When You Cobble Together a Website, Be Careful Not to Use Stolen Parts

Don Tennant

With the advent of the Web, the barriers to entry in starting a business have fallen so dramatically that just about anybody can pursue an entrepreneurial dream. That's a good thing, but an inherent danger lies in being lulled into pretending that the Web is a greenfield where no barriers exist at all.


Here's a great example of what I mean. Last month, The Entreprenette Gazette asked 67 entrepreneurs to share the one thing that most changed their businesses and helped them grow. One of those entrepreneurs was Edward Chiu, co-founder and CEO of Sytai, an uplifting site that's all about helping people extend thoughtful gestures to other people. This is what Chiu chose to share:

What Changed My Business: Being that Internet companies are probably one of the hottest businesses to start, I wanted to give you a tip that would be a life-saver to all future tech entrepreneurs: Do not ever hire a 3rd party development firm to build your website. Your best option would be to find a friend or colleague that specializes in web development and starting the company with them. Not only are the independent firms too expensive, they only care about profits, rather than the essence of your vision.

Now, hold that thought. It so happens that I mentioned Sytai in my recent post, "Note to CEOs of Web Ventures: Know Your Own Terms of Service." Sytai was one of six websites I'd found whose Terms of Service are, to a large extent, verbatim copies of one that appears to have originated with crowdsourcing service provider Amazon Mechanical Turk. (Amazon still has not responded to repeated requests for comment.)


As I noted in that post, I had contacted those websites in the hope of getting an explanation for their use of tweaked versions of the Amazon Mechanical Turk Participation Agreement. Shortly after that post went live, I received an e-mail from Chiu in which he provided this candid explanation:

Thank for reaching out to Sytai. I'm quite embarrassed of your discovery, but I'm also aware that you're probably not the only one who has. The reason for the verbatim copy of Amazon's TOS is because we are a startup company operating under a very limited budget. I was under the impression that a customized TOS would cost a lot of money so I decided to "borrow" one from a very reputable company, which I assume is top of the line considering they can afford high profile law firms to protect their company. So bottom line I believe different companies use the same TOS because they believe Amazon probably has some of the best lawyers in the world and their TOS is more than likely ironclad.


Before I say anything else at this point, let me say that although I've never met Chiu, he has won my admiration and respect. Beyond the fact that the raison d'tre of his website is to make people happy, this response blew me away, simply because he had the decency and the backbone to acknowledge what he had done. No weaseling out, no lame excuses, no dissemblance.


In fact, I sent Chiu an e-mail with a follow-up question: Did he make any attempt to request permission from Amazon to use its TOS? Chiu's straightforward response:


No, I did not make any attempt to request permission. In my experience, contacting large corporations usually renders no response if your issue is not customer related.


Again, I was incredibly impressed with Chiu's candor and truthfulness. That the people at the other sites I mentioned in the other post lack his fortitude should be lost on no one. So how does someone with that much character end up lifting intellectual property from another website and using it without permission?


It can probably be chalked up to a simple lack of understanding about what's acceptable and what isn't. Chiu's decision to "borrow" Amazon's TOS for the sake of expediency and cost-savings was consistent with his entrepreneurial advice to avoid hiring an expensive third-party Web developer. It's not surprising that when your mind set is to get a buddy to build your site in his basement, considerations like legal matters that would be handled as a matter of course by a professional development firm might fall through the cracks.


That, of course, is unacceptable. Just as there's no place for plagiarism or any other form of unattributed content in the work that journalists do on the Web, there's no place for it in the work that website developers and webmasters do. Cutting corners to control costs can be a very bad idea, especially when they're legal or ethical corners.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
May 23, 2010 5:23 PM Elaine Leong Elaine Leong  says:

Hi Don,

Thanks for interesting article.  What would you suggest small businesses do, especially when asking for permission draws a blank?

May 24, 2010 4:44 PM Don Tennant Don Tennant  says: in response to Elaine Leong

I'm not sure why the use of another site's intellectual property would even be considered, whether you ask permission or not. There are certain expenses that any business, large or small, should expect to incur, and those would include legal expenses. Looking for the easy way out by trying to take advantage of the hard work and expense underaken by another site is an approach that doens't say much for the integrity of a business concern, in my opinion.

May 24, 2010 6:21 PM Joel Witherspoon Joel Witherspoon  says: in response to Don Tennant

Don, I have to agree with you. It sounds like Chiu didn't develop his business plan properly or stage his resources adequately enough. I too, learned the hard way about startup legal issues. If anyone who reads this wants to learn the easy and smart way, seek your local Small Business Administration office. They have a wealth of free materials for you to use. There's no excuse for not researching.


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