When Should We Get Upset Over App Copying?

Apps

Is it ever okay to copy apps?

It goes without saying that copying someone else’s app is never all right. Yet some parties seem to do it with relatively little fear of retaliation. Two recent examples provide a polarizing look at how – and when – we accept plagiarism in Apple’s App Store and on Google Play.

A recent Wall Street Journal piece exposes the lengths to which Facebook will go to copy an app. The article describes how Facebook uses a VPN to monitor user behavior from the shadows:

Facebook uses an internal database to track rivals, including young startups performing unusually well, people familiar with the system say. The database stems from Facebook’s 2013 acquisition of a Tel Aviv-based startup, Onavo, which had built an app that secures users’ privacy by routing their traffic through private servers. The app gives Facebook an unusually detailed look at what users collectively do on their phones, these people say.

The tool shaped Facebook’s decision to buy WhatsApp and informed its live-video strategy, they say.

The article focuses in particular on Houseparty, which rose from the ashes of Meerkat, a live-streaming app. Meerkat was eclipsed by Twitter-owned Periscope, which boasted pretty much the same functionality; Twitter was also caught blocking Meerkat’s access to its social graph, preventing users from posting links to Meerkat streams on Twitter. Now that Houseparty is on Facebook’s radar, it’s believed that the social-networking giant will launch a direct competitor codenamed “Bonfire.”

Facebook has also drawn some flack for replicating the functionality of Snapchat, arguably its biggest rival. It’s one thing when a company riffs on another’s innovation, creating something new and improved; but features like Instagram Stories are an outright clone of Snapchat’s functionality. Although Snapchat executives have complained, Facebook doesn’t seem interested in stopping anytime soon.

The copying issue doesn’t just affect apps built by the biggest tech companies. Take independent developers like Sam Soffes. His $1.99 app, Redacted, lets you quickly and easily blur, pixelate or black-out portions of pictures or screenshots. Without it, you’d have to wrestle with a more professional app like Pixelmator to achieve the same effects.

There’s another app out there, Redactor, that does essentially the same thing as Redacted. After a user alerted Soffes to the other app, he contacted Apple, which opened up an open email dialogue between everyone involved. Here’s where things got weird: the makers of Redactor threatened legal action against Soffes:

Is Stealing Ever Okay?

However the Soffes situation works out, it’s clear that copying is a massive problem on the various mobile app stores. And yet many people don’t seem to mind when it comes to some of the biggest brands out there. Facebook (and its subsidiaries, Instagram and WhatsApp) have clearly taken bits from Snapchat, which has seen its stock dip significantly since filing for an IPO. (Years after Facebook reportedly failed to acquire Snap, it may end up tanking Snap Inc.)

It’s easy to become alarmed at one-on-one copying. When one developer copies another outright, it’s fairly direct and evident. Placing blame is simple, as is getting righteously aggrieved over the original developer’s lost revenue. But where’s the outrage when a brand starts taking from another brand? And what can (or should) be done about it?

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