Don't Steal Ideas, It Is Discouraging

As the dust is settling from the Svbtle vs Obtvse debacle, I'm left feeling a little discouraged. The reason I feel this way is because a consensus had been made between part of the community that communicates: "It's okay to steal and duplicate an idea as long as you write your own code."  If you don't already know the story, read the summary below and check out some of the discussion on Hacker News.


Designer and blogger Dustin Curtis recently built his own blogging engine called Svbtle. It was originally intended for his personal use but he later decided to modify it into a blogging network that was invitation only. Dustin blogged about his project and his post was submitted to Hacker News by a random user. Blogger and Hacker News reader Nate Wiener was disappointed that the Svbtle platform was not openly released for public use so he decided to build Obtvse, writing his own code to closely mimic the design and functionality of Svbtle. Obtvse sparked a fierce debate among hackers, designers, bloggers and more, all closely entangled in the tech realm. Many people have spoken out in support of Nate taking initiative and quickly building an accessible version of the platform while others feel the effort was too similar and distasteful.

Here is my position:

Real creative comes from a personal connection to a project or idea. Dustin built Svbtle because he wanted a blogging platform that would help him write more effectively and clearly share his ideas. Svbtle was very personal for him. He invested his time and expertise in executing the idea, design, and code. No matter how minimal or complex you want to call it, Svbtle came from him. Period. Copying and redistributing so quickly was extremely inappropriate.

I've been disturbed by the conversation and rationale behind people that support Obtvse and have observed a few common themes: One: Svbtle should have been open-sourced and not closed to begin with. Two: Nate wrote his own code so he didn't really copy much. Three: Dustin deserved it from his attitude and the way he presented it. Each one of those arguments is dangerous and in my opinion, harmful to the community we are all apart of.


Many hackers and programmers love the idea of open source. Open source is collaborative and leads to further innovations by the community as a whole. Great contributions should be shared so they can be built upon and learned from. Nate directly says, "I felt Dustin missed out on what could have been a great open source contribution." And many agreed. But releasing a project as open or closed is not their call. It is solely at the discretion of the person who creates a project. If Nate had built Svbtle and open-sourced it, I would have a ton of respect for him. But he didn't. He saw something closed that he wanted and had the technical skill and free time to open it up. I don't really respect that and feel the community should respect an author's choice to keep an idea closed.


Many have argued that Obtvse is okay because Nate wrote his own code and the original design was not awe-inspiring. I have two problems with that. One, code merely represents an idea. Code is not special. What's special is what the code does. Most users will never see the code so it doesn't matter how different the lines are when it produces the same output. And while Dustin's design wasn't "revolutionary", it was well thought out, carefully refined, and supportive of his vision as a whole. If Nate wanted to build something similar and open, he had an infinite number of design choices he could have implemented. Duplicating the idea and design is a slap in the face.


Dustin should have been slapped? Many commenters have implied that Nate's actions were okay because of Dustin's arrogance and tone. He described Svbtle as a network for "creative and witty people" and "vetted bloggers", creating a sense of unworthiness for a large part of the community. I completely understand how that phrasing would rub people the wrong way and when you do not particularly care for someone, it's much easier to defend the opposite side (in this case, Obtvse). But whether or not you respect Dustin's character is irrelevant. Plagiarizing someone's idea because you don't like their person is spiteful and spite has been the justifying tone behind a lot of Dustin's critics. Yes Dustin came off as an arrogant ass and I think he will learn from this experience. But does that really justify ripping of the dude's idea and hard work and then sharing it with the world? Absolutely not. If the community accepts copying and re-distributing ideas because someone doesn't like the person who originally built it, that would be chaos. Anyone could use that as an excuse to reproduce anyone else's work. It's a slippery slope and it feels this situation drew us awfully close to an edge.

I've known Dustin for a very long time and although we are not very close these days, I respect the time, thought, and execution he puts into his endeavors regardless of how popular they become. If you knew him at all, you would know that Svbtle is the perfect title for his platform because it's the little details in his design that go unnoticed by most people yet create his desired experience. But my opinion of him has zero importance. What is important is recognizing that an idea should be protected to a certain degree. If you don't like Dustin, great. If you're not impressed with his code, cool. If his design makes you sick, don't look at.

But we cannot be okay with stealing an idea, directly mirroring a design, and distributing freely at one's discretion because to me, that notion is very discouraging to creative people and I think discouragement is the nemesis of community.

EDIT: I think I should have been more clear that I am for building upon an idea. Sometimes the way this is achieved is from copying an idea you like and adding your own innovations. That is expansion. But what I saw from Obtvse was not expanding or innovation on an idea, it was copying it too closely. I support open source but the execution and way it was achieved in this case is not something I admire. Thanks for reading and I appreciate the dialogue on HN.

EDIT 2: Poor title on my part. I wish I had labeled it something along the lines of "Don't just Copy an Idea, Make it your Own"...