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"Immature Artists Imitate..."

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Richard Titus Richard Titus | 10:44 UK time, Tuesday, 17 June 2008

"...mature artists steal."

--Lionel Trilling, Esquire, Sept 1964, quoting Eliot

The fine line between your influences and outright plagiarism is getting finer indeed.

In the music world, people are mashing up music from previously made recordings, performing and "reinterpreting" other artists' work: Danger Mouse's Grey Album and artists like Nouvelle Vague, Richard Cheese and many others have demonstrated this to phenomenal effect.

So when my team in user experience and design started seeing other groups building sites which were similar to, inspired by, or in one case a borderline copy of the BBC homepage, (SSIs and all), they waited to see what the Yank from the land of litigious copyright lawyers would do (that's me, by the way).

Frankly, I found myself - as did most of the team - mildly flattered, and even challenged.

bbc site clones
Composite image by Ryan Morrison

The first site I saw was the Croatian site. I thought: "Wow, from a design standpoint that's quite similar to ours - there are some interesting tweaks as well." A week or so later, I saw the RTL Hungary site. Seeing these two, so close in time, I found myself quite intrigued.

I believe inspiration can come from a variety of sources. Some of the inspiration for the BBC homepage included a diverse array of sites across the web, but I wonder what Google, Pageflakes, Facebook and CNN think about BBC.co.uk/home.

I know what Netvibes thinks about it: co-founder and CEO Tariq Kim and I talked about it extensively.

He felt our adoption of a similar experience/interaction model to Netvibes and Pageflakes (his arch-rival) simply helped to demonstrate the real impact of widgets, modular content delivery, rss/xml and personalisation. "A rising tide lifts all boats" was essentially his message.

I agree with him. Each iteration of a technology and/or approach creates new opportunities to innovate (or riff, if we are still using musical terms) on that idea with one of your own. In many ways, the BBC's adoption of Web 2.0 thinking, personalisation and widgets helped to break down barriers at other organisations. Audience desire for personalisation was estimated as a niche offer before the BBC demonstrated that +30% (+50% of the beta) of our unique users personalise their experience in some way. To me, this audience engagement is the real success story of the homepage.

Here are a few facts about personalisation of the new BBC homepage:

  • +30% of global unique users personalise it in some way
  • Most popular module combinations and positions:
      (1) News + Weather + Sport + TV + CBBC + Radio + iPlayer + Blogs
      (2) News + Weather+ Sport + TV + CBBC + Radio
  • Most added / opened modules:
      (1) News
      (2) Sport
      (3) Blogs
  • Most deleted / minimised modules:
      (1) CBBC
      (2) News
      (3) Sport

One of the most popular positioning changes is swapping Sport for News. Here are the default and most popular customization positions:

  • removing the blogs module and the iPlayer module
  • opening the CBBC module, and moving it into the second column
  • TV at top of column 2 (chicken and egg here - I don't know whether users moved down weather, leaving TV to go up "naturally", or vice versa)
  • Moving the weather module down to the bottom of row 2 and minimising it


Remember, these are international figures. iPlayer, Radio and TV aren't as relevant to many of those audiences - but the figures are still fascinating. News and sport seem to be very polarising elements of the BBC's offering; our children's content is likely most interesting if you are or have a child! And due to licensing restrictions, BBC iPlayer is only available/useful in the UK.

We're collecting lots of really great data from the homepage and trying to use them to inform our choices for things to improve and things that work well and, across the BBC, to assess new editorial offerings.

But back to the influences and copies. On the whole, I'm flattered that someone thought what we have done to be important enough to influence their work. It means that we've done something important, or at least opened some people's minds somewhat. Mary Meeker, a financial analyst in the US, said that she was surprised that, of all the media companies in the world, it was the BBC that innovated so clearly into the personalised audience-engaged homepage.

But my friends at news organisations apparently discuss our homepage a lot. Even TechCruch's Michael Arrington talked about it on US television. Maybe we've demonstrated demand for something many of them didn't really expect would be compelling: an opinion I suspect they are reconsidering.

I've travelled and even lived quite extensively in Eastern Europe, including Hungary, and I was blown away by the depth of knowledge and passion around internet technology there. So the fact that web developers from two different Eastern European countries - both with healthy web development and IT and design communities - picked us as a primary influence on their work to revamp media portals says to me that we've done something right.

Some of their peers berated them for their work, but I say: thanks! There are times when the BBC lawyers must defend the BBC's rights for all kinds of good reasons, but my personal opinion is that these examples help to drive creativity and innovation in a way that we should embrace.

I've always felt that design, software and music have a lot in common. When musicians jam, they sit around and riff off each other. They write songs together collaboratively, in the room, each inspiring the other to take it to a new interesting place. Other times, you get an idea in your head from the session, but go home and end up personalising it, composing it into a complete tune and making it your own. We each take our inspiration from many things, so to lock up creativity and ideas is to me the biggest danger of copyright law.

Frankly, on a personal level, I've always given my ideas away, often for free or with little or no compensation. My lawyer friends make fun of this, but I feel most ideas are ephemeral. It's the hard work of iterating them into something truly useful and refining, and revamping again and again that's the art, the science and the fun.

There is something else to point out about the homepage - something that most of the sites also picked up on and then used in some way. The code.

Behind the amazing design the User Experience team developed for the homepage is some amazing, well crafted code delivered by the our CSD team (in record time, I might add - less than four months from idea to delivery!). As is always the case with good code, it is invisible to the user - technology as a means not an end.

However, the code which powers the homepage, with its SSIs and legacy Perl issues, is really some pretty amazing stuff. It just works: it's clean, fast and accessible and the user doesn't even know that it's there. At the BBC, we are currently working on code libraries (like our Glow library, which will be used in the forthcoming new beta homepage) and public-facing design and code pattern libraries.

This is publicly funded work and, where there is a clear benefit to the public, let's try to make it available to the public to personalise and to make their own. Perhaps we can eventually evolve this into an open source code library - we already have BBC Open Source where we release material like this. In my humble opinion, this is a great expression of our public purpose and, frankly, an interesting thing to do.

In closing, I'll share my favourite of the sites which bear uncanny similarities to our homepage. It uses quite a bit of our amazing code - it's for Little Ilford School in East London. Next generation education indeed.


Richard Titus is Acting Head of User Experience & Design for FM&T.

Editors' note: This saw is from TS Eliot's The Sacred Wood: Essays On Poetry & Criticism (1922; see below), but has been mashed up into various other forms, including the title of a Morrissey compilation and attributed to many well-known and impressive-sounding figures (including, as is the case for all maxims, Oscar Wilde).

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. [cited in full at Bartleby]


  • Comment number 1.

    I understand this is different departments and everything, and this post is your opinion.

    But what is the difference between an organisation clearly ripping off and profiting from your website.
    And a woman who creatively makes wool versions of Dr Who characters for fun?

    I'm sure you can understand it will appear to the general public, as if you have drawn a line, and you are on the wrong side of it.

  • Comment number 2.

    Brilliant. Little Ilford School has the following metatags at the top of their html:

    Interesting keywords for a school.

  • Comment number 3.

    That's a pity - it looks like a filter for HTML or somesuch gimgaw has removed half of chriskeene's post at #2. The desription of Little Ilford in the metatags is "bbc.co.uk offers a varied range of sites including news, sport, community, education, children's, and lifestyle sites, with TV programme support, TV and radio on demand via BBC iPlayer, and easy to use web search from the BBC." and the keywords are "BBC, bbc.co.uk, Search, British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC iPlayer, BBCi".

    Alan Connor, BBC Internet Blog.

  • Comment number 4.


    regarding Dr Who knitting patterns. The action taken was the responsibility of BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC.

    For further explanation see this comment by them on the Open Rights Group blog:


    Nick Reynolds (editor, BBC Internet blog)

  • Comment number 5.

    Thanks Nick,

    I hadn't managed to catch the BBC's response on that matter when that news broke.

    I am a strong believer in open sourceand public licences. Knowing now the BBC's actual response (opposed to the tabloid version), you can consider my first post retracted.

  • Comment number 6.

    @2, 3

    Chris entered some HTML not in the comment whitelist, so it was removed. Newlines were left in though, hence the big gap.

  • Comment number 7.

    very interesting, just 2 questions:
    *So it's ok the (shamelessly) copy-paste source code from the BBC website and use it or will the BBC take actions against this website?

    *In the second image, I noticed you moved the 'big box' (with a The Apprentice-ad in it) to the right. Could you tell me how to do that because it seems I can only move the small boxes (news, sport, ..) but not the big one!

  • Comment number 8.

    I think it's great that the publicly funded BBC should have an open source attitude to its' code. But I'm sure the good people of Hungry don't pay their licence fees so why should they be allowed to plagerise the BBC?
    Also, if the BBC is happy for others to use its' code, it should adopt some standard creative commons or open source licence around it, which would usually involve crediting the author and restricting the way they use the code. I think that until this is implemented the BBC should certinly prosecute companies which have infringed their copyright.

  • Comment number 9.

    FredericBelgium - the version in the second screenshot is the UK version of the homepage.

    I'm guessing you see the International version which looks slightly different and I believe includes a left hand box.

  • Comment number 10.

    It’s a really interesting point you’ve made - this is more about the BBC’s influence than someone just ripping the corporation off - I hadn’t thought of it that way but it does have precedent.

    I’ve been working in new media for all of my adult life (about ten years) and one thing I used to hear a lot (I’ve now jumped ship from interface design and moved to work for BBC Local as a New Media Journalist) was “how does the BBC do it”.

    In fact it wasn’t until the BBC started moving pages to 800px wide that others followed - especially those of us working for companies specialising in design for finance businesses, trust companies and government agencies.

    A publicly available code library from the BBC would be impressive and .. again influential.

  • Comment number 11.

    upyourego: do you see the big box (with the 4 tabs) on the left or on the right side?
    If I switch from the Int version to the UK version, the box stays on the left.
    I think it is only for real UK citizens who select the 'UK version' option who have the box on the right, or am I wrong?
    Still, I think it's a bit double. I can't watch a 5 second news clip on the BBC website because I am not in the right area, but I CAN use the BBC's whole (and expensive) design on a commercial website without mentioning the BBC made it? Doesn't really make sense to me..

  • Comment number 12.

    Love the new design having lived with it for a while now.

    I think if you're going to name and shame the copycats you should also cite your own influences though.

    It reminded me in particular of a successful but short-lived aol.com homepage design of some years ago - personalised widgets and all. This was in the day before deciding they needed to look exactly like Yahoo.

    The clock is certainly quirky - was this the same designer who snuck the '11' on the iPlayer volume slider by them? :-)

    Interestingly I think aol abandoned many of the personalisation features after analysing the data and discovering nobody bothered to use it much beyond entering their postcode. Perhaps habits have changed.


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