What to Do When Someone Steals Your Portfolio (I Would Know)

Jonathan Patterson
12 min readJul 11, 2023


Ben franklin linocut with black bar over eyes

As designers our intellectual property are valuable assets. The websites, products, and services we design can have hundreds of hours of research, and effort poured into them. So when someone poaches our precious pixels, it has the potential to create confusion, we may miss out on new opportunities, and we get upset. But, many times we may not know what to do first in situations like this. Sure, we can fire off an angry message and hope that the perpetrator does the right thing and takes down the infringing content. But chances are if they’ve stolen our work they’re not interested in doing the right thing. There’s got to be a better way…

No matter how long you’ve been in the business of design, this has probably happened to you, your friends, or peers. Infuriating? Hell yeah! But, you’ve got options. Here’s what to do, what constitutes copying, and how I handled the situation when I learned someone had hijacked my handiwork. Spoiler alert: I go hard!

www.jonathanpatterson.com home page website design with 6 quadrants using colors from green through navy blue.
My home page design

An unsuspecting messenger

To remain discreet, I’ve left out any real names, but don’t worry, you’ll still get the main point. Let’s call the guy who alerted me to this matter Frank the Finder. Before this we were perfect strangers. And for the guy who did the thieving — Pete the Plagiarizer. Here’s the message that brought the whole heist to my attention:

“Dear Jonathan,

I hope this email finds you well. I wanted to reach out to you about a concerning matter that I recently came across. While browsing the internet, I stumbled upon a portfolio that appears to be an exact copy of your work. As a fellow designer, I understand how crucial it is for creatives to uphold ethical standards when it comes to drawing inspiration from the work of others. However, when individuals blatantly copy ideas and present them as their own, it’s very disheartening.

Here is a link

I strongly believe that action needs to be taken to protect your work. Whatever course of action you choose, please know that I am here to support you in any way that I can.

I would appreciate it if you could keep my identity confidential in this matter. I hope this information is useful to you, and I want to express my admiration for the incredible work that you do.

Frank the Finder”

Let’s have a look…

Uh oh, it looks like Pete has copied everything—all except for my homepage with its six quadrants; “his” website only has four main pages, which prevented him from duplicating my homepage.

Above, he’s even been so bold as to copy a case study, surreptitiously changing the title and details of the work to remove any indication that I created it.

Creative rearrangement of the colors of pages does not amount to an original idea. As you can see in the example above, Pete has taken my Clients page design and used it as “his” About page. What a hack.

The last example above shows just how far Pete went; he even plagiarized my headlines, CTAs, and other copywriting, word for word!

As you can expect I was shocked… livid!

The benefit of having a unique portfolio is that people will recognize it, for better or for worse. Short of adding a laundry list of blogs and websites I’ve been fortunate enough to have my website featured on, the one thing that I feel highlights my creative talents more is my long track record of full time freelance design; I started back in 2011, since then I’ve worked with companies of all sizes including some big names like Google, Sony Pictures, Ford, and Postmates. During this time my portfolio has seen many iterations, the most recent of which involves a modular layout with multi-colored quadrants, as you saw at the beginning of this piece.

Over the last few years I’ve finessed it, adding case studies, making color contrast WCAG compliant, and replacing flat design elements with 3D illustration as I up-skilled the types of deliverables I’m able to offer my clients. Though it’s never truly “done” much effort goes into the design and development to make my website the very best it can be.

When we find out that someone has pilfered our work it’s important to be ready to act. But, the circumstances surrounding the theft influence what actions we might take. Here are just a few to be aware of. All of which I’ve taken at some point in my career to protect my intellectual property.

Red push pin

Protect your IP: essential remedies to know

  1. If your work has been used without your permission, emailing the perpetrator is a good first step. This is especially true if they have innocently used your work, which may have happened as a result of your work being featured on a website with no attribution, or added to a stock graphics website, or as part of a web template. Though, if you suspect it was done maliciously, ratchet up your approach with this next method.
  2. You can file a DMCA takedown notice, which stands for Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Filing a DMCA notice involves issuing a formal complaint to the right party, like a web host or search engine, and requesting that anything that infringes your intellectual property be removed. You might use this when your design is being used to offer a competing product on a website. This takedown notice is technically a legal claim of ownership but if you’re certain you have the authority to file a claim, the process usually requires little more than filling out an online form wherever the infringing content is hosted. Companies have a legal duty to honor takedown requests, and they generally act immediately.
  3. Alternatively, you can contact an intellectual property attorney. But, that doesn’t mean you need to jump to a lawsuit, which for small infringements might be overkill. An attorney can create what’s called a demand letter; a formal notice with the aim of resolving the issue outside of court. This might work well if the person infringing on your design isn’t aware that what they’ve done is wrong and you want to show you mean business. And, it’s likely the most bang for your buck. The cost will include the attorney’s fee for writing and sending the letter. What’s better, some attorneys provide this service for a flat-fee.

These are simply options to consider, and there are likely many other avenues you can take.

My multi-pronged approach

I could have contacted Plagarama-Pete directly but I wanted him to be aware that he was wrong in taking credit for my design work, and that anyone he had shared it with would be aware of this too. If all went accordingly, I’d never even have to speak with him directly. So, I put in place a multi-pronged approach that covered all the angles.

I started by contacting GitHub, where the site was hosted

I quickly saw an opportunity to enact divine cyber justice and not just get his site taken down with a DMCA request, but also go one better and get his entire account suspended for Terms of Service violations. I dropped an email to GitHub support. Here’s their response:

A busy startup office with people using various computers and interacting with one another

“Hi Jonathan,

Thanks for reaching out.

We understand that copyrighted, trademarked, or private content may get published on GitHub — either accidentally or on purpose — sometimes in repositories that you do not own. Because the nature of this content varies, and because of different applicable laws, each category has its own, distinct reporting requirements outlined in our policies.

If you’d like to request that content be removed from GitHub, please take some time to acquaint yourself with each of these policies and their respective reporting requirements before submitting a report.

—GitHub Support

Dam. That’s not the response I was looking for. That email essentially led back to a page on filing a DMCA takedown request.

However, as luck would have it, a couple weeks before this incident a fellow senior product designer from GitHub sent me a connection request on LinkedIn. I took the opportunity to reach out to him and explain the situation. Here’s his response:

“Hey Jonathan,

Sorry to hear there’s some thief out there, your site is phenomenal. I’m familiar with it because I’ve had it bookmarked as inspiration for quite a while 😄. Let me see what I can do, I’ll send some messages on our Slack to see what the best course of action is.

—GitHub Product Designer”

See, having a distinctive portfolio does have its perks! With the first skewer of my plan firmly wedged, I moved on to the next prong.

I contacted the university, where he was set to graduate that same semester

The plan slowly coming together, I reached out to the Student Conduct and Academic Integrity Office of the Dean of Students. Why? Because I needed to be sure Pete’s admission, assignments, or grades weren’t predicated on my work. I initiated the process by talking to the office, then followed up with a submission of a formal misconduct incident through their website. They were clearly ready to take the incident earnestly:

“Hello Jonathan,

We will be taking this matter seriously and investigating further. I am scheduling a meeting with this student for next week and will discuss the severity of the situation. Thank you for your report and assistance in holding our students accountable.

—Student Conduct and Academic Integrity”

Then I contacted his employer where he was interning

I won’t give the name, let’s just say it’s a big technology company. If Petey Plagimagus landed that internship at my expense I’d make sure he paid in full. Within two weeks of contacting his employer the human resources department had opened an investigation into the matter. A senior regional manager followed up with me to collect more details — I had videos and screenshots at the ready. Now, all of my avenues were covered.

Within virtually no time at all, an email from Pete hit my inbox.

Authentic apology or just deception?

Deception. But, I’ve got to give it to Pete. He did a pretty good job of faking remorse. If I weren’t so detail oriented I may have fallen for his apology. I responded, and didn’t mince words:

“Attention Pete,

Copying isn’t learning.

Moreover, I have ample additional evidence that not only were you aware that my portfolio and works contained within it are my original intellectual property, you actively manipulated those contents to remove that information as displayed in part in the attached document. As such, your apology is not acceptable.

I require you provide evidence of where you found my site elsewhere on the internet that was labeled as CC0, a template, or some other designation that you were free to copy and use. If you do not or cannot provide satisfactory proof on or before May 8, 2023 — or confess you knew the work was authored by me and removed that identification — you should consider this matter unresolved and expect further action from me in greater force.

Jonathan Patterson”

Clearly I was upset. But before I go any further, let me take a minute to tell you about what you should know and strive for as a designer so you never have to learn the lesson I was about to teach Pete from the school of hard knocks.

Your creativity begins with inspiration. Here’s how the pros do it.

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative is a book by Austin Kleon that I immediately thought of in this situation. This book is critically acclaimed and widely renowned for its impact on the design community. In it, you’ll find sage advice on how to take inspiration, without plagiarizing. In it he says “all creative work builds on what came before… nothing is completely original.” I tend to think that’s true, and there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.

Austin Kleon Steal Like an Artist book.

So, where do ideas come from? I think the most compelling ones come from the unexpected connections that we can make between previously unconnected topics. The magic comes from the mixing of different concepts in novel ways. This is why it’s important to take inspiration from everywhere. I’m inspired by animated films, music, nature, photography, and many other things, and bring ideas from those spaces into the product design work I do. What inspires your work? — sound off in the comments below.

Here’s another quote in Austin’s book by Jim Jarmusch “Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, homes, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”

Am I the first person to use brightly colored shapes in a modular design? Nope. Did I invent thematic narratives that blend perfectly with the visuals of a website? I wish. But, I am the first person to do it in such a way that it creates a unique experience in its own regard.

As Austin puts it, “Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.”

Knowing the details of this information intimately, it’s best to learn these lessons early. Now Petey Plagiars must learn the lesson he missed out on in class. Fortunately, I am an excellent teacher.

Don’t cross the wrong creative, pay the price if you do.

At this point I had spoken with and provided all of the relevant details to Pete’s web host, school, and employer. Time to square-up…

My connection at GitHub wasn’t able to pull any strings, but Pete’s website is no more, with only a 404 page in its place!

404 page on GitHub

As for Pete’s university, I had a feeling they would come down hard on him and from what I intuited, they did. For legal reasons, the integrity office kept a tight lid on the specifics, but from my further conversation with them, I could tell that Pete was not getting away lightly. Plagiarism is considered a severe breach of academic integrity. Penalties can include an official letter of reprimand, a suspended or failed course grade, delayed graduation, probation, or even expulsion. My work here was done.

Man depressed in bed in dark room with pillow over face courtesy Ron Lach, Pexels (9615248)

Pete’s employer really came through — they gave him the full penalty for his unacceptable behavior. I heard the news that the investigation was over and it couldn’t be better — Pete’s no longer employed with that place.

I was satisfied with how everything panned out and decided to leave it there without pursuing Pete any further.

Closing the loop with Frank the Finder

Who knows how long it would have taken me to discover that my portfolio had been stolen without Frank’s help. But again, that’s one of the benefits to having a unique portfolio; people remember it. To spread the good feels I made sure to let Frank know what happened and how I felt:

“Hey Frank,

Here’s how everything panned out…

…You really did the right thing by bringing this to my attention, for that I’m so grateful. If you ever need any help in the future with career advice, critique, etc. please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Jonathan Patterson”

Mission complete!

Now you’re armed with the resources to handle the situation when someone copies your design or intellectual property. You also know the importance of taking inspiration without plagiarism. If you’ve ever been left feeling helpless, let’s make some noise — with Pete in his place, this win is for the team. But, before we go I want to make sure I leave you with as many tools as I can.

In addition to Austin’s book, I recently came across an article from the writer Mark Mason entitled 5 Boring Ways to Become More Creative. In it he writes “Research suggests that the process of creativity starts first with immersing yourself in the domain you’re interested in. That means: first, study your ass off. Before adding something novel (and valuable!) to any body of work, you first have to know what that body of work is and get good enough to at least emulate it, if not surpass it.”

On that note, for those of you interested in learning more about me, find me on Twitter, and LinkedIn, or reach me via my website at www.jonathanpatterson.com with any product design inquiries or questions.

Catch you later ;)



Jonathan Patterson

Senior Product Design Generalist: I'm the hidden expert behind your everyday digital experiences.