Borrowing vs. Stealing

Every now and then I’ll receive an email from a customer alerting me to a competing product that looks a lot like my own, but I’m rarely concerned by these reports. After all, my software borrows plenty of UI ideas from other programs, so how could I raise a stink when someone borrows from me? And quite frankly, it benefits all of us when innovation relies on borrowing – and building upon – existing ideas. That’s how good ideas get refined.

However, once in a while I’ll see a competitor who goes too far. Right now I’m aware of a CSS editor that not only looks similar to TopStyle, but also blatantly uses TopStyle’s data files.

If you look in TopStyle’s \CSSDefs and \HTMLDefs subfolders you’ll find several files containing information about the various flavors of HTML and CSS, which are used by features such as the inspector and style checker. The data isn’t simply a regurgitation of information from the W3C – it also contains details of cross-browser compatibility issues and the like, which represents a significant investment of my time.

This unnamed competitor also has a folder containing CSS and HTML data files – which are the same ones included with TopStyle! This isn’t just coincidence, since they contain the exact same bugs that TopStyle’s data files do (or did, at least, until I corrected them in TopStyle Pro 3.11).

Now, after trying out this product, I can see that it’s far less powerful than TopStyle (it offers no CSS or HTML validation, for example, and has nothing remotely like TopStyle’s site reports). But even so, it’s obviously trying to compete with TopStyle, and I’m not wild about a competitor passing off my work as their own.

I’ve privately contacted the company that makes this editor, but have yet to receive a reply. Short of taking legal action (something I really don’t want to do, since it takes far too much time and money), what are my options here?

33 thoughts on “Borrowing vs. Stealing

  1. If they don’t respond, post their name on your site. Try to get the post slashdot’ed – I think the slashdot crowd would eat this up – or at least Scoblized.
    They say that bad publicity is good publicity, but I surely wouldn’t want to get a bad rep with the developer community!

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  2. Don’t be too afraid of going the legal route. That’s what our system was designed for. You might have an attorney write up a cease and desist letter and file it with your local courts. That should get their attention.
    If you want the name of a good attorney that understand tech stuff, email me and i’ll forward you his info.

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  3. First of all, don’t bad mouth your competitors, that just can’t be good. I would give them two options:
    1) Remove the code from their program.
    2) They must pay a licensing fee for every copy sold or downloaded. Don’t make it very expensive, but do not give it away.
    3) Talk to a Laywer about your options. Maybe have them send a letter. A letter from a Laywer threatning to sue might be enough to scare them away. This of course is the last resort.
    Don’t blog about it, they probably read this site and know what you are planning. You can inform use after the fact, but if you do it while you are in action and are trying to bluff, they will probably call your bluff.

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  4. If you can prove copyright infringement then I could report it to their hosting company and have their account turned off. If they pop back up, then I would again, give them warning, then report then.
    I personally would not want to give them any publicity even if it is negative. My focus would be on stopping their existence and negative publicity can not achieve that. Turning off their hosting can. :)

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  5. 1) Break their legs – as they are effectively stealking money away from you and your family.
    2) In future release versions of TopStyles data files/code with small easter eggs that only you know about (that way its immediately clear they are ripping you off)
    3) Roll the dice and sue them, keeping in mind that typically anyone who would do this generally doesn’t have a large cash warchest and are most likely a startup concept only. Basically a legal letter (warning shot across the bow) is enough + a Public Apology. Ask them to publicise the fact that they were in breech of copyright (if they want to say “ooh we didn’t know etc” so be it, could be the case..some rogue programmer lifted the ideas and said “yes i came up with them” which the directors of the company go “fantastic new innovative idea” – it happens.
    Thats what i’d do anyway/

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  6. Perhaps you could use an idea Lycos recently had and make it so all versions of TopStyle “reduce the available bandwidth to 5%” *g*.
    Being serious though I know you don’t want to take legal action and I can understand why. Try and reason with the company and see what they do. I also suggest you look into some form of encryption for your files. It shouldn’t be all that hard for you to implement and it will protect your work (IP?)
    Perhaps you could sell the files to the company if they are willing to pay?
    If all else fails I would take legal action though as they have stolen your work. Copying a UI is one thing but stealing files is crossing the line between borrowing ideas and improving them and stealing.

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  7. While I think a good /.’ing would be fun I don’t think it would be a good idea. As Scott says they are probably a small startup. If you cause them problem they will just change their name and come back with a slightly changed product probably still using your work!
    I suggest a letter from a laywer so it is official and be prepared to take it further as it is a serious issue.
    The best option to protect against this in the future is to use encryption like I said in my first post. It doesn’t have to be to the level of AES just enough to make it too much work for someone to try and break.
    I kind of agree with Mike. I would not mention their name as it just gives them publicity however talking about it on your blog is fine. After all isn’s this why you have a blog?! You are not bad mouthing competitors you are simply asking for advice.
    Nothing wrong with that, I like the way you talk to us as people not just as customers.

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  8. What not to do

    Nick Bradbury has found a competitor who is using the data files from TopStyle and is passing them off as their own. Nick posts about how borrowing from others can be a benefit to all, but blatantly stealing is simply going too far. He has asked for…

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  9. Thanks for all the comments, folks. Although I’m tempted to “out” them here, that really goes against my nature.
    Perhaps the best idea is a simple “cease & desist” letter to start with, and if that fails, I’ll contact Boyzoid’s cousin Vinnie :)

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  10. I Agree with a couple of points above from Mike Wills:
    “First of all, don’t bad mouth your competitors, that just can’t be good. I would give them two options:
    1) Remove the code from their program.
    2) [ snip ]
    3) Talk to a Laywer about your options. Maybe have them send a letter. A letter from a Laywer threatning to sue might be enough to scare them away. This of course is the last resort.
    Don’t ^*continually*^ blog about it, they probably read this site and know what you are planning. You can inform use after the fact, but if you do it while you are in action and are trying to bluff, they will probably call your bluff.”
    Trial by media will ultimately give this guy more exposure. Remember the adage, “I don’t care what you say about me, just spell my name right.” Your a class act, Nick. I’m sure you will do the right thing. Good luck!

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  11. Mike Wills, He has full right to blog about it? whats he suppost to do? email us all? asking for ideas?
    Give them time to decided what do to, make it clear to them either they remove it, or you start licencing them a phenomenal amount to discourage people using your code.
    In the end, people using your code in attempts to copy your Topstyle creation, shouldnt get to keep their software. Topstyle is Topstyle, it’s already the god of the CSS world. Anyone stupid to attempt to copy that hard work and popularity is just stupid.
    Although they can get the same popularity if they decided to make a Mac/Linux version using new code, that would be alot more legit.
    Go hard Nick!

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  12. Nick,
    In reading your note on the TopStyle code-rip and the ensuing comments –
    1) I concure you did right in NOT publicly naming the offender;
    2) You _should_ use your Blog to comment and provide the public a platform for comment as well. Peer action has an effectiveness few can ignore;
    3) Seek legal council – regardless of whether you want to or not. Your business may be threatened -whether by this group or others – action now could very well help avoid future, much BIGGER problems.
    If you would like to see what is being done in another group – with a very similar situation – contact me personally and I’ll be glad to share it with you.
    Good luck.
    Honestly, Nick, the ‘copies’ are just that… copies. I’ve looked at them all and none of them are as good as TopStyle.
    I use 3 other Aggregators, and still I purchased FeedDemon, today; despite the fact that it does NOT work on Mac OS X (!!!) and I blog on a Mac, as well as PC. Good is good.
    However, a Mac OS X FeedDemon – would make it Unbeatable .. “8 ))

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  13. Consider some light encryption on the data files in the next revision? If they are a US company, do something legally. If not, ‘out them’ on the ‘net (such as the /. suggestion)…

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  14. If it’s who I think it is, then you’re just going to have to name and shame.
    Latvia is a long way from US jurisdiction.
    did you see the rapid CSS editor they’re selling too?
    looks like topstyle lite a bit (a lot)

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  15. Nick, further to the above I admit I am NOT a user of TopStyle Pro. But I am a registered user of FeedDemon.
    And that said. I’ve found Bloglines.com much better than FeedDemon.
    You should have kept HomeSite!!!!

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  16. Nick, it seems to me “ppl” think that commiting crime against you is “OK” as long as it is in the “USA”.
    I would like to tell them thus:
    “Please visit myself or my associates so I could ensure, through careful application of a long piece of timber, change your opionion in this matter for an extended period of time.”
    See you there!

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  17. Peter TillBrook, think of Nick not giving away HomeSite, but mere sending it away to join the elite class of editing programs, and then designing a its young child css companion which has basically full blown acceptance into the elite class of editing programs from the first word go.

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  18. that rapid CSS editor reallys sucks, nearly a mirror image! they even have a signiture like u have at feedemon startup. Im feeling well like wanting to break someones arms and hey it topstyle isnt mine, im guessing by looking at the ini files that this is the ‘product’.
    Its shamefull the way they have just copied it all, i admit freely to looking at your ini files in topstyle for ideas, but i didnt get the info from them for my app. Copying is as much stealing in the rapid example, sue sue, sue, sue …….. they woudnt have a leg to stand on

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  19. Intellectual Property is only protected if you fight to protect it. If you allow someone to take it and don’t defend it, you can lose it and future claims.
    You have a simple copyright case here.
    1) Don’t talk about it publicly. Don’t go to slashdot.
    2) Have a lawyer draft up a letter and mail it to them asking them to cease and desist. If you are feeling really aggressive, ask for royalties, but realize that will make this into a longer process. It’ll cost about $300 for an hour of the attorney’s time.
    This isn’t a criminal case. The state won’t provide a prosecutor to go after them for you. If you want to protect your copyright, you have to defend it and that will cost you money. But, also keep in mind that if you don’t defend this one, you may have trouble defending your copyright in the future… especially since you posted it on your blog and have floated the idea (explicitly or not) of not defending it by legal means.

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  20. I thought about you while listening to Dave’s latest Morning Coffee notes. It occurred to me you might just make the file format a standard and let the chips fall where they will.

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  21. If someone stole parts of your program as blatantly as that, then I doubt a nice letter will convince them to change anything unless you back it with at least the threat of serious legal action.
    It’s not like they did it by accident. Putting in your files had to be on purpose and is very clearly stealing. You don’t have to be *too* gentle in dealing with them. They aren’t nice guys who just made an inadvertant mistake.
    If they don’t respond to your contacts and they are in another country where it’s impossible or impractical to bring legal pressure to bear, then (IMO) it’d be time to ‘out’ them publicly as thieves.
    You shouldn’t have to encrypt your programs to protect them from this kind of thing. That’s what the legal system is for.

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  22. You’ve already written to them and asked them to repent, so you’ve given them fair notice.
    You could add their product name and various keywords that would lead surfers to their product, to the keywords within the HTML for the webpage for your TopStyle product. Also do your best to make sure that searches for their product name will also bring up this web page as one of the results. Hopefully searchers will then see this discussion (and see you’ve fixed bugs that the competition hasn’t).
    Good luck.

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  23. Branding as a weapon
    One of your most powerful assets is branding. lets face it there are 2 things in the mind of users when purchasing a product, price and brand (the perception and credability of the product to do the job). Is your brand more powerful in the *potential community* of buyers than your competitors? So what can you do without litigation? You have highlight to the market (competitors market) why your product is superior in every respect to the competitor. Consider the following …
    Who is their market? Europeans?
    Why are they buying the opponents product and not yours? Is it Cost, recognition?
    What is the cost to advertise in their market?
    What strategy do you have to *convert* your competitors to your product?
    There’s a whole section on JOS about *getting competitors to products switching*, Strategy Letter III: Let Me Go Back! [1]. There is also an article ‘Another Business Model That Doesn’t Seem to Work’, that possibly highlights why your file formats don’t allow for lock-in and may work against you.
    If you dont want to help send your lawyers kids to school, try redirecting your focus to winning your competitors market. Lets see how they cope with that :)
    References
    [1] Joel Spolsky, Strategy Letter III: Let Me Go Back
    http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000052.html
    [2] Joel Spolsky, Another Business Model That Doesn’t Seem to Work
    http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000032.html

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