OPINION: Imitation - the sincerest form of flattery

OPINION: Imitation - the sincerest form of flattery

Breach of Intellectual Copyright is a serious matter when large amounts of cash are put into creating and protecting a business' online presence. Owner of Carbon Voyage, James Swanston, explains what happens when he discovered word-for-word duplication of his website.

A start up founder likes to think that there is something unique about what they are doing. Very occasionally, this is something truly revolutionary, but generally it is about doing something new and innovative. Protecting the intellectual investment is vital, but ultimately it is all about how you bring an idea or concept to life. That being said, when we set up Carbon Voyage, we ensured that trademarks for our logo were obtained.

What we weren't expecting was to come across an individual who had stolen all our branding - logos, imagery and web site!

At some point in December last year, someone saw our website, right-clicked and then selected “Save Page as” for the entire website, which I guess anyone can do. We discovered this when we did our regular checking of Google Analytics and found out there was some strange traffic coming in, which then led us to two sites that were almost identical to ours in terms of their appearance and wording.

Not surprisingly, I sent them an email asking whether they were aware that the website was essentially a direct copy of ours. Rather than get a response from the 'taxi' company, I got an email from an individual at a website design and SEO company. I was initially reassured when he said that they would change the logos and deal with the template provider who apparently had charged them US$500 for the template. However subsequent emails between us and them proved to become more unhelpful to the point that they refused to change anything unless we provided them with the original image files and even suggested that one of our team had sold the imagery (although they refused to say who).

It was not just the imagery and logos that were exactly the same, but they had copied virtually all the text from our website changing London for another city. What this also meant was that they were not actually meeting the needs of the local transport authorities in terms of compliance. Funnily enough, they even asked for feedback on the way in which their site had been constructed!

Trying to resolve problems amicably is pretty important, but a point comes where that is no longer possible and so you have to look at trying to enforce your legal rights. When you end up here, it is best to try and do as much digging as possible to work out where the other party stands, and thus where you can actually seek action. Luckily there are online tools that help you work out who owns such websites and therefore who you can contact to get some help from. Even if infringing companies are notionally based in countries that are very supportive of dealing with such issues, it doesn't mean that the offenders are. Fortunately though, there are other avenues that can be taken with web hosting companies who are willing to assist.

Having studied law myself, I had some idea about our rights and also some of the remedies available to us. However, I was also aware of the costs of addressing legal matters and that sometimes regardless of who is right or wrong, it can be prohibitively expensive to implement this procedure.

"Breaches of copyright can be difficult to pursue, especially internationally, and legal actions are likely to end up being expensive," says Nina Jensen Hiscock, Commercial Law Specialist.

Howard Rubin, an intellectual law partner at Bird and Bird, highlights these issues: "Prior to the internet it was relatively simple to police IP infringements. Publication was some physical medium (except broadcast) and trade measures were put in place that would prevent international infringement. Those measures are now much more difficult. The nature of the internet and the mere fact that more and more business is transacted by it means that infringement is far easier to perpetrate and more difficult to stop.

"The recent steps taken by the FBI in the US against Megaupload indicate the force that national governments may take against what amounts to international IP theft. For smaller infringements unable to attract the attention of national authorities it is often left to the ISPs to take down infringing sites. On the whole ISPs act responsibly and in line with current legislation. However it is important that new companies ensure that they have secured (and can demonstrate) they have secured the IP rights they want to enforce if they expect ISPs to take positive action to bring down infringing sites."

In some respects, the whole incident is quite amusing because the copying is so blatant but it also highlights the difficulties in trying to protect intellectual property across international boundaries.

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