschram at 2:00 PM on November 22, 2000

It just gets better. An exerpt from their copyright page:

Document Related Restrictions

Materials for which use is authorized above do not include the design, layout or logistics of this site. This site or parts of it are protected by copyright, trademark, trade dress and other laws and may not be copied or imitated in whole or in part. No materials, including but not limited to: trademark, logo, graphic, image or sound from this site may be copied or retransmitted without express written permission from an authorized officer of Sumerset Custom Houseboats.
posted by jkottke at 2:14 PM on November 22, 2000

I would be surpised if IBM shipped their site's template in a shrink-wrapped box. (or a non-shrink-wrapped product).

IBM has long ago acknowledged the importance of the web, if not by actually saying it (though I'm sure they have) by promoting services, equipment, support and "Are you ready?" marketing.

I think they'd realise that branding is an important part of sites, and they wouldn't give theirs up.

On the other hand, IBM is kinda getting behind some OSS projects, so maybe they figured they'd throw their web site source into the package as an easy starter point.

Apparently I have nothing to say, but use a lot of words to do it.

Oh! Except that I think the site in question definetely got their code from IBM. I'm not sure of the legality. Either way, they shouldn't have won an award - IBM should've.
posted by cCranium at 2:15 PM on November 22, 2000

Ouch, I stand corrected. This is worse than the goof who stole Dack's design! (and turned it purple instead of yellow)

And my conference call ended early, so I'm not as cranky.

I'm happy for me too.
posted by ethmar at 2:18 PM on November 22, 2000

Ah, thanks to williac, here's what I saw the first time I went to Inc. Sweet, cruel, irony.
posted by mathowie at 2:32 PM on November 22, 2000

Great catch, Jason... this kind of crap pisses me off. I grabbed screenshots of both pages (IBM, Sumerset) as they look today, just for posterity's sake.
posted by delfuego at 2:42 PM on November 22, 2000

Did anyone capture the code? It's out of my cache already.

I can't believe a site with coming soon pages can win a web award.
posted by mathowie at 2:47 PM on November 22, 2000

Just to clarify, the General Excellence award is clearly given not for the derivative front page, but for the photography pages showing boats in production (example).

This being Inc. and not K10K, I suspect that the business considerations of reaching customers with unique and frequently-updated content (hmm, sound like anything?) were given higher consideration than where the template originally came from.

No, it's not an excuse for amateurish html theft, but the award wasn't for how unique the home page looked.
posted by dhartung at 3:39 PM on November 22, 2000

Google has many cached pages, most of which have the form link in them; I also got a screenshot of a cached page with its source.
posted by delfuego at 3:42 PM on November 22, 2000

Not to mention the class="nav" on both sites. I didn't see a link to a style sheet or any use of CSS on the Sumerset site?
    Sumerset site: <p align="center"><a style="color: #ffffff" class="nav" href=""><font color="#ffffff" face="Verdana, sans-serif" size="-2">Copyright Notice</font></a></p> IBM's site: <td align="center" width="53"><a href="" class="nav" style="color: #ffffff;"><font face="Verdana, sans-serif" size="-2" color="#ffffff">Privacy</font></a></td>

posted by 120degrees at 3:51 PM on November 22, 2000

IBM might well be supplying templates or ideas to clients, or even including designs with packages, but I doubt they would export the design of their own site. The IBM site (along with other IBM things) is a work in progress powered by students from Marist College. Since the school and the IBM facility are practically across the street from each other, they've formed a partnership. I doubt they'd work so hard on this with so many people only to give it away for free.
posted by tomorama at 4:14 PM on November 22, 2000

John Harnett of Harnett Design in Minneapolis, MN was quoted in the press release mentioned. Here is the email I recieved from John Hartnett in response to the situation:

Dear Brian,

Thanks for your feedback on the Sumerset site.

The Sumerset site was entered in the category of Customer Service which was the category that I judged. Visual design of the site was only a judging issue if it detracted from or enhanced the site's ability to deliver award-winning customer service. Although the Sumerset site appears to have some visual elements in common with the IBM.COM site, the characteristics that impressed me and the other judges had more to do with the FEATURES of the site, than the visual design. It was the daily work-in-progress photo updates, the rapid response to inquiries, the bulletin boards of used boats all over the world, the library of documentation, and all the other features that make this site a complete digital presence for Sumerset.

Nevertheless, thanks for bringing the similarities to my attention.

posted by brian at 4:16 PM on November 22, 2000

That's a good point, Dan. Design is not all (or even most) of what there is to a Web site. They do an excellent job on their site with customer relations, functionality, and such, as evidenced by this lengthy review. It's just disappointing that they couldn't carry that excellence through the design process, such as it was.
posted by jkottke at 4:17 PM on November 22, 2000

I don't know how useful those pages of boats-in-progress photography really is to most visitors. The page weighs in at 383kb, and has over 100 images on it.

Most people on dialups would never wait the 3-5 minutes for that page to load.
posted by mathowie at 5:22 PM on November 22, 2000

Not to disagree with the more blatant pieces of evidence here, but some of this is pretty tenuous. I've used "nav" as a class on may sites--it seems like a pretty natural name to me. And since there are only about 20 non-hideous web-safe colors, the use of #006699 doesn't seem too unlikely (OK, I exaggerate somewhat--but the palette is pretty limiting). 762 is harder to overlook--a 6 column grid, with 127 columns per pixel, perhaps?

None of this lets Sumerset off the hook--plus, they can't even spell Somerset! :)--but I hope that we aren't too quick in general to throw around accusations of plagiarism based on things like color choice.
posted by rodii at 5:24 PM on November 22, 2000

Um, "may" => "many" or "my", whatever.
posted by rodii at 5:25 PM on November 22, 2000

Speaking as someone who was in charge of one of the IBM web sites (, I really don't believe that IBM handed them a template in a gift-wrapped box or anything that. But if you examine the code closely, it is pretty evident that at least some aspects of the site were directly taken from IBM and slightly modified to fit their needs.

I have always been one who favors inspiration by example but I strongly disagree with the idea of pulling someone else's design and code into your own hands to shape and alter slightly to serve your own purpose for your own benefit. Learn by example, design with originality.

- Nick
posted by Nick Finck at 5:45 PM on November 22, 2000

Yes, the use of nav is pretty common among websites. The comment on the "nav" was that on Sumerset/Somerset's site, it is more evidence of the blatant lifting from IBM's website. Their website doesn't show any link to a why specify a class?
posted by 120degrees at 5:45 PM on November 22, 2000

My favorite!!!!

META NAME="keywords" CONTENT="Houseboats,, somerset, sumerset, houseboat,
catamaran cruiser, design, manufacturers, for sale, used houseboats, lake travis, Cumberland, boat, cisco systems, award winner, internet 500, smithsonian, computerworld

I didn't know cisco made marine routers!!

Besides they coded somerset in Front Page. They can defend themself by saying that Windows made them do it!

posted by headlemur at 6:58 PM on November 22, 2000

Thanks, Jason -- I really do agree that it's clear they lifted some of the HTML. (But in a way that makes it a hardly flattering comparison to say it was stolen.) I'm just arguing against a forest-trees myopia here.

Matt, those boat pages are emphatically not for the casual visitor: they are for the future buyer of each individual boat, presumably a well-heeled exec type who can check it at work each morning, even if he doesn't have broadband at home. They even do *custom* photos of features on request. It's like going down to the boatyard, except you're nowhere near it. The whole reason they won was due to the customer relationship this fostered.
posted by dhartung at 10:36 PM on November 22, 2000

Sumerset redid their site. Without comment.
posted by jkottke at 2:53 PM on November 29, 2000

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