Copying and innovation: Where should open source draw the line?

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the creator of del.icio.
Written by Joe Brockmeier, Contributor

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the creator of del.icio.us should be very flattered. ZDNet's Datapoint notes the appearance of de.lirio.us which is, for all intents and purposes, an open source clone of the social bookmarking site del.icio.us. (If you haven't tried del.icio.us out yet, I highly recommend it.) Mallett is also promoting his site as a competitor to del.icio.us.

The developer of the clone, Steve Mallett, is being hammered on the del.icio.us mailing list for copying the site's look, feel, features with a similar name, without doing much to differentiate itself from del.icio.us.

Mallett would probably not be drawing so much criticism if his creation bore a different name and a less striking resemblance to del.icio.us. Surely there are reasons why one would want to have an open source version of del.icio.us -- for example, allowing a user or an organization to run an internal bookmark site without sharing it with the rest of the online community, or to be able to add features that may not be of interest to the del.icio.us developers or community.

Copying features and/or the interface for software is nothing new for the open source community, for proprietary software companies or the business world in general. Microsoft's design for Windows 95 certainly "borrowed" its fair share from the Mac OS, for example. Blockbuster and Wal-Mart hopped on the DVD rental by mail business after watching NetFlix make a success of it. Copying successful ideas is a fact of life. The question is, where does one draw the line?

Though I'm a staunch supporter of open source, I'll keep my bookmarks on del.icio.us, at least until Mallett can offer something unique and interesting that del.icio.us does not. How about you? Tell us what you think in TalkBack.

Update: As has been noted in the comments, I failed to point out that Mallett is not the developer of Rubric, which is written by Ricardo Signes. Rubric is the software which Mallett used to develop de.lirio.us. Sorry if there was any confusion.

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