What happens if you design a website and the client puts it to potentially illegal services? According to one court, you're just as culpable.
First reported by TorrentFreak, a website designer who was contracted to work on a now-dead torrent search website, StudentBay, has been found guilty of copyright infringement offences.
The StudentBay was launched in 2008, and was designed to distribute free textbooks across Sweden to students. However, less than a year after launch, Swedish police became involved and the site was taken down.
The case has lasted three years. The website designer in question, an unnamed 23-year-old man, was originally prosecuted for running the website. This claim had no basis in reality and he was acquitted. However, the prosecution took the case to the Court of Appeals, where the designer stated he received payment in commission based on the site's traffic in leu of a fixed price -- which is not uncommon as a practice. In total, the website designer was paid around 52,000 kronor ($7930).
The Court of Appeal ruled yesterday that "the designer must've known the site would be put to infringing use," and so was charged accordingly.
The defendant said he was simply a contracted designer, and had no control over website users or the sharing of content. However, the Court of Appeal did not believe this was a good enough excuse, and he has been ordered to complete 75 hours of unpaid work and pay $6405 in damages. In addition, the money he earned through designing the site has been confiscated.
If you can take the website designer to court, should the companies that ran the website's servers be next?
It's not easy being a website designer. Some months, work floods out of your ears and in others, you scrabble around creating bargain-basement priced logos to put bread on the table.
If someone calls, you create a design specification based on their thoughts -- often difficult if the client is new to the web or have no design elements in mind -- but you get it done, and pray that you might get paid for it. Sometimes, you may resort to taking websites offline to ensure your time wasn't put to waste. That's how it is for freelancers.
However, once the design is complete and the invoice is paid in full, usual practice -- whether as a gentlemen's agreement or written contract -- means that the intellectual copyright of your work then belongs to the client. Sometimes this is not the case, but in the same way that you purchase a car, once you've paid, generally it's yours, even though the design and manufacture was performed by a company. Most clients insist upon this, as designers are there to perform a function, and shouldn't have any more involvement in someone's project.
What stands out about this case is that a contractor has been charged as an accessory to copyright infringement. Surely, if a designer can be charged, then firms running website servers, domain name registrants, even broadband suppliers could potentially be liable. Or, on the other hand, this may simply be a scapegoat case to try and chip away at the piracy industry by scaring off not only those considering running torrent websites -- but anyone on the periphery who may have a hand in a site's construction.
Better start changing your contracts folks. You "must know" what your design is going to eventually be used for, and make sure your client isn't up to anything dodgy.