Entrepreneur - - By Brandon Eley

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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