What The Curebit Saga Teaches Us About Copyright, Plagiarism And Reputation

from the respect dept

The startup Curebit brought something of a firestorm down on its head recently. Here's how VentureBeat broke the story:

Curebit, a Y Combinator startup that just closed a round of funding from Dave McClure’s 500 Startups fund, has been caught red-handed stealing HTML code, images, and the like from 37signals.
Leaving aside the usual point that Curebit's employees almost certainly didn't break into 37signal's office and physically remove all the HTML code and images in the way that the word "stealing" suggests, here's how Curebit tried to justify its actions with the following rather weak excuse:
We had a different homepage, were a/b testing different pages, came across the 37signals post and were like 'wow we should see how that converts!' We are big fans of rails and what 37signals is doing and did not really think through the implications of what we were doing. We just kind of thought about it as a fun test to run.
Unsurprisingly, that didn't convince many people, and eventually, Curebit apologized -- sort of:
Recently we launched a site with several pages copied from 37signals’ Highrise. We did more than take inspiration from their design – we actually used html & css code, and hotlinked to images on their site. We apologize to David and 37signals for ripping off their work. It was stupid, lazy, and disrespectful of their creative efforts.
Curebit still doesn't seem to be admitting that what it did was wrong, although most people would say that it was. But there is an interesting discussion to be had about what exactly it did wrong.

Paul Carr, for example, not only believes that it was copyright infringement pure and simple, he suggests there's some deep hypocrisy flying around the developer community here:

The prevailing view, outside of Hollywood, seems to be that IP creators need to accept that copying is here to stay and that criminalising a “victimless” activity is stupid. Make it easy for us to pay for stuff and we won’t have to steal it.

And yet when the victim isn’t a big evil Hollywood mogul (or one of the tens of thousands of people who work for him) but one of our own… well, then IP thieves should be dragged through the streets until they tearfully apologise. What’s the difference?
Well, one difference is that most of the things that people copy and share are simply enjoyed in private, not displayed on a company's public web site for people to see and admire. That means that there is an element of passing off here – plagiarism, in other words. Carr addresses the possibility that the anger provoked by Curebit's actions was down to the fact that it was plagiarism rather than simple copyright infringement:
Is it, as some argued on Twitter when I asked the question earlier, that plagiarism is different from copyright theft? No. And not least because plagiarism is copyright theft. Like most copyright theft, plagiarism doesn’t deprive the creator of their original work and is usually committed by someone who is too lazy or cheap to acquire or create something legally.
Well, Curebit's wrongdoing may well be copyright infringement and plagiarism, but the latter is still very different from the former, and Carr himself goes on to identify exactly why:
The only real difference is that in plagiarism the infringer is usually pretending to be the creator of someone else’s work.
This is the cardinal sin in a world based on reputation. If you build on somebody else's work, you must give attribution for that work, just as you must cite your source if you blog or tweet a story you have learned about from someone else.

Reputation is the glue that holds together all of the hugely-successful open collaborative software projects like Linux or Apache: there's no money involved (at least, not directly), but people are paid in terms of the respect they earn from their peers for what they do and how well they do it. Failing to acknowledge the fact that you are using their work is tantamount to disrespecting that code -- and hence the norms of the community.

That, I think, is why parts of the developer world world reacted so violently to Curebit's use of 37signal's code and images. If Curebit had admitted what it was doing up front, with full acknowledgement of the provenance of the work, and noted that it was building on 37signal's code as an act of respect, I suggest that few would have cared. The community norms would have been maintained, 37signal's reputation would have been enhanced, and its coders would have received the kudos that was rightfully theirs.

So this is not, as Carr suggests, a case of double standards on copyright infringement. The "infringement" here -- which undoubtedly exists according to the letter of the law – is irrelevant for a community that has placed sharing and collaboration at its heart. This is not about who owns what, but about who respects whom -- and shows it in the appropriate way.

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Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 7th, 2012 @ 12:16am

    Hotlinking certainly steals bandwidth, so that was way over the line.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 7th, 2012 @ 12:44am

    Warning:

    Copyright(i.e. monopoly) can have adverse affects that include but are not limited to:

    - Diminished cognitive abilities leading to impaired judgement.
    - Diminished speech capabilities.
    - Loss of speech free or otherwise.
    - Appearing of authoritarian regimes.
    - Uncontrollable growth of authoritarian regimes.
    - Harm to economies.
    - Corruption of the justice system.
    - Corruption of laws.
    - Abuse of the law by authorities and non authorities.

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 7th, 2012 @ 1:02am

    Do we need licenses to link?

    http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2012/02/a-license-to-link-lowes-has-one.ars

    As every good thief I love links.
    For some reason I am compelled to link everywhere, I'm like a spider building a web, just connecting threads.

     

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  4.  
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    Josef Anvil (profile), Feb 7th, 2012 @ 1:49am

    Some help for Paul Carr

    "The prevailing view, outside of Hollywood, seems to be that IP creators need to accept that copying is here to stay and that criminalising a “victimless” activity is stupid. Make it easy for us to pay for stuff and we won’t have to steal it.

    And yet when the victim isn’t a big evil Hollywood mogul (or one of the tens of thousands of people who work for him) but one of our own… well, then IP thieves should be dragged through the streets until they tearfully apologise. What’s the difference?"

    Differences
    1. The issue of "content theft" was handled on Twitter and in the press. No indication that the victim required law enforcement or lawyers to deal with the "crime".

    2. There is no insane statistic about how many developers were put out of work and how much money 37signals lost because of this.

    3. You stated the biggest difference already. The "victim" wants an apology; not control of copyright legislation, not to sue the offenders out of existence, not government protection of his business model.

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 7th, 2012 @ 2:17am

    Those that can't create are now trying to take their hatred of copyright mainstream.

    Interesting tact.

     

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  6.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 7th, 2012 @ 3:14am

    Re:

    Everybody can create something, that is not a problem for most people, exclusion of the medium to create something is the real problem, when some douche believes he owns the world and can say to others what they should do or how to do it, now that is a bigger problem than some people being able to copy it.

     

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  7.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 7th, 2012 @ 3:56am

    Re: Some help for Paul Carr

    You missed the point. The "victim" still wants control over their material. It doesn't matter if they used a court of law or the court of public opinion, they still enforced their rights.

    Glyn, hotlinking is a crime, it's one of the few things on the internet that can inflict costs on others. It also shows malice and forethought by the infringer, who didn't even have the balls and the desire to at least put a copy on their own servers. It's a situation that could easily have lead to legal action, and it would have been fully justified.

    Stop trying to give pirates and people who feel they can rip off others a pass. We know your opinion, but geez, can't you even try to take a peek from the other side?

     

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  8.  
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    Niall (profile), Feb 7th, 2012 @ 4:36am

    Re:

    This was plagiarism (and dealt with as such) rather than 'copyright' infringement. So where do you get 'hatred' of copyright? Did plagiarism magically appear with the internet, or is it as old as Gogg 'stealing' Ogg's cave paintings?

    All very 'tactful'. Oh wait, you meant "interesting tack".

     

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  9.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 7th, 2012 @ 4:41am

    Copyright infringement is wrong, plagiarism is worse. This is easily understood and should not be a reach for most people in an advanced society.

    Where did this "Y Combinator" name come from and how does social media have anything to do with genetic research? One would think the choice of company name might reflect somewhat upon the business they are in, but in this case (these cases?) not so much.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 7th, 2012 @ 4:44am

    Re: Re:

    This is ultimately what freaks out the "creators", that they are no longer the only ones doing so. When the means of creative production now belong in the hands of the unwashed masses, yikes!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 7th, 2012 @ 5:04am

    Re: Re: Some help for Paul Carr

    Hotlinking is not a crime, it shows someone found something and linked to it. Now you leap to the conclusion that the only reason someone would hotlink something is motivated by malice, now that is malicious or stupid, because you can't possibly know why it was linked without something else in conjunction with that to show intent.

    And it it has gone to court, most probably someone would point out to dynamic links that are created and point to a resource for some time and expire as a solution to hotlinking if that is of concern which is not even htat hard to implement.

    Now can you kindly stop being a dumbass and trying to criminalize everyone, pretty please!

     

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  12.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 7th, 2012 @ 5:08am

    Re:

    Copyright infringement is illegal at the moment, but wrong?
    Nope, I believe everybody should infringe more, heck it is their duty to infringe on every copyright out there so people like you don't get to decide what others should do.

    Anyone who infringes on a monopoly is a hero today.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
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    saulgoode (profile), Feb 7th, 2012 @ 5:10am

    Re: Re: Some help for Paul Carr

    It doesn't matter if they used a court of law or the court of public opinion, they still enforced their rights.

    It does matter. In the latter instance you have the "victim" exercising their free speech rights to criticize the activities engaged in other people. In the former instance, you have the "victim" demanding that the other people's rights to engage in those activities be taken away.

    Hotlinking is a crime.


    Not according to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court Of Appeals, "While in-line linking and framing may cause some computer users to believe they are viewing a single Google webpage, the Copyright Act...does not protect a copyright holder against [such] acts" (hotlink to PDF of ruling).

     

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  14.  
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    The Groove Tiger (profile), Feb 7th, 2012 @ 5:19am

    Re:

    Monopoly is a crime, therefore copyrights are a crime. Stop, criminal scum!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Feb 7th, 2012 @ 5:20am

    Re: Re:

    That's a tazing

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
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    Mesonoxian Eve (profile), Feb 7th, 2012 @ 6:04am

    Years ago, I was an innovator in web page design. This was back in the days of HTML "1.0". While Amazon gets credit for being one of the first sites to use "tabs", it's okay I was there years before they were. My site wasn't as famous.

    One day, I discovered a site was "selling" my pages! The horror! They stole my code and are selling it! Time to sue, right?

    Nope. It was this event which completely changed my viewpoint on copyright. To see my stuff was so good to be "stolen" actually made my day. I wrote the site and asked them why they are selling something they didn't create, and of course, they said it was all original.

    Until I pointed out the easter eggs I hide in my code. They removed the schemes, but I told them they didn't have to. I just wanted an answer of why they did it.

    I never got it, but it's a reminder those who'll sue others are usually the first to break the law themselves and offer no justification as to their actions.

    To think any software is under copyright is the most horrifying element of my job. I can easily create something unique and throw it onto my website, but you can bet there's always a looming threat someone else came up with a similar idea.

    It's called HTML and CSS2, and it's not like we really have a choice on what we can do with them.

    This doesn't include images. It's just the limited use of what we can do.

    I've yet to find any web developer who hasn't borrowed a fixed instruction set to provide a standardized page element in their own code.

    Now, as for the image use... that was ridiculously stupid.

     

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  17.  
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    saulgoode (profile), Feb 7th, 2012 @ 6:19am

    Re:

    Where did this "Y Combinator" name come from and how does social media have anything to do with genetic research?
    The name alludes to the lambda calculus fixed-point combinator, which was first described about sixty years ago (and thus presumably precedes its employment in genetic science).

    From the company's FAQ:
    Why did you choose the name "Y Combinator?"

    The Y combinator is one of the coolest ideas in computer science. It's also a metaphor for what we do. It's a program that runs programs; we're a company that helps start companies.

     

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  18.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 7th, 2012 @ 7:31am

    Re: Re:

    Copyrights are not a monopoly, they are an exclusive control right granted for a very narrow area, usually a single song, image, or similar work.

    There is no monopoly on websites, nor on images, nor on writing, nor on film making...

    Thus, the stupid and childish argument of "it's a monopoly" is ONCE AGAIN proven to be false.

    Run along!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 7th, 2012 @ 9:22am

    Re: Re: Re: Some help for Paul Carr

    Hotlinking is different from "just linking". It's one of the reasons Mike tends to get it all wrong when he talks about embedded videos and such.

    A link to another page, such as the old "click here for the video" that leads to another site is one thing. Hotlinking includes that video into your page. The name for it when approved is "embedding". When it's not approved, it's hotlinking.

    Hotlinking is also generally directed at a single item (say a graphic or file) rather than a full page.

    Now can you stop being a dumbass and quit making it the victim's fault?

     

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  20.  
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    Markus Hopkins (profile), Feb 7th, 2012 @ 9:23am

    Paul Even Admits It

    I actually commented on the article when it first showed up (and referenced a great techdirt post), and I got Paul to admit that even he sees that plagiarism are copyright are different. As you can see if you read the thread though, he really only seems to think this matters once the term of copyright has expired. Forget the fact that we're talking consumption vs. passing off, they're both using copyrighted material, so they're the exact same kind of harm. But we're not even necessarily talking about harm here, we're talking about dishonesty. Just because plagiarism may also be an infringing act doesn't make them the same, or even related. It just means they can happen at the same time. And apparently, timing is all it takes to make us all hypocrites.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
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    TimothyAWiseman (profile), Feb 7th, 2012 @ 10:29am

    Just one difference

    "The only real difference is that in plagiarism the infringer is usually pretending to be the creator of someone else’s work."

    The only real difference between water and hydrogen peroxide is a single ogygen atom, but one is necessary for life and the other will make you quite ill if you drink a glass of it...

    Also, it is possible to have plagarism that is not infringement. Romeo and Juliet is in the public domain, but if someone else tried to put their name on it, it would be plagarism.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
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    DinosaurHunter (profile), Feb 7th, 2012 @ 12:23pm

    Re: Re: Re: Some help for Paul Carr

    Thanks for injecting some fact into the discussion :)

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    identicon
    F!, Feb 7th, 2012 @ 12:53pm

    everyone copies code

    Absolutely nothing wrong with copying HTML/CSS. Christ, every (yes, every) web designer/developer does it (I'm one). It's how the internet works, and evolves, and is actually a very good argument how lack of copyright leads to massive innovation. We wouldn't have the WWW we have now if anyone thought they could copyright HTML/CSS.

    Hotlinking on the other hand is a completely different matter - those a**wipes should get burned at the stake for that!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 7th, 2012 @ 4:10pm

    Re: Just one difference

    Quite correct. Copyright infringement and plagiarism are two different concepts. Infringement is the breaking of the government-granted monopoly privilege which is known as copyright. Plagiarism is failing to credit your sources and passing off their work as your own.

    For example, suppose someone was to quote part of Techdirt, without giving any reference to Techdirt. Since Techdirt gives permission to quote freely (thanks, Mike) there has been no infringement. However, since Techdirt never got referenced, plagiarism has occurred.

    The plagiarism could be easily corrected by using quotation marks (or indentation, etc.) correctly, plus giving a reference to Techdirt.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
    identicon
    Dan, Feb 8th, 2012 @ 12:24pm

    Thanks

    Really interesting to see everybody's views on the matter right here. Copyright laws are not different to what they ised to be , in the US maybe but not in the UK, there are many other laws like copyright also such as DCMA etc..

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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