Source documents
Media Articles - 2000s

Last updated
3 December 2002
Contents > Source Documents > Media Articles - 2000s

Spot the difference

The Guardian (London)
March 1, 2001

Website copying may be widespread, but there are some simple measures you can take to protect your copyright. Chris Alden explains

Mike Slocombe, the designer and creator of Urban 75, isn't the type you would expect to get agitated about the rights of the copyright holder.

He wears dreadlocks. He opposes legislation that threatens individual freedom of expression. He won't accept banners, tie-ins or ads on his site, funding it instead through freelance web design. But when Slocombe discovered last month that an organisation in the US had built web pages that looked like his own, even he was put out.

"I got emails from people in America saying, 'Are you involved in this site, or did you design it?' So I took a look, and shrieked in horror as I saw what looks like my site."

Parts of the pages in question - published by Narconon, a drug treatment programme in the US - were, Slocombe says, a close match to earlier designs on Urban 75. The look and feel were confusingly similar. Certain graphics were identical. Sections of code - including, Slocombe points out, JavaScript for a pop-up window not used on the Narconon pages - were almost identical.

Even phrases were remarkably similar, Slocombe says. A Google search on the Urban 75 catchphrase - We are entirely non-profit, no banners, no tie-ins, no ads - returned only Narconon, Urban 75 and sites linking to Urban 75.

The main difference, it seems, is ideological. Urban 75 offers information about drugs without condemning their use, but Narconon actively promotes treatment of addiction through techniques developed by L Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology.

Slocombe alleges that a copyright violation had taken place - but Gary Smith, Narconon's executive director, in an email to Online, said he "does not believe the websites in question include any copyright infringement" ...

Slocombe, a long-standing opponent of tough legislation such as the Criminal Justice Act and the RIP Act, describes this law as open to misuse, because protest sites that can't afford to fight legal claims could end up being intimidated.

But if the website declares it will defend itself against your claim, you have just 10 days to bring a case - or the service provider must put the site back up. So you have to be prepared .

The problem for a one-man show such as Urban 75 is that hardball is an expensive game to play. The Church of Scientology, famously litigious, has been an aggressive defender of its online copyright.

So Slocombe used a radical tactic: posting comparisons of the two sites on Urban 75, plus a section (later removed) inviting his readers to email concerns to Narconon and its service provider, Earthlink.

Earthlink has not replied to either the Guardian or, we understand, Urban 75. The company was founded by a Scientologist, Sky Dayton, although it has distanced itself from the church.

Narconon, it appears, did get a reply. According to Smith's email, "Earthlink did not see that there was any problem with the Narconon websites". The ISP, he adds, was "very concerned about the number of unsolicited emails that Narconon and Earthlink were receiving at the request of Urban 75."

But Urban 75 has won small victories. Narconon took down the "no tie-ins" phrase the day Slocombe wrote to them. They tweaked the graphics - replacing the orange chevrons first with an orange blob, then yellow arrows. They eventually removed the JavaScript function. Narconon made such changes, Smith says, because it "wanted to resolve all concerns amicably".

Small victories, but valuable to Slocombe, a man wedded to his online obsession. "I don't want people confusing my work with theirs."