Copycat Startups: When is it OK to Steal Ideas?

There are differing opinions in our field when it comes to the fine line between using a website or idea as inspiration and blatant copyright infringement.

Some feel that getting inspired by other designs and utilizing elements of them in your own is completely natural, even necessary. Others argue that copying anything, even a fairly generic layout structure, is copyright infringement.

No matter which side you’re on, you can’t help but notice copycats in almost every successful new web service or social network that launches. In many cases, the copycats out-innovate and eventually become market leaders. Facebook wasn’t the first social networking website … there was Friendster (which actually patented social networking), MySpace, and then Facebook.

More recently, Pinterest has come under the spotlight as an innovative way to bookmark, categorize and share ideas, photos, and links. As Pinterest grew in popularity, copycats like Pinspire and Clipix have popped up, with almost exactly the same layout and functionality. Pinspire and OpenPin.org are almost pixel-for-pixel clones of Pinterest — at least Clipix tried to come up with original graphics.

Where is the Line?

Where is the line, and have Pinspire, OpenPin or Clipix crossed it? More importantly, if they have, why are they still up and running? I raise this question because I’m interested in where copying stops and innovation begins.

You may not think of Apple as a copycat, but they were never the first to market with any of the devices that they now dominate in market share. Smartphones and tables have been around for over a decade, and even the mouse was invented by Xerox PARC. Apple saw the “mouse” on a visit to Xerox and incorporated the idea into the Macintosh, believing it would revolutionize computing (which it did). They even borrowed heavily from the GUI (graphical user interface) concepts developed at Xerox, which Microsoft then famously copied to create Windows.

Copy or Improve?

Twitter has its share of competition as well, but most Twitter competitors that pop up aren’t carbon copies. They take the concept of a microblogging service and improve on, or alter, the idea somewhat. My favorite Twitter competitor was Pownce, which was very similar but allowed you to select different types of content to publish, such as a photo, link, video, or text update. Although Pounce has shut down, you can see its idea in the status update functionality of most social networking sites today, including Facebook and LinkedIn.

Improve on Others’ Ideas

It’s too early to tell whether Pinterest (or its clones) will be successful. But competition drives innovation, and I expect we’ll see both Pinterest and competitors in the space improving on the original “pin board” concept with new features and interface improvements.

Instead of just copying a website, service offering, or marketing message, think about how you can improve on the original idea. How can you make it your own? What’s missing … or what can be taken away?

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  • Tarun Gehani

    Nicely written article. I’m unsure where I would draw the line, I’d probably consult with a lawyer just to be safe, but I agree, competition drives innovation. Anything that improves user experience is a good thing. Hopefully these companies are thinking of the end user, and not just the trendy new technology, because in the end, the customer is in control.

    • http://www.brandoneley.com Brandon Eley

      Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Definitely a good idea to consult with an attorney that specializes in IP (intellectual property) before launching any product or service that borrows heavily from another, established, one.

  • http://na Jay

    It was spelt Pownce rather than Pounce

    • http://www.onsman.com Ricky Onsman

      Thanks, Jay. I should have caught that.

      • http://www.brandoneley.com Brandon Eley

        Thanks for catching that! It’s been a while :)

  • http://www.successcenterusa.com Joy Johnson

    That’s why it’s so important to be the first to build critical mass. Everything – pretty much everything – has niche based clones – even in brick and mortar. The first to reach critical mass seldom loses, even when they do things very, very wrong. When you get there first, everyone else is “like” you or different than you because . . . but it’s always you as the basis of comparison. When “they” come up in discussion, so do you. In a sense, these little wanna-bes are actually quite helpful – free advertising. Human nature dictates we want to be part of the big, important thing – not the thing like the big important thing. Now, if the wanna-bes start eating your lunch, there’s a problem, and its your problem. If you enter a race, you don’t get to win by kicking the other runners out of the race – you have to be ahead at the finish line. That’s how business should be. It is a philosophy that favors those with deep pockets and I hate that, but perhaps in our new “sharing” world, people with less money will start understanding the value of pulling together to fund projects. Besides, sometimes having no money is a huge benefit because it drives creativity like nothing else can. Many of these companies just get bought up by the big guys so they can strip out the engineers anyway. I see that as the bigger problem and impediment to development.

  • Fred

    For the sake of completeness you should note that Apple licensed the Xerox technology that became the Mac because as it reads now you imply they just copied/stole it whole cloth.

    • http://www.brandoneley.com Brandon Eley

      Fred, from what I’ve read there were no licensing agreements but Xerox was allowed to buy stock options in exchange for those “visits” to see emerging tech that was being developed. From Wikipedia:

      “Xerox was allowed to buy pre-IPO stock from Apple, in exchange for engineer visits and an understanding that Apple would create a GUI product”

      I did not intend to say they illegally stole IP in any way, but they did very much borrow from the ideas of the Xerox engineers in their design of the Macintosh operating system.

  • Louise Moore

    Interesting article. I checked out a few of the copycat sites you mentioned and you’re right about clipix–they do seem to be doing something a little different. They’re not really a social network, it seems more like a personal tool, which I like. I think it’s so cool that you can upload documents or PDFs and give them customized thumbnails so you always know what you’re looking at. It’s less about looking pretty and more about staying organized, which is what I need it for. Plus it’s awesome that you can choose to make your clipboards private or public (the lack of privacy on Pinterest really bugs me!). As a consumer, I’m not too bothered by the potential copyright issues… if one site is more convenient for me, I’ll use it no matter who came first. I still love Pinterest, but I definitely think clipix is going about it the right way and building off the bookmarking craze in innovative ways.

  • shari

    I agree with the comment below about Clipix. I use it for personal organizational purposes as well as professional purposes. I have even set up clipboards which i share with everyone about my business. I also keep some private – which i don’t think the other sites offer – this allows me to organize my personal information – like accounting, banking info.

    • SB

      Couldn’t agree more with this comment. Have tried Clipix and love it.

    • http://www.brandoneley.com Brandon Eley

      You trust your banking information on a free web service that does not even encrypt transmissions using SSL? Wow.

  • http://www.webmentor.cr/ Marco

    Improve by far. The world moves by that, improving.

    The problem with improving is that it’s basically digging a hole on the exact same spot. You won’t always find the results you wanted.

    Finding new holes to dig in, is what can make something succesful.

  • Miguel

    I think we’d be hard pressed in any area of human endeavor not to find copying. In particular in art and design, copying is a way of learning and advance the field. The great artists of antiquity were heavily influenced one by another and Michelangelo, for example, is said to have influenced El Greco.

    Picasso famously quipped something like: “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.”

    And the Canadian designer Bruce Mau asserts in his Incomplete Manifesto for Growth:

    “Imitate. Don’t be shy about it. Try to get as close as you can. You’ll never get all the way, and the separation might be truly remarkable. We have only to look to Richard Hamilton and his version of Marcel Duchamp’s large glass to see how rich, discredited, and underused imitation is as a technique.”

    Look around. Everyone is copying everyone. Mercedes copies BMW. Google Copies Apple. Apple copies, errr, licenses Xerox. Pinterest copied FFFFound, I suspect.

    In any genuine act of copying there usually is at least one important innovation and that might be enough to make it worthwhile. It’s too boring to copy something verbatim. One slight difference could be hugely important as Mau argues.

    Even the philosopher John Locke said something like — if I understand him correctly — no idea is truly original and is simply the synthetic amalgamation of things the mind has previously come into contact with.

    • http://www.brandoneley.com Brandon Eley

      I think there is a difference between imitating or copying to learn and copying a product that you then produce as your own work. I learned web development by “copying” others’ code and layouts, but I never published that work. Trying to reproduce a site’s layout or css was a great way to learn, and the skills it taught me were put to use in other projects. I would never actually publish a website I copied.

  • Charlie

    Nice article Brandon. I think it’s important to have copycat start-ups. It reduces your risk and ability of being first to market with an offering and then sitting back on your laurels and patting yourself on the back. If you have a pack of hounds snapping at your heals, it will force you to take your business offering and adapt and follow your consumer’s wants and needs; basically, it will promote and necessitate continuous innovation. As you’ve said, the first-to-market companies are often surpassed by their competitors. What I find really interesting are the situations when the first-to-market company ends up copying features from their own copycats. Examples would include the iPad 1 not having a camera, then its copycats launching tablets with cameras, and hey presto, the iPad 2 comes out with a camera :) Either way, as we’ve noted, it’s the consumers who will ultimately benefit.

    • http://www.brandoneley.com Brandon Eley

      Thanks, glad you liked the article Charlie. I agree that competition is key to force further innovation, but carbon copies don’t do that. I think several of Pinterest’s competitors will likely force them to innovate and improve their service (just as Twitter’s early competitors did) but Clipix isn’t one of those…

  • http://georgelangley.ca George Langley

    And interesting to note – the trackball predates the mouse by nine years. Invented by scientists woking with the Royal Canadian Navy in 1952, it was developed to control a computerized mapping system known as DATAR. Personally, have always preferred a trackball – less movement and less desk space required to operate. So is another example of a poorer copy cat being more popular.

  • http://www.grapheion.org Michele Finelli

    Dear Brandon, the discussion you open up with this post has been made not less than a week ago with some friend of mine and we endend up with a common thought: as an “artist” (in the wides meaning of the term) you have the needing to copy or, better, to re-elaborate someone else suggestions, idea, concepts etc.
    What you don’t have the right to is to “just” copy and pretend to be an “artist”. What I mean is that there are a lot of suppose to be webdesigners and webdeveloper that have never develop or designed something their own, but everytime have steal someone else work, with a slight adaptation, and presented it as coming from their “inspiration”.
    In my work – graphic and web – I struggle to found out all the possible inspiration I can. The Italian web is still in the Bronze Era in relation to UX, well written code, evolution from old styles. What I do is normally browse around and jump in places like this (i mean Site Point in general) and found a huge quantity of suggestions and opinions from allover the world.
    Be sure that I will “steal” a lot from you!

  • http://crowdogs.com Peter Schreiner

    Everything we’ve learned since birth has been mimicked to some degree or another. Everything.

  • markus

    If you going to have a similar concept you better improve it. http://juxtapost.com is similar but have taken the pinterest idea much further. facebook improved myspace, google improved yahoo, juxtapost improves pinterest.

    the direct clones add nothing.

  • http://www.sonjakulas.iz.hr Sonja

    Nice article. As Joy Johnson said, it is important to be first with a great idea, and sometimes you get free advertising through that…
    I think we all copy things we like, but it is different when we learn from other people’s experience, and completely another thing when some people has just stolen idea and gave no effort at all… that is so pathetic then…
    I like to see other people’s work and get inspired through it.

  • http://Www.Buutup.com Recholes

    Brandon you are right on point with your take on mimic. There is a wide gap between clipix and pintrest and say snagascript that just cranks out tools to copy.

    I have been looking for a good similar site or site comparison site. I think an intricate part of researching the value you can bring to a space is knowing the competitive landscape. Thus far quarkbase is the best tool I can find. Any more suggestions ?

    I find moreofit.com and similarsites.com are not very accurate.