January 10, 2001

Is it borrowing or stealing? Giving credit where it's due

Author: JT Smith

- by Tina Gasperson -

In the Open Source community, information and ideas are free-flowing. We keep our hands open, holding on loosely, to paraphrase an old song, letting the seeds of knowledge spill into the laps of others, or even allowing them to be scooped up by intrigued passers-by. "Enjoy, have fun," we say. "Take, and use as you see fit, but lest you forget, there is a price."
The open nature of the 'Net

The culture of sharing is status quo on the 'Net. Back in the early days, commercialism of any kind was frowned upon. Web sites were for providing information and free resources to the world, not for making a buck by restricting your wares to paying users only. Even today, there still lingers a notion that you've got to provide something for free on your site in order to attract users -- and to stay in their good graces.

Not that it would do much good to say, "You can't take any of this," anyway. All it takes is a right-click to stash just about anything on a local hard disk. Images, site code, content, files, anything.

Open Source people share their toys

The Open Source community doesn't begrudge the concept of sharing freely, however. It's more a way of life, a philosophy, instead of a way of squeaking by without pissing off the masses. We create our best stuff, hoping that someone will like it enough to adopt it. Leftovers simply won't do.

Almost sounds too altruistic to be true. But that's the cool thing about the Open Source community. The first fruits of fertile imaginations are all there for the taking. In the traditional business model, products are almost always profit-makers, and companies give away accompanying services to "add value" to their wares, while still protecting proprietary structures and implementations.

Business models are different

But with Open Source, that process is reversed. Products are free, and consumers are encouraged to pay for services like support. More like true communism, the way it was supposed to be -- would have been -- if humans weren't so... human. Call it the "human factor."

There's always a price

Does all this only apply to software? What about other products like Web site design or online user interfaces? With all these things, the "human factor" once again comes into play from another angle ... it's called the desire for recognition. Is that so horrible? It's a small thing, really, to ask for credit where credit is due -- especially when the gift given is such a valuable one.

Say thank you, boys and girls

And that's the price for Open Source and Free Software -- isn't there one in every human endeavor? In this culture, it's payment due in reputation enhancement. "I sweated to bring this to the world," we say. "If you use it, please say thanks publicly." It's the polite thing to do.

Competitors aren't always polite

Lars Hindsley is the CEO of SpyProductions, a company that started out as solely a Web site design outfit. Spy has branched out into other areas, most notably into inexpensive domain registration services as a reseller through Tucows. Hindsley and his team spent a lot of time creating a unique visual interface that lets users, even inexperienced ones, manage their own domains all the way from initial registration, through updates and renewals.

Tucows offers its resellers OpenSRS, a wholesale domain registration service "that uses Open Source principles to ensure equal participation." Sounds great, and it is. The Tucows OpenSRS wholesale program is an example of a project that benefits everyone: Tucows makes a cut while others do the work; smaller companies get to make money from providing domain registration services without having to be registered with ICANN, and those in the market for a domain name get lower prices and more flexibility.

Getting away with the goods

But somewhere along the way, there's been a breakdown in this system. Yes, it's the "human factor," once again. Because SpyProductions has done such an exemplary job in designing an online user interface that is attractive and easy to use, Tucows marketers point to the site as an example of what resellers can do. It's easy to guess what happens next. "We get kudos from Tucows. They treat us great," says Hindsley. "They take my calls and provide me with inside information whenever I need it. But other OpenSRS members [take our ideas and] never give us an ounce of credit."

Because the other members of the project are basically competitors, the tendency is to "borrow" the interface and then undercut Spy on the price -- a practice that naturally raises Hindsley's hackles. "Open Source is great, but [the] money changes everything. It's bad enough that competitors learn about you and steal your idea ... it really burns me when you come up with a great pricing structure and another Tucows vendor sees it [and] uses the model."

Thanks for the great idea

DomainMongers.com is a Spy rival who has followed Hindsley's design ideas and pricing structures quite closely, according to Hindsley -- except for the fact that they've knocked about a dollar off SpyProduction prices. As for giving credit, well, just the thought of DomainMonger providing a link and props to Spy seems ludicrous, given the competitive nature of the rivalry. "What bothers me," says Hindsley, "is you would launch this article and users will go with DomainMonger because they are a buck cheaper. Users won't consider that you can call us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and holidays too."

Marcus Oesterwinter, the proprietor of DomainMongers.com, says he definitely did not copy anything from SpyProductions. "We were one of the first to develop a user interface. And that pricing structure was entirely my idea. We started the site back on January 22, 2000, which was within a few weeks of when OpenSRS (the open source code behind Tucows' domain registration system) was released." Oesterwinter says that if he's been to the SpyProductions.com website, he doesn't remember it.

Whether DomainMonger.com actually copied SpyProductions or not, it's certainly an understandable practice, if somewhat slimy, for a competitor to skim off a better-performing rival whatever it can. What about another form of imitation -- the kind born of adulation?

Imitation is the sincerest form...

NewsForge bases its site on the Open Source Slashcode, first developed for use on Slashdot.org (ed.note: a sister site also owned by Newsforge parent VA Linux). Naturally, use of Slashcode and workalike programs abounds on the Internet within the Open Source and IT communities, with sites like imaclinux.net and ctrlaltesc.org, to name only two. As similar as these sites are to Slashdot, most of the time designers of slashcode-based sites work to distinquish their sites from others.

Every now and then, though, you stumble on a site like my.marijuana.com. Anyone familiar with NewsForge will recognize that my.marijuana.com is a look-alike; purposely created to be an imitation, from the masthead all the way down.

Theme selections name the source

At my.marijuana.com, registered users can choose from several "themes" that change the look of the site. Included among these are a NewsForge theme, a Slashdot theme, and one for the popular freeware site AnalogX. These are clearly labeled, so it is obvious that my.marijuana.com is borrowing the designs.

But unregistered users see only the default "theme," which is the one patterned after NewsForge. There is no indication that this is a borrowed design, nothing to lead visitors to believe that Rick Garcia and the my.marijuana.com team didn't come up with this look on their own.

Free Software's dad says 'play nice'

Even GNU guru Richard Stallman agrees that those who use design and layout from others sites "ought to at least give credit," even though he also believes that "at least non-commercial verbatim copying and redistribution ought to be allowed for everything that is published on computerized media, including the Internet. For some kinds of works, additional freedom is essential."

'High' praise for NewsForge

Garcia, webmaster at my.marijuana.com says, "I have worked very hard to produce a site that meets the standards laid out by sites such as NewsForge.com. [It] was chosen for Marijuana.com because it most closely resembled what I considered to be a perfect website -- a perfect blend of technology and community working in tandem to distribute information."

That's just the kind of thing that site coders and designers love to hear about their creations. But how will visitors to my.marijuana.com know that the design is a tribute to another site? And if they don't, how important is that, given the hallmark philosophy of the community, that information wants to be free? It's a question that has more than one answer, and it is just one of many that advancing technologies and the climate of Open Source create with regard to the unwritten rules of information sharing.

NewsForge editors read and respond to comments posted on our discussion page.


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