Table of Contents:
What is website cloning and is it legal? How to prevent website cloning?
In this article, you will learn all you need to know about website cloning, how to protect your trademarked/copyrighted work from website cloning attacks, as well as:
Without further ado, stay tuned with us throughout this guide to get all this information to prevent website cloning.
Website cloning attack, in a nutshell, refers to the copying/duplicating of a website in order to create a new website that is exactly the same or with minor modifications from the website it’s copied from.
A website is a rather complex entity involving three different elements:
Cloning can happen on just one or two elements of a website; for example, when a blog post previously published on a website is scraped and published on another (content cloning) or when a website design is stolen. However, a website can have all three of these elements cloned, making the cloned website an exact copy of the original one.
Website cloning may be performed for various reasons, both in good and bad faith.
Here are some of the most common reasons people perform website cloning:
On its own, the act of website cloning is 100% legal, especially when performed for non-commercial and/or non-malicious purposes.
However, the act of website cloning may also breach existing copyrights, trademarks, IPs, or patents of the original website owner, and this is when website cloning can be illegal.
Unless otherwise specified, the individual or organization who owns the website’s design (layout), code, and content also owns the copyright of these elements.
In most countries all around the world, copyright doesn’t need registration and is a natural right of the website owner or a business/individual) who commissioned the website development from professionals (i.e., website developers.)
To further strengthen the website owner’s position as a copyright holder, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) has established the legal foundation that materials published on the internet are protected by US copyright laws.
The website owner, as the copyright owner, legally can decide who is permitted to access, distribute, modify, and copy/clone the elements of this website.
Meaning, that if you are looking to clone another website, in general, you are not allowed to publish this clone unless you’ve obtained the (written) permission to do so from the copyright owner. While copyright laws vary between countries, this basic principle is applied almost everywhere in the world.
There are websites that attach an open-source license on the website itself to permit others to use, clone, or even modify the website (or parts of its content). Typically this license will state what can and cannot be done without contacting and asking for permission from the website owner.
Yet, while cloning an open-source website is perfectly legal, the generally accepted practice is to credit the original web developers for their work on the published cloned website.
Even if a website doesn’t specify that the website’s content, design, or code can be used or cloned, copyright law allows fair use.
Simply put, fair use in copyright law allows the cloning of website content without the permission of the website owner or the author if the cloning is for the purpose of education, research, criticism, news reporting, or other non-commercial purposes that can be considered as “fair use.”
Whether copying or cloning can be determined as fair use would depend on various factors and should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
If you are located in the US, you can refer to the Fair Use Index published by the US Copyright Office to get a clearer picture of whether a specific website cloning case could fall under fair use.
Above, we have discussed how website cloning can be legal and perfectly harmless, but website cloning can also be done in bad faith, and the worst thing is that website cloning attacks can be automated, thanks to today’s technology.
As briefly mentioned above, malicious website cloning could be performed for three main purposes:
All three, when not managed, can harm your website and your business in a long-term or even permanent way.
Cybercriminals may first purchase a misleading domain name that looks similar to your brand name, an act we know as cybersquatting.
Then, the cybercriminal will perform automated website cloning to mirror your entire website and publish it on the fake domain name.
The main purpose of this cybersquatting + website cloning attempt is to steal traffic, tricking your site’s target audience into visiting the fake website instead.
The attacker can then monetize this stolen traffic in various different ways, including phishing, fooling these visitors into purchasing fake/non-existing products (counterfeiting), infecting the visitors’ devices with malware, and so on.
There are many different tools and scraper bots available on the market (i.e., HTTrack,) that enable criminals to automatically generate a clone of a website that is also dynamically updated. Dynamic update here means that when the original website is updated (i.e., published a blog post), the new content is also automatically copied to the fake website.
Unfortunately, a lot of these scraper bots and tools have become very sophisticated in hiding their identity, leveraging various technologies to disguise these bot traffic as legitimate human users. Thus, they are now very difficult to detect and block, and many website owners simply don’t realize that their websites have been cloned until it’s too late.
While website cloning can be totally harmless, website cloning made in bad faith can be very detrimental to your website and your business.
Here are some of the most dangerous potential risks of website cloning that you should consider:
If your website’s content is stolen and republished on another website without your permission, it can create a duplicate content issue, which may affect your site’s SEO performance.
Although Google (and the other search engines) are getting better at recognizing which content is canon during a duplicated content issue and most likely would be able to identify that you are the legitimate owner of the content, it’s still not a 100% perfect solution and may affect your site’s ranking in minor or major ways.
When a cybercriminal impersonates your brand and your website to scam visitors that are actually looking to visit your legitimate website, it can hurt your brand reputation, potentially in a permanent way.
The website visitors may think that your business is the one scamming them, and winning back their trust can be very challenging. Even if they understood that you’re also a victim in this, there would be those that will still blame you for not doing a good enough job in securing your brand’s online presence.
When not identified and managed properly, website cloning may hurt your reputation and, ultimately, revenue.
Website cloning and content scraping can be very dangerous for businesses in a price-sensitive industry like travel or retail.
Competitors can use scraper bots to continuously read your product listings and prices and then automatically adjust their prices to always be lower than your own.
In the long run, this can lead to unfair competition for businesses that play by the rules. Imagine having invested a significant amount of time and resources in deciding on an optimal pricing strategy and keeping your product listing up-to-date, only to see competitors cloning your website and piggybacking off your efforts.
Without comprehensive website cloning protection, protecting your brand from such attacks can be very difficult, if not impossible.
If you suspect your site is being cloned and/or your content is being stolen by others in bad faith, you’ll need to first identify whether there’s an actual website cloning attack and confirm your suspicion.
A viable approach is to use a plagiarism/duplicate content detection solution like the popular Copyscape to check whether your content has been published elsewhere. Copysscape’s Copysentry monitors can automatically browse the whole internet to check for cloned copies of your content and will notify you as soon as this cloned content is identified.
While Copyscape won’t be effective in identifying whether a site has copied your site’s code or design, it’s very effective in identifying text-based content cloning. There are also solutions like TinEye that can recognize duplicate photos and images and even free options like Google Alerts you can leverage.
However, this approach will not be practical for monitoring content that would be dynamically updated, like prices and product listings, and the larger your website is, the more limitations you’ll face.
Identifying website cloning and stolen content/design/coding is only the first step, and identification alone won’t help protect your business and prevent website cloning attacks from stealing your valuable digital assets.
Here are some actionable tips on how to deal with a website clone once you’ve identified them:
The basic approach you can take once you’ve identified a clone website is to block it from assessing your website.
First, identify whether the clone is static or dynamic (whether it is dynamically updated).
To do so, update your site with trivial changes (i.e., add a number in your site’s footer) and then check the clone website to assess how frequently the clone is updated.
If it’s a static clone (not updated at all), then skip the rest of this step and move on to the next.
If it’s a dynamic clone, then you’ll need to block the IP from accessing your website, which should be fairly effective in also blocking web scraper bots or other tools they are using to crawl and copy your website’s content/design/code.
Obviously, first, you’ll need to determine the IP of this clone website, and there are a wide variety of solutions (including free options) that can help you with this.
Keep in mind that the attacker can launch their web scraper or other tools from another server, so IP-based blocking might not be effective. You can try to identify IPs that frequently crawl your website that block them, or you can use automated monitoring/blocking solutions to prevent future website cloning attempts (more on this later.)
Identify the clone website’s hosting service, domain provider, and/or CDN, then send them a domain takedown request.
In this takedown request, provide a brief (but adequate) explanation about the website cloning attack while including screenshots and other relevant evidence.
You should also share your copyright and trademarks in the takedown request, which can significantly help in convincing the hosting provider to perform the takedown faster.
A more effective approach both in terms of accuracy and cost-efficiency is to use a dedicated website cloning and Copyright Infringement Monitoring Solution like Red Points’.
Red Points leverages state-of-the-art technology to conduct real-time domain research and monitoring, so you can use your time to focus on your core business tasks instead.
Once it identifies a clone website, Red Points will also automatically take the necessary steps to take down the fake website and collect data that might be used as evidence if you are taking legal actions against the individuals or organizations performing the website cloning attack.
While above, we have discussed how to effectively identify, block, and takedown clone websites, taking adequate preventive measures is always better.
When implementing preventive measures against website cloning, there are some key principles you should consider:
Here are what you can do to achieve these and prevent your website from being cloned:
Website cloning attacks can be a major threat to businesses with a website and can cause major financial and reputational damages, as well as potential legal repercussions.
While 100% prevention of website cloning is very challenging in practice, the actionable tips we’ve shared above can help you in protecting your website and prevent cyber criminals from cloning your content, design, or code.
Additionally, by showing you the steps you could take in the event of website cloning attempts targeting your website, you should now be aware of how to take the right actions to take down the cloned website and protect your own.
Nonetheless, proactive prevention and protection of your brand by implementing real-time anti-cybersquatting protection like Red Points’ Brand Protection Solution remain the best bet to protect your website’s integrity without disrupting the user experience.