What’s up with the Internet lately?

I mean, I know that the Intertubes are not exactly the place where only saints and paragons of virtue hang out. After all, it’s representative of humanity, and humanity’s a delightful mishmash of the aforementioned paragons on one side, those with more dubious morals on the other, and everyday folks who like looking at pictures of cute cats in the middle.

But, when people who should know better – because they make their living online, or sell themselves as experts in business and marketing, for example – ignore the basics of ethical behaviour on the Internet, I start getting twitchy.

I’ve often thought that we wouldn’t need any laws at all if we all followed one basic principle: be nice to others. Nevertheless, because it seems people can’t follow such a simple precept, we have legislation to regulate behaviour on- and offline. Whichever way you look at it though, certain things are not ok. Since it seems that there have been a few prominent examples lately of people forgetting this, let’s clear this up for future reference:

The Shoeperwoman Saga: It is not ok to give your business the exact same name as a site that has already been in existence for two years. Using a hyphen in the name does not make it different, despite your assertions to the contrary. This is because it is especially not ok if you will be operating in the exact same market, thereby causing confusion amongst customers and site visitors. And it is definitely not ok to register the business/site name as a trademark, thereby effectively putting an end to the existing business if successful.

The Girl Geeks Gaffe: It is not ok to pick someone’s brain about an organisation they’ve been running for years, then set up a limited company with the same name, register the trademark and complain to Twitter that the woman whose brain you picked and who has been using her Twitter handle for a good few years is now infringing your trademark, thereby getting her Twitter username summarily taken away from her overnight. No, it is not ok to stomp all over the hard work someone has put into her organisation and its branding.

While the Girl Geeks issue has been resolved in favour of Morna Simpson, the original @girlgeeks on Twitter, the issue of the real versus fake Shoeperwoman is ongoing. In both cases, however, the reaction of the large group of fans and supporters of the two businesses was swift and severe. Like the saying about the world, the Internet is a small place and news of not-nice behaviour travels fast. It’s the quickest and easiest way to ruin your reputation online.

Now, the Shoeperwoman and Girl Geeks examples are obviously quite major. But minor infractions occur daily. By calling the following minor, I don’t mean to imply that they’re somehow ok. They’re not. Stealing is stealing. Let’s take a look at these:

It is not ok to use (watermarked) pictures from someone’s photography portfolio in your YouTube video without permission. In fact, it is not ok to use someone else’s pictures, period, unless they come with explicit permission for you to do so. And no, just because the pictures were published on Flickr or available via Google image search, does not change this. Still not ok, geddit?

It is not ok to take someone’s picture of themselves and use it in a forum or on your blog as if it was a picture of you. That’s both stealing and lying. And, more than a tad creepy. (Amber, the original Sheoperwoman, has had this happen to her on numerous occasions, so much so that a friend of hers coined the term Caughty doing a McNaughty to describe the behaviour!)

It is not ok to copy someone else’s blog posts and put them up on your site, even if you link back to the original author. Unless the person who wrote the post has given you explicit permission to do this, assume that it’s wrong.

It is not ok to steal someone’s entire site design and pass it off as your own, particularly if you’re supposedly in the web design biz. Yes, this happens. Seriously… sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

So, what have we learned here? Well, I hope it’s clear by now that, unless you have explicit permission from the creator of a piece of work (whether that be a blog post or photograph or graphic design or anything else) to use it, assume that you can’t. It’s that simple.

I should hope it’s also clear that taking someone else’s business name and business model and registering the trademark is also a big no-no. Instead of copying someone else, why not invest some time in creating something unique that you can truly call your own?

And when you’ve done that… hope like heck no-one steals the stuff you’ve worked so hard to create. If they do, though? Send them directly to this post. I’ll soon set them straight about what is and isn’t ok.