Howells.

Svbtle vs Obtvse (and on copying)

These two Hacker News threads have been keeping me entertained today.

In a nutshell, “super hero” Dustin Curtis released an interesting new blogging engine called Svbtle, which he opened for only a select handful of “vetted” bloggers. This perceived arrogance obviously didn’t go down well with a number of Hacker News regulars; in particular Nate Wienert who cloned the platform, called it Obtvse, and open-sourced it on github for anybody to fork.

I’ve read a number of comments on either side of the argument for and against this move but I think some people have misinterpreted Nate’s move. He didn’t set out to create a copy of the app for commercial gain; he has simply made a point about the way in which the app was launched, its tone of voice, and the general attitude that surrounded its launch.

I enjoy Dustin’s blog and twitter, and he usually delivers some fascinating points-of-view and unearths some great content. Yet fundamentally, I have no idea who he is or what sort of work he has done, other than redesign an airport boarding card, and create lifepath.me (I can’t find references to either, but you probably know about them). Both are admirable design endeavours, but fundamentally neither attribute him with the monicker of “super hero” which he tells us he is at every opportunity. A super hero in my mind (and in our industry) is somebody who is genuinely awesome at what they do, but who are humble about their achievements: Jack Dorsey and Jeff Veen come to mind. I’d imagine neither would ever call themselves a super hero, with however much irony.

My second point is essentially a reflection on copying others’ work. I’m sat painfully on the fence here. For instance, on one hand I find Pinspire an embarrassing, cynical attempt to pull the rug from under Pinterest’s feet (and an equally embarrassing comment on the state of the European tech scene, but that’s for another post), and copying the idea along with the pixel-for-pixel design just to quickly be acquired is not cool. The same goes for hot-linking CSS styles and Javascript files which cropped up recently.

Yet on the other hand I see hundreds of design rip-offs whilst searching for new interesting posts for siteInspire. The fact is, a copied site or idea is clearly a copy whose quality is almost always dreadful, and in my opinion is usually little more damaging than a fake Gucci handbag bought in a Hong Kong market. I have even had the entire siteInspire design ripped off with hilarious consequences. I was flattered, and just passed it off as someone’s attempt at learning by rote: a fairly ineffective but acceptable learning technique, but which is usually the motivation for these rip-offs. I mentioned it to them, but didn’t demand for it to be removed with such vehemence that a lot of “victims” do (they were sufficiently embarrassed to take the site down anyway).

If you find that your site or application has been copied, see it as feedback. In Dustin’s case, he can learn a huge amount from the episode. His reaction to the news wasn’t great and reflected on him poorly, such that he subsequently redacted and replaced it with an opinion on stealing designs. I think it still suggests he misunderstood the motivation for Obtvse and hasn’t learnt much from it.

In everyone else’s case, a general rule of thumb is to first be flattered. If it’s just a bad copy it won’t do you image any harm, and if it’s a much, much better copy… well there’s quite a lot to learn from that too, however frustrating it might be.

I suspect this is a controversial topic and I’d love to hear your thoughts: especially if your work has been copied; what you thought about it and what happened.

Update 1: Frank Chimero wrote a wonderful comment on copying.

Update 2: Chris Shiflett writes about an important observation on Hacker News. While for the majority of the people this is true, I would guess that as a self-styled super hero Dustin quite relishes the attention on Hacker News, having been a front-pager many times.

The mistake the Hacker News community routinely makes is to assume the author of whatever they read is making a big deal about something.

Comments — 14

Mark Dunbavan on March 23 — 4:28 pm #

Its an interesting debate but I had an interesting meeting with someone a while back and we were sat having coffee and I started to talk about something and he instantaneously stopped me and said; “do not say anything more, keep your voice down or people will hear you”. There is still an incredible amount of people who are precious about ideas and I suppose when someone has sweat blood and tears over a project, to have someone blatantly take the piss out of you online is a massive kick in the balls. On the other side though if you were a child who used to sit in a classroom and put your hands around your notebook whilst writing notes so no-one could see you you sort of deserve it as it makes people even more interested and sometimes even more vindictive about the fact you are not being open.

Andrew Manullang on March 23 — 4:32 pm #

One maybe has the idea but only the audience can choose the right one for them. Very nice article indeed

Frank Chimero on March 23 — 4:34 pm #

Opinions ahead! Speaking mostly about copying rather than the specific instance with svbtle/obtvse.

I think once you publish something, you lose control of it. At worst, you inspire mockery and parody. At best, you become material for future work, because what you’ve made is successful, interesting, or relevant. Usually, it is both.

All work produces spill-over repercussions that usually go against the will of the work’s creator. The creator wishes to retain authorship and control the work, while those in the culture wish to use, transform, and remix it. If the work is truly successful, it will defy authorship and turn into a shared experience for everyone. Those works are the hardest to control, because they diffuse, and spread wide by permeating into the air. The become a shorthand for those who make or enjoy similar work, becoming a shared vocabulary.

The situation requires things from both those who create the work, and those who wish to use it.

For the initial creator, they must resign most control upon publication, especially on the internet. Their work will be used to say and do things they don’t intend. Ideas, in truth, go further when others carry them, and this usually means they will go in directions the original author did not intend or imagine. For instance, I’ve had a quote of mine (“People ignore design that ignores people.”) taken out of context and used to justify two completely contradictory design methods. So it goes.

For those that use the things made by others, they should credit where possible, and have their work be transformative in some way. They can carry the ideas of others, but they must to take it further or a new direction. Then, they are obliged share alike. To not do both is to go against the goodwill initiated by the work’s creator.

And for both, we should recognize that all creative processes use materials from those who came before us, and respect the meaningful influence of others. We’re part of a long line of people who make things. It is a privilege to get to use the work of others in our own.

Mark Dunbavan on March 23 — 4:46 pm #

That is the first time I have seen such a complex issue put as simple as that. Great explanation.

Tom Cavill on March 23 — 4:51 pm #

It’s nice to see a well-articulated summary of Curtis that matches my own opinions. He’s clearly an excellent marketer but does continually force me to ask the question “what have you actually done” in response to his more arrogant posts.

Having said that, Curtis has some friends at highly regarded startups (he’s tweeted about hanging out with Path before, for example), so no-doubt he does have the portfolio but chooses to keep it to himself.

I enjoyed this satirical FounderDaily post on him from last year http://cavill.me/FFiE (Google cache, their site has disappeared).

David Chan on March 24 — 4:30 am #

If anyone follows Dustin Curtis, you will be aware of the Markdown logo (https://github.com/dcurtis/markdown-mark) he created for the Markdown language (http://daringfireball.net/projects/markdown/).

What I find funny about this situation and him creating the Markdown logo is that, while he didn’t ‘steal’ the Markdown language and call it his own, he is just trying to take ownership of it through design… perhaps in a more svbtle though.

Joseph Rooks on March 24 — 4:36 pm #

For me, I think what you’ve done with a thing once you “steal” it is a big part of whether or not it’s ethical.

I see Obtvse as a sort of personal protest, but I couldn’t use Obtvse alongside my own work without feeling tacky because little or nothing creative has been added to it to further the work.

If you steal something just to have the same creative object as someone else, you’re just a thief.

Michal Kopec on March 24 — 5:44 pm #

I just hope the Svbtle vs Obtvse case becomes a precedent (and a lesson in humbling) for other entrepreneurial designers launching products.

Wilhelm Wagenfeld, a Bauhaus teacher said in 1954 “An industrial product that arises out of my activity thus only meets my own standards if a great distance causes it to seem almost unknown to me. It has to exist for itself, have its own being, completely purged from the individual influences that let it come into being”

Wagenfeld believed that too much ego on the part of the creator can only have negative effect on the end result, since the product will reflect the whims of the maker more that the purpose.

‘Stolen’ from Dieter Rams | As Little Design as Possible

TT on March 25 — 5:04 am #

I don’t see anything wrong with what Nate has done. He attributed the design to Dustin, hence he did not “steal” it. He may not have gotten permission to do so, which would have been nice, but as Frank writes, once knowledge becomes public, it is hard to control.

It’s similar to academic research and open-source software. Citation and attribution is key. I’d go as far as to argue that progress in any field, be it science, social science, design, architecture, music, art or literature, comes from the accumulation of knowledge built on what came before. The marvel of the Internet is that knowledge, once private, is now public. Just look at how far we’ve come in the last two decades.

In youth, humility is a quality oft absent.

Daniel Swiecki on March 25 — 6:47 pm #

Opinions follow:

Dustin took a CRUD rails app, added an interesting workflow twist to it, and then shouted about it on hacker news. A lot of people, including myself, were disappointed to see that he was only offering the application on his platform. It’s fine that he does this, but there really isn’t much of a value proposition there in my opinion, so I don’t want to be on his platform.

Nate did what Dustin did in a couple hours, then gave everyone the source. This is potentially a great service to the community, compared with what Dustin was doing, which was really just showing off his new product.

A further issue is that if we take issue with patent trolls, then we cannot simultaneously protect products with few (if any) “moats” from being copied. If Dustin created a great product that was groundbreaking (i.e. adding significant value over what currently exists) then it would be difficult to sell a clone. Examples of this are obvious and plentiful; it is the very nature of a capitalist market. When there is more competition, the consumers benefit. People will argue that a place like China, which has no IP laws, (famous examples of fake apple stores come to mind) repels investment in research. But then again, the fake iPhones you can buy really, really suck.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Dustin didn’t do anything special enough to warrant protection, and this is further proven by the fact that someone else could do what he did in a couple hours.

I do see the other side of this, though, especially the point that it can take ideas a long time (with lots of effort required) to develop, yet once they are out there they are easy to copy.

Ryan Lackey on March 25 — 6:55 pm #

You do realize founderdaily, the source of that news article about Dustin, is a parody/satire site (like The Onion or Borat), right?

Daniel Howells on March 25 — 8:41 pm #

@Ryan - I didn’t but thanks for the heads up! Have struck-through the reference.

Tom Cavill on March 26 — 1:21 pm #

@Ryan @Daniel I did say the post was satirical in my original comment! The point being that I think Curtis would do well to show a little humility and humour in his output (he didn’t react well to the Founder Daily post on Twitter when it came out, though I’m unable to find those tweets now).

Daniel Howells on March 26 — 3:16 pm #

@Tom doh sorry Tom. I’m an idiot.

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