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Missoulian code caper?

Newspaper faces claims of website design theft

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Webscript used by the Missoulian’s online portal, Missoulian.com, closely matches that of another daily newspaper website, the Roanoke Times’ award-winning Roanoke.com. How closely? Up until recently, it was the same code.

Notice of the conspicuous similarity initially appeared in January on the blog of Knoxville, Tenn., web developer Patrick Beeson, who once worked for Virginia’s Roanoke Times, which first employed the code more than two years ago. In the summer of 2006, Roanoke.com won top honors in an interactive media contest sponsored by Editor & Publisher Magazine.

Beeson argues that, with the exception of a few aesthetic changes, the Missoulian website applied the Roanoke Times’ source code almost verbatim.

“I should know, having wrote much of it while working in Roanoke,” Beeson blogged in January. “Unfortunately, the ‘designers’ in at the Missoulian don’t seem very skilled at getting things to work with their stolen design: it looks horrible in Safari and Firefox.”

Looks aside, a cross-examination of the global CSS files for both websites reveals an almost line-for-line parity—complete with an identical code adjustment tagged with Beeson’s initials. (CSS, which stands for Cascading Style Sheets, is a markup language used to mold raw media content into a design template.) The Roanoke Times version of the file contains a copyright notice, dated 2006.

Sometime in February, the Missoulian moved its news ticker to a horizontal position below the masthead and changed its bar colors from Roanoke.com’s signature forest-green to a mix of silver and blue.As of Monday, however, Beeson’s initials remained clearly visible in the global CSS.

Beeson confirms that he never worked for the Missoulian or its parent company, Lee Enterprises. The programmer also says he sent an e-mail complaining of the alleged code theft to Missoulian online staff two weeks after blogging on the topic.

The Independent telephoned and sent e-mail messages to numerous officials at the Missoulian, including Publisher Stacey Mueller, Editor Sherry Devlin and Webmaster Wendy Gravert. Devlin declined to comment, while Gravert and Mueller did not respond.

Roanoke.com Web Editor John Jackson says he is aware of the alleged plagiarism. The head programmer at the Roanoke Times, Jackson explains that his department had embedded into its website a content management system (CMS) that hides its code from search engines like Google. Jackson elaborates that the CMS sometimes “spits out pieces of code” and some of those
bits found their way into the Missoulian.com webscript.

In other words, Missoulian programmers left Roanoke Times fingerprints in their website when they allegedly copied the code. “That, if anything, was an indication of what was going on,” he says.

Jackson said he was somewhat taken aback by the blatancy of the Missoulian’s actions. Programmers often look to other sources for inspiration, but usually stop short of using the computer clipboard to copy actual webscript.

“It did look like a straight cut-and-paste job,” Jackson says, about the Missoulian.com website. “My initial impression was that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but being torn between that and thinking, ‘this is really not cool.’”

As of press time, the Missoulian had not disclosed why or specifically when it updated the design of its website.

Roanoke Times Marketing Director and spokeswoman Nan Mahone told the Independent that no formal action has been taken on behalf of the paper. Rusty Friddell, attorney for the publication, was unaware of the matter.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act—passed by a vote of the U.S. Senate in 1998—extends copyright protections to source code. However, due to the colossal volume of content and the staggering number of homespun web projects, litigation is rarely practical. Cease-and-desist letters on behalf of
the wronged party prove the typical remedy.

In the meantime, allegations of web code piracy often emerge in the corporate world. The most publicized incident occurred last July when the owners of a small networking site, ConnectU.com, sued 23-year-old new-media prodigy Mark Zuckerberg for taking their source code in 2004. They claim Zuckerberg used the lifted script to found his now-$15 billion operation, Facebook.com.

Jackson and Beeson both say that they’ve never heard of a newspaper copying the source code from the website of another newspaper.

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