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QotD: Stealing

Question: Is stealing always stealing?

My Answer: No, and it's one of the blurrier lines a software developer, designer, and author probably have to walk. PulpFiction works a lot like Mail, and we borrowed some of the UI, but we didn't steal it: we implemented all of our own features and wrote all of our own code using freely available tools and our own wee little brains. I've heard that good artists copy, great artists steal, and to some extent that's correct: theft is perhaps only theft when the original owner has been deprived of something.

You are encouraged to answer the Question of the Day for yourself in the comments or on your blog.

10 Responses to "QotD: Stealing"

  1. Plus in the example of Mail vs PulpFiction, those two programs do two different things. If you wrote something that checked email and looked just like Apple Mail, well, then you might have to re-address the stealing question.

  2. I think that in the case of software (it probably applies to other areas as well), it's also a matter of practicality. Unless you can think of a radically new (and still effective, if not more-so) way of doing something, trying to redesign the wheel with mediocre results is a sure-fire way to fail and confuse.

    In the case of PulpFiction and Mail, they both deal with information in a similar way (in a message-like format) and therefore the use of a similar interface only seems natural (and doesn't overbear the user into learning a new interface).

  3. I have discovered with my own site that trying for something completely different from the norm is often confusing and not appreciated by the user. I don't think that it's totally a result of poor interface, because my mother, who's inexperienced with blogs, does just fine. However, I ocassionally get complaints from friends that they don't like my site. This seems to imply that if there is a problem with it, it's a problem because it is very non-standard.

    One sentence summary: A lot of times, using a very similar interface isn't only easier for the developer, it's necessary for the user.

  4. So if theft is only theft when the original owner is deprived of something, it's not theft when someone who wouldn't purchase a piece of software downloads or cracks it?

  5. Howard, in the case you stipulate, the author is deprived of the chance to convince that person to buy the software, rendering your premise false.

  6. It's a license violation, not theft. Just like getting music from Kazaa et al is copyright infringement, not theft.

  7. When you say that in the case of someone pirating software, the author is deprived of the chance to convince the pirate to buy the software, you're setting the bar pretty low for deprivation. I mean, someone who writes their software such that it mimics the interface of a second piece of software is depriving the second author, as well -- in this case he's depriving him of the ability to keep his user interface distinct to his work. This is why user-interface patents showed up in the first place. People clearly feel deprived when their UIs are copied by other pieces of software.

    My point is simply that the deprivation standard that you set up doesn't seem to be particularly cut and dry.

  8. Howard, I'm simply reacting to the outrageous claim that there are people who will never buy software and that theft by those people doesn't take anything away from the developer of that software. My bar is set at both an ethically and a legally defensible position.

  9. But the problem is that you said, "theft is perhaps only theft if the original owner is deprived of something." But almost all actions, including ones you praise, deprive their owner of something. The mimicry of a user interface deprives the original owner of exclusive use of his user interface.

    What's really happening is that you're saying that there are some things that it's OK to deprive someone of, like the exclusive use of an interface, and that there are things that it's not OK to deprive someone of, like the chance to convince a person to buy a piece of software. That's okay, it's just not the principle you originally espoused.

  10. No, Howard. What I'm saying is that you appear to have gone off the deep end and failed to employ the powers of common sense. Apple provides UI widgets for use by developers in order to enhance the platform, not deprive anyone of anything. I also don't believe that "almost all actions… deprive the owner of something." You aren't depriving someone of something if they give it away and ask you to use it.

    No further comments are necessary here.