Design Plagiarism

In response to my piece earlier today on normalizing design rip-offs, a few readers who object to my statement that every company does not copy from everyone else pointed me to this 2015 piece by Ron Amadeo for Ars Technica, “Everybody Copies Everyone: iOS 9 Features Inspired by Android”:

Apple announced iOS 9 on Monday, and while watching the keynote, I had just a little bit of déjà vu. Most of iOS 9’s new features seem to be squarely aimed at Apple’s biggest rival in mobile: Android. Specifically, they were about catching up to Android.

Search improvements, proactive assistance, split screen, and transit directions? It’s been done, but the differences are the fun part, so we chased down the new iOS 9 screenshots and compared them to their Android counterparts. It’s not just about who copied whom; it’s also a chance to look at the different designs of the two operating systems. And hey, Apple isn’t the only one taking ideas from a competitor. Android M’s selectable app permissions are an exact copy of the iOS model.

This is not copying. Following? Sure. That’s how competition works. I’m not arguing that if Company A implements a certain feature first, that no other company can ever implement that feature without ripping off Company A. Look at the side-by-side screenshots in Amadeo’s article. Were all these features on Android first? Sure. Do any of these screenshots leave even one iota of confusion regarding which is iOS and which is Android? No. If you don’t see the difference between these examples and what Huawei did with their Portrait mode feature, I don’t know what to say. There’s a difference between copying an idea and copying an implementation of that idea.

That’s why I like the phrase “design plagiarism”. Maybe you think Amadeo’s examples do constitute “copying”. But they’re not plagiarism. If you write an article, and then I write my own article about the same topic, that just means you were first. But if I copy your article and just change a few words, that’s plagiarism. There’s a big difference.1

  1. This, by the way, is why I’ve always felt Apple’s misguided “look-and-feel” lawsuit against Microsoft in the mid-90’s was a huge mistake from the outset. Windows was clearly not a rip-off or copy of the Mac. There was no confusion which was which, and the Mac was elegant and Windows — especially pre-Windows 95 — was simply gross. Have you ever seen screenshots of Windows 1 or 2? They’re so startlingly ugly it’s hard to believe they’re real. Even Windows 3, the first version that became popular, was seriously ugly. Apple wasn’t trying to prevent Microsoft from copying the Mac — they were trying to prevent Microsoft from using the basic idea of a windows / icons / mouse pointer GUI. As I wrote about this years ago, good ideas are meant to spread↩︎