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24 March, 2004

Medium or message?

CSS Zen Garden is a project showing the capacity of CSS to radically modify the appearance of a web page without touching the underlying html itself: a standard page is presented, to which a range of css stylesheets (contributed by different designers) can be applied, changing the page layout, colour scheme, behaviour of page elements and embedding graphics files.  As well as a showcase of designers' talents, it's a valuable educational resource; study of the stylesheets imparts a lot about design, coding and best practices.

One of the highest-rated examples has recently been withdrawn from the site, after the stylesheet was copied by a commercial web design agency and used in a client's site, passed off as the agency's own work.  This is obviously despicable, but careful examination of the original designer's Creative Commons licence suggests that the agency wasn't entirely in the wrong.

The licence states that though the design is not a template, and may not be reproduced without written permission, the CSS itself may be used freely for anything one wishes. Anyone may use the .css files, but not the specific graphics: the .jpg, .gif, and .png files. Yes, the precise wording really is "The CSS itself may freely be used for anything you wish".

The problem is that as the CSS Zen Garden project demonstrates, the CSS is the design, defining far more than the positioning of graphics files.
It seems that the designer's intention was to allow personal use of this CSS code for private learning purposes, and permit reuse only if substantially changed (define 'substantially'...), but that's not what his CC licence specifies. His argument is that the design and the technical means of its expression are independent intellectual properties, yet unfortunately that makes little practical sense - it's impossible to use the CSS without generating that design. By expressly permitting use of the code, he put the design (colour scheme, layout, detailing) into the public domain too, apart from the specific graphics. It's certainly unethical to use it commercially, but legal. Claiming it as one's own work is less acceptable, of course.

A parallel would be a car (automobile) manufacturer making the full technical plans and specifications of its latest model - every single detail a rival company would need to perfectly reproduce the car - publicly available and totally free for anyone to use in any way so long as the company logo isn't used, then complaining when copies go on sale.

Morally, I'm with the original designer, but this is a valuable reminder that one should consider very carefully the implications and alternative interpretations of licensing one's work. In order to separate design from means of expression, much tighter licensing is required, if that's even possible.

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