Should Tech Pros Ever Steal Code or Ideas?

Is it ever okay to steal code, or an idea?

Tech pros often view the code they write as property. After all, code tends to be hidden within an app, unless the developer shares a coding issue via blog post or GitHub repository (or Gist).

But designer Cat Carbonell suggests that many of us have been stealing for longer than we’ve been aware. In the MySpace days, she confesses, she routinely pinched features from other folks’ sites.

Carbonell advocates stealing code – sort of. Rather than swiping code ad hoc, she suggests, we should use it to decipher how things work. Web developers, for instance, can just dip into ‘Inspector’ mode in the browser to see what makes a page tick; they could also copy-paste code into their own environment. ‘Theft,’ in other words, can be a learning tool.

But yes, theft is also potentially malicious, and a lot more “black hat” than using someone’s well-designed JavaScript to make your own work better. For example, an unreleased iOS game, Donut County, already has a clone.

No, hole.io isn’t a direct replacement for Donut County. It’s simply not clever; whereas Donut County is a story-based game with slick artistry and enough puzzles to keep you intrigued, hole.io is blunt. Donut County’s puzzles are akin to games like Altos Odyssey or Monument Valley; with hole.io, players simply drag a finger around the screen and gobble up various objects.

Via Twitter, Donut County developer Ben Esposito took the high road. While he lamented that his hard work and at least some of his intellectual property had been siphoned by a cheap knockoff, he suggested there is probably room for both games in the App Store.

Donut County will be available on Mac, PC, iOS and other platforms, whereas hole.io is a mobile-only title. What’s curious is not that Donut County has a clone (ripoff, whatever you prefer), but that it was created ahead of the game’s release.

Objectively, it’s not technically groundbreaking to create a game like Donut County; it has a standard-issue physics engine and values assigned to objects that trigger actions. But its intellectual property is absolutely unique.

The publisher behind hole.io is aptly named “Voodoo.” It’s a game studio built on volume and consulting, not necessarily quality. A quick dive through their other titles reveals a list of games that are eerily familiar as other games: Flappy Dunk is a Flappy Bird clone; Snakes vs Blocks has also been done before, as has Rolly Vortex.

These games aren’t clones, per se, but easily identifiable knockoffs. This isn’t a new phenomenon, and definitely not unique to Voodoo (it seems nothing is, though). Esposito may be right: coexisting with your doppelgänger is possible.

But the intent behind IP and code theft is a real issue. ‘Stealing’ code to learn how to animate a web page is far different from stealing an idea for profit. Voodoo’s hole.io is free to download, and ad-supported; it’s also the first app that appears when searching for ‘hole game’ and ‘hole,’ and has purchased ad space for the ‘hole’ search term. In addition to stealing an idea, Voodoo seems to be banking on people not remembering the title ‘Donut County,’ and instead searching via crude terminology (which leads to its equally crude knockoff).

It won’t stop. Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store will forever be haunted by knockoffs. Just as website-scrolling animation became de rigueur as web developers discovered how such an action is coded, so will copycat apps continue populate app stores. A developer’s only recourse is making better apps, services and websites than the competition.

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