Rip This Joint

I’ve gotten a fair amount of pushback regarding my reaction to the charge that Apple’s “Hello” commercial is a rip-off of Christian Marclay’s 1995 film Telephones. The gist of it being that I’m a hypocrite for charging LogoMaid with ripping off Dan Cederholm’s SimpleBits logo but declaring Apple’s commercial not a rip. Chris Clark’s weblog post is a good example:

So, uh… yeah. Using the idea of four curly braces in an icon? Rip-off. Using the idea of a dozen clips of film stars answering telephones with a variety of salutations? Not.

I like John Gruber and Daring Fireball — I’m a member, fer chrissakes — but this takes “Apple apologist” a bit far.

What I wrote:

I don’t consider this a rip-off. Apple asked to use (and presumably pay for) the original, then made their own after he refused, using different clips. Using the same basic idea is not the same thing as copying an original piece of work.

Drawing the line between what’s a rip-off and what’s original, but inspired by something else, can be highly subjective. To me, it’s not a binary decision, yes or no, but instead a continuum, with wholly original works on one side and blatant bit-for-bit copies on the other. Most works fall somewhere between the two extremes. I’d say Apple’s “Hello” commercial is clearly closer to a rip-off than it is to being wholly original, but that it’s not in the red zone.

The LogoMaid logo — a cubic house inside a box comprised of four braces the exact same size, width, and shape as that of the SimpleBits logo — was clearly in the red.

I can see, though, how others would consider Apple’s “Hello” commercial as being in the red. My basic rule of thumb is to gauge whether the work in question is derived from the idea of the original work, or derived from the original work itself. Obviously, there’s only so far one can go with this rule of thumb; good luck marketing a logo based on the “idea” of a silhouetted apple with a bite taken out of it.

Previous “rip-off” accusations against Apple that come to mind:

Which I classify as, respectively, non-rip-off, rip-off, something else..

I wrote at length about the Dashboard-Konfabulator dispute, and my argument that it wasn’t a rip-off, but rather an original implementation of the same basic idea, generated a ton of feedback from both sides of the argument. Clearly some people consider ideas as more precious than others, and others do not distinguish between ideas and implementations of ideas.

Apple’s Eminem iPod commercial, on the other hand, looks so much like the Lugz commercial that it’s hard to tell still frames from one apart from the other. It looks like a copy of the commercial itself.

I call the Intel commercial / “Such Great Heights” video “something else” because Apple hired the directors of the video, Josh Melnick and Xander Charity, to direct the commercial. The dispute in this case is who is the author of a music video — the director or the band?

(Thought experiment: What if Sony hired Jonathan Ive and he designed for them an iPod-esque Walkman? Is it iPod-ishness or Ive-ness?)

Speaking of Great Heights

Apple is open to charges of hypocrisy on two fronts.

One is that they seem to be perfectly willing to appropriate the ideas of others, but lambast Microsoft for doing the same thing with Apple’s ideas. (E.g., the banners from recent WWDCs: “Redmond, Start Your Photocopiers”, “Redmond has a cat, too. A copycat.”.) It’s true that most of the new features in Vista are similar to long-standing features in Mac OS X, but none of them are rip-offs. They strike me as falling under the category of original implementations of the same idea. Lack of innovation, yes, but not theft.

The second is that Apple holds itself to a higher standard than other companies in many regards; the originality of its advertising ought to be one. “Not a rip-off” isn’t good enough for a company that presents itself as a champion of the creative class.

Rip-off or not, if Marclay didn’t want Apple to use the idea, they shouldn’t have used it. Not because it was wrong, but because Apple can do better.

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