Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Amateur Designer's Block... Can we borrow ideas from competitors?

Last week I got into a debate with the programmers whether it is ethical to view and analyze competitor's public web applications and 'borrow' web design and graphics ideas. I was not talking about stealing ideas the way Microsoft has done it when they ripped off the tabbed browsing feature from Mozilla. I merely suggested that we could look at the example and come up with our own design based on what we have analyzed.
We have been scrambling for ideas on how to design our situation display part of the application. We don't have web design or human factor specialists on the team. Even though some of us have worked on or seen a web situation display product we have not produced one yet as a team.

So I did not think it was a big deal. I am of the belief that 'borrowing' ideas is not a copyright violation.

Various businesses and people do it all the time whether it comes to writing, car manufacturing, web and fashion design or house remodeling. I borrowed the idea of exercising dogs on a treadmill from Cesar Millan's 'Dog Whisperer' show. (So what?)

I realize that the line between borrowing ideas and expression can be blurred. Copyright protects expression. I think it is wrong to use someone else's hard work for personal or commercial gain. However, given the time and budget constraints we should come up with something that is nice-looking, intuitive and familiar to the end users.

I am curious to know whether colleagues have dealt with similar issues and what they think about it.


  1. I'm not entirely certain that Mozilla was the first to use a Tabbed interface either for the web browser or in applications in general. There was a tool back in 2003 called NetCaptor which essentially took the book marking aspect and had tabs for IE rendered web pages in it. (wikipedia indicates it was a shell developed perhaps starting as far back as 97) I'm fairly sure I'd seen a few development apps that used tabs for open files and so forth, so I'm not sure I'd say that tabs was Mozillas idea necessarily. (According to Wikipedia Firefox 1 released November 9, 2004, with development started in April of 2003. before that I don't know when Tabbing first came into the picture as such an important feature.

    Just thought I'd throw that out there, because it's not a well known development.

  2. You may be right. I Googled and found Asa Dotzler's blog that talks about tabbed browsing history. He was a founder of Mozilla’s Quality Assurance (QA) and Testing Program. http://weblogs.mozillazine.org/asa/archives/008433.html "Tabbed browsing is neither a Firefox nor Opera invention. Firefox and Opera fans, both, should step back from any claims to this invention. The first real tabbed browser with any significant presence on the web was Netcaptor, created by the very talented Adam Stiles way back in 1997."

  3. @Veretax - this may be the case but it misses the big picture point of the post. Is 'borrowing' a feature acceptable/ethical? As an IT professional and karate-ka, I see this a lot in both fields. And to the degree that TCT is alluding to, agree with it. If you like a tool's "green buttons" for a certain functionality, use a 'radio button' or GIF (if that's what you like) for your similar function and move on. :-)