Wired Law  
WiredLaw - Law Offices of Michael Leventhal
Legal Links
Contact Us
Email Us

AS THE WEB TURNS: WAR STORIES & SOAP OPERAS from the Internet Developers' Hall of Shame

It's a young industry. Developers are the pioneers bravely expanding the perimeter, defining the future. Here is a collection of real-life horror stories about life on the edge. You'll hear many voices in these cautionary tales, but the repeating patterns illustrate why the IDA's Ethical Standards and Practices (ESP) initiative has been launched.


A not-to-be-named company approached a number of developers, offering to help find financing for innovative commercial projects. They asked the developers to sign a vague document saying they were "affiliated." Within a short time the company sent out an email to its "affiliated developers" saying that $250,000 had been allocated by a foreign client for update and design of a site. They suggested we should send the company our best ideas as quickly as possible. I wrote several pages to propose what might be done with the client's existing site and how they might handle a full redo. Several developers took time from busy schedules to respond with proposals.

One colleague thought something was fishy. He challenged the company employee who had circulated the email for more details about the client's goals. The employee suddenly admitted that the "client" had not really asked for anything!

The company made up this story to get free ideas from all of us so that they could try to pitch the unsuspecting foreign client. They also put together marketing materials from the portfolios of the "affiliated developers," presented in a way to give uninformed clients the impression that their company had created all this excellent work rather than the independent creative developers.

When my colleague alerted several of us in private conversation that we had been misled, the company wrote an intimidating legal letter saying they had heard we were talking together. They threatened to sue him for defamation but didn't bother to apologize for lying to all of us and stealing our time under false pretenses.


In early '95 I was retained by a respected boutique advertising agency to help develop their Web strategy. They had no technical expertise, but wanted to sell Web development in addition to their standard advertising services. I advised them to create their own Website first, since a) they had a ton of creative talent to draw on in-house; b) I could bring in the technical resources for implementation; and c) it was highly unlikely that they'd close any Web deals without a track record. They insisted this wasn't necessary. At the time there was only a small handful of ad agencies on the Web, so they felt they were in an advantageous position. They were certain that they could close every one of the clients they'd set their sights on.

They asked me to design the concepts, functionality and budgets for the sites, and to work on the proposals. I told them this wasn't a very wise course of action, but the customer is always right, right? So I prepared a bunch of customized site concepts with specs and budgets attached. One of their clients was a motion picture company with whom they thought they had a close relationship (despite the company's reputation for not having a close relationship with anyone, but nevermind that). My agency was one of three which received the film company's RFP. The RFP was for a full-on site design. I expressed my concern that these guys were on a brain-picking expedition, but my client was so confident that they spent thousands of dollars (!) on custom graphics. I came up with really good conceptual stuff. The proposal came out beautifully. They flew across the country to make the pitch. They returned triumphant that the meeting had gone so well, and we awaited the outcome.

When the motion picture company finally called back, they said "Umm, thanks, but we've decided to do the work ourselves, with a local technical partner."

Six months later, I opened WIRED magazine and there, in the middle of the issue, was a full-page ad for the motion picture company's Website. The domain name was one I had suggested in the original proposal, but hey, it was a sensible name. I went to the site to check it out, and lo and behold--it was, essentially, the site I had mapped out six months before. They hadn't even bothered to change the area names!


In the beginning... as a favor and means to build up my resume, I offered one of my first clients web design and building services for a reduced rate. In return, the client offered to promote my company to their many clients. There was no written contract; just an understanding between us.

The client wanted a basic brochure site for their stock video company which included a searchable database for some 60,000 plus titles. They agreed to supply all content in digital form. But the client was new to the web. They didn't really understand what "digital content" meant, so I took time to educate them--and their computer "expert." I also had to hand-hold the client through the ISP maze, including numerous phone calls to me from their staff who couldn't remember how to log on, etc.

The aesthetic quality of the art on the video company's existing printed brochure was bad. I brought it into the 90's with Photoshop, which they loved. They also lacked high quality photos for some of their video titles. I happened to have excellent photos which I allowed them to use.

I finished the site, surpassed their expectations, got paid and moved on. Some time later I revisited their site online and noticed that it had been tampered with: some images were broken, layouts had changed on some pages *and* my credit had been removed from every page! Since the site was not looking so great it was actually a relief, but still...

The client said they now had an intern working the site but that I could add my credit back, and "would I mind fixing the problems?" I gave them a quote for the work based on my current hourly rate, which was reasonable, but they refused. They wanted me to fix their meddling for free just to restore my good name and credit. When we came to a standoff, I pointed out that all the original artwork was owned by me and that I would rescind my license to them if they would not have the site restored either by me or any qualified designer.

They refused. When I requested they stop using my art, they told me to sue them. I walked away. BTW, I never got a single referral from them... big surprise.


A web company, hired by a major film studio, subcontracted with me to product manage and HTML code a movie site. The budget was low and the time frame was rushed. In addition, the studio wanted the graphic design firm which produced their movie poster art and print advertising to be included in the project. The design firm had virtually no web experience. They were not online, didn't use email, had no concept of web graphic or HTML design and layout limitations. Nightmare.

Good News:
The design firm's work was exceptional. We decided to take their work, adapt it, and shift the design and layout duties to ourselves.

Bad News:
The client didn't care that we needed extra time just to teach their design firm our language so we could have constructive meetings.

Worse News:
The main contractor kept saying yes to each new page request from the studio and to delivery schedule changes that were pushed up, rather than back.

Preposterous, but humorous News:
One late night, after uploading test pages to the test site, I got a panic call from the design firm's project manager saying that the test pages were "not working." I tried them. They were fine. No broken graphics or links. My contact insisted that the site was not working. With questioning, it was revealed they thought the WWW was all streaming video, changing automatically. I carefully explained that to change pages on this site, as with most, they needed to use their mouse and click on the "underlined" words which were "hyperlinks." After some dead air I heard this contact say in gleeful ecstasy, "look! the arrow turns into a little hand!"

Disturbing News:
Not only were we expected to educate the studio's design firm, the studio itself was unreasonable. The next day I got a call from our studio contact saying that the homepage on the test site, "didn't look like a webpage" and that we "had to" totally re-design the pages. These pages followed our extensive and *approved* color storyboard, but suddenly there were several "new bosses" at the studio who didn't know the Web, but who now had artistic approval--even after the fact!

Mo' Impossible News:
Not only were our design, production and storyboards moot, we were told that we had to deliver the site three days earlier! I explained the problems caused by adding new approval points and upping the delivery date. The studio contact got very intense and abusive.

Best News:
I resigned, got no money, no credit, but lots of sleep.


This tale involves a very successful CD-Rom firm in San Francisco. They posted several jobs for writers through the Writers Guild representative in SF. Among the jobs were two "sitcom" sites they planned to produce. They asked for resumes. I sent mine and got a call from the "creative director". He told me what they were looking for and asked that I respond to a sheet of one paragraph ideas, expanding on them "to see how I wrote."

I stayed up one night and did about six pages on each paragraph and sent it back to him. A week later he called to say he loved the stuff and could I do a few more, "to open it up". I smelled a rat and called our Writers' Guild rep in SF to tell her what was going on. She discovered that this man had tried this tactic on a dozen all-too-willing writers, and had turned us all down for the job. Yes, there is a god. She went to his boss and gave this person chapter and verse on what the creative director did and how he was attempting to steal the material from all of us.... Both the creative director and his assistant were fired!


I responded to a request for a meeting to determine a potential client's needs for a Web site. The client received excellent guidance--a seminar, in fact--about the internet and the important issues to consider regarding commercial web sites.

I received a thank you and a very slow dissolve into the present.

The potential client decided they weren't ready to do a web site. An excellent and appropriate result of my efforts to help them, but unfortunately, I had spent dozens of needless hours working to help the potential client achieve this insight while I believed I was gaining brownie points and assuring myself the job.

The same result could have been achieved by the use of one simple document produced by the Ethical Standards & Practices (ESP) committee of the Internet Developers Association, known as "Q1."

Use of Q1 would have led me and the client effortlessly to the sublime conclusion--in about 15 minutes--that this client needed a full day of consultation. At the standard hourly rate.

The very next potential client that came along wanted to "get together and chat" about his need for a web site for his psychology practice. "What better way to start the new era?"--I thought, rubbing my hands together, in anticipation of a good road testing for Q1.

It was a piece of cake. The psychologist didn't have a clue about anything he needed, but he is now a very happy, regular consulting client who writes checks with a smile, is having me teach him HTML, site design and management. At some point he may just ask me to do it for him--but for now, he's happy, I'm happy. Skies are bright and blue.


In January 1995, right when the web took off, we got some good press, so we had all sorts of people coming to us for web services. Naturally, everyone who came in wanted to know how much a web site was. None of them had a clue that this can be an impossible question to answer without researching the needs of the client. But we wanted to do a quality job, so we spent time talking to these people, developing a nice proposal, then handing it to them.

Now educated, these people took the proposal we'd so kindly provided and went out to bid it. End result: they got a free consultation; we got to fight to win back what was originally our own ideas.

This caused a big debate in our company, which had grown and gained actual sales people. The sales people wanted to keep giving away consultation. The development side kept saying that consultation was a product separate from the actual web production. As such, it too should carry a price tag.

Our turn-around came with the Christians. This was a pair of men who came to us wanting to build the C|NET of Christianity online. Chat-board, news services--you name it, they wanted it. The developers didn't want to mess with them. The sales people thought there was some gold in heaven. Finally, we decided that for a flat-fee, we'd be happy to sit with them for an hour, answer all their questions, then turn-around a very basic proposal to be expanded in detail and cost if they were interested. For the first time, the developers sat back happy to be brain-drained because we were being paid for it. As it turned out, the pair could in no way afford what they'd hoped to build. They went away; we saved time and made money.

Clients asking for proposals are basically asking for free work, work that should be charged for.


An internationally prestigious and famously affluent client offered a top developer a six-figure design contract. The job was broken into multiple phases agreed to by both parties. The developer met all deadlines and requirements to the letter, on time, on budget and with flying colors--in fact exceeding all client expectations (in the client's words)--despite unrealistic deadlines, inadequate source material planning and vague directives.

Halfway through the contracted project, the client and the developer agreed that the final week of the current phase had arrived. During this seven days, all revisions were to be given to the developer, the developer would complete the revisions, and the client would make the next payment, positioning them to schedule the next step.

The client managed to stretch their seven day revision period into more than half a year's delay by not answering questions for weeks at a time, being alternately unavailable and then suddenly demanding new changes, promising that the check would arrive any day, then claiming internal organizational problems had caused it to go astray, until eventually they succeeded in withholding payment for an entire seven months.


Early on, one company--well known but not well respected--established a beachhead in the EPK/IPK (electronic/interactive press kit) biz for motion pictures by using the ideas and work product of those they hired for peanuts, without giving credit to the creators. It was this company's intention to make the buyers believe that they were the actual creators of the product they were selling, when, in fact, they never did any of the actual work. The result was to drive the prevailing price of the service into the toilet and deprive all of their contractors of any of the value of the reputation for quality which their work achieved.

Push came to shove when this company refused to even allow my clients to receive a national award which their work had earned. I had to pull a power play to get a final payment and other rights for my client. It was then that the company realized (because I told them) that they didn't own the copyright to the product they were trying to take credit for. Nonetheless, the owners of this company were able to sell out to a large media conglomerate for a couple of million dollars less than two years later. The developers who actually created the content that won all this recognition are still working to establish their reputation.

ESP | BeachParty | War Stories | Solutions | Q1 | Press Releases

Copyright 1999

Home | Profile | Articles | Links | Contact Us | Email

© Copyright 2003 Michael Leventhal. All Rights Reserved.