How far can copying a website layout go before it goes from "inspired" to "ripped off"?

It's a question I've been turning over in my head this morning, after reading the commentary around nwienert's clone of dcurtis' recently announced "Svbtle" blogging tool.

Dustin originally announced Svbtle as closed platform; with intentions to go public in the future. The idea got a lot of positive feedback - simplification of the blogging process, with a focus on the writing, is a great concept. But there was push back due to the fact no one could use it (yet).

Nate's project on the other hand involved cloning the concept overnight - putting a minimum viable product up on GitHub and inviting contribution. An approach that appeals to a wider audience, because now we can give it a try. However, he too got criticism for being a little too faithful to the original Svbtle's design.

I've been mulling this for a couple of hours now; I'm firmly on Nate's side here - he misfired in using a too-similar design, and has taken steps to fix it. But the concept of creating a free version of a closed platform - even one just a few hours old - is a good one. It adds competition and keeps people on their toes.

Dustin's initial reaction was, understandably, upset - demanding the code be taken offline and calling it theft. He since retracted that position (clearly made in the emotion of the moment) and posted something much more thought provoking:

Copying design, especially when the original source is so obvious, has damaging effects that are hard to quantify. Poor clones can directly damage the creation of a strong original brand and can preempt future creative product positioning. Because it is not user facing, identically copied code--when the design has been changed--has no such effects. Why do so many people believe that only copying code should be considered wrong when design has the potential to be more damaging? To me, they are both equally wrong.
As a programmer (and not a designer) this concept hadn't occurred to me. Designs are "pretty things" that I use to decorate my output, but to a designer the concept of brand, identity and design are, I imagine, as sacred as code is to myself.

I originally commented that the basic design elements were fairly mundane - and soft-copying them hardly violated any moral copyright. I stand by that; the basic layout is hardly unfamiliar (I used to have a similar looking blog in the past).

But I take Dustin's point; the problem wasn't so much the close design, but that it was a close design for a similar product.

Dustin has a brand - the "Svbtle look" - that he is trying to promote as representing simple and high quality. Behind that he is using a good idea, to improve how blogging works.

I think these two approaches highlight the differences in approach from a designer compared to a programmer. Dustin wants to make a complete product before he lets it loose - the design, the look, the workflow are are all key aspects. Nates work might be rough and unfinished, but it is out there in a collaborative form - it might not be as slick, it might be hacked together, but it is ready to be improved.

Both these approaches have merit (thought I know where my preferences lie).

Where Nate went wrong is that, in making use of the same idea, he also made use of the "Brand" - rather than an inspired product to hack on, Dustin (and others) immediately saw it as a poor rip off. One that impacted on what he was trying to achieve.

Of course; Nate seems to be a programmer like me, so I would be unsurprised if that didn't occur to him either. I'd have done the same thing; to me the code would be the important aspect - I'd look at how Dustin had laid out his design and workflow and not considered that in the same light.

So I guess I learned something important.

Gladly Nate seems happy to change his design - and in the long term hopefully no harm will be done. I hope both projects succeed, in whatever way they aim to, because the idea is very cool.

(Discuss this post on Hacker News)