iA Writer was launched in September 2010. Climbing the App Store rankings it rang out like Friskies filling a pet bowl. And, the copycats heard that. For years, they wound around our legs, they purred, and snatched a Friskie here and there. Some made us trip, some scratched, but cats are cute. Unfortunately, there are not just cats, there are raccoons, rats, and worse.
Mere weeks after the launch of our iA Writer, clones started popping up. There were some eclectic imitators taking bits and pieces. There were goofy fat cats like MS Word and their interpretation of “Focus Mode”. And then there were fellow writing apps replicating everything down to the cursor color. Some made us smile, some made us roll our eyes, and some made us frown.
Petting the Copycats
Usually, our customers point them out. Some complain that they’d been tricked into buying knock-offs. Others ask how they could help expose various thieves. It’s tempting to shout “thief!”, but it would be a trap:
- Call out a small app, and you give them free exposure.
- Call out a big one, you look like a jealous kid on the playground.
- Call out anyone in between, and you face skepticism and accusations of unsportsmanlike conduct.
When someone steals your bike and you catch them—they’re in trouble. You can report them to the police, and they will suffer the consequences. The bigger the damage they caused, the harder their punishment. People will take your side.
If you shout “Stop the bicycle thief!” there’s a chance that someone will jump in! They won’t ask for the receipts. They won’t call you overly sensitive. They won’t question your perception, your intelligence, or your open mindedness. None will cast doubt on your character.
Now try to get someone who stole your design! The thieves are much easier to find—but pretty much impossible to catch. They took what? Your design? Oh, cry me a river! Call them out and it’s not the thief, but you, the owner, that faces an unpleasant cross-examination:
- Is your design really so special or is it not just common sense?
- Are you sure that they have seen your product?
- How do you know that they copied you intentionally?
- Didn’t you copy things in your product, too?
- Is it really a copy, or are you seeing things?
It can indeed be difficult to judge from outside if someone really stole your design or if you’re just whining.
The Phenomenology of Theft
Theft and Economic Theories
“Intellectual property theft” doesn’t sound like such a bad crime to begin with. It’s just intellectual theft not real theft, after all. From outside, the dispute between Apple and Samsung over who invented rounded corners seems painfully childish.1 IP theft seems closer to cheating at school than armed robbery. So, what’s the problem then, exactly? Well, one could argue that:
- Design theft diminishes product value.
- Copycats distort supply and demand.
- Counterfeits undermine brand worth.
The good news is that most people don’t care much about such theory. Adam Smith, John Stuart-Mill, Lawrence Lessig and LinkedIn opinions may catch your attention you if you run a global corporation. If you sell niche writing apps like us, macroeconomic theory doesn’t drive your anger.
Theft and Emotion
The anger we feel when someone steals our ideas has a very similar root and logic as our anger when someone steals our bicycle.
- We bought it with our own money.
- The money came from our hard work.
- Work is energy over time.
The pain that theft incites is more about lost time, than lost coins. But let’s dig deeper into that feeling and its logic and ask ourselves: what exactly makes us so angry when people steal our things and ideas?
Time is Money, Knowledge is Power and France is Bacon
The anger that builds when we think about stolen things and ideas comes from the time we lost. All things can be replaced. But lost time is forever lost. Having then to replace a stolen object will multiply that lost time.
Remember the day, when they stole your wallet? It had ten bucks in it, but you didn’t get angry about the ten bucks or the wallet. You got angry about the time you need to replace your driver’s license, your credit cards, and your Swimming Pool pass. Here is how it works with stolen things:
- Things cost money
- Money comes from work
- Work takes time
- Stealing things is stealing time
In a stolen idea, however, the feeling of lost time is right there. When people steal our ideas, we directly feel the loss of time it took to create them.
- A good idea takes time.
- A stolen idea is stolen time.
The better the idea, the more it seems like no big deal, just common sense, common good. Good ideas look easy once realized, and the more obvious they seem, the more time they took. The more time they took, the more they look like nothing special and the harder they are to discern from what truly is nothing special.2
Theft and Time
From outside, no one can see what your bicycle means to you. And similarly, no one knows what the typography of a simple writing app means to its designers.
No one knows how much time it took to find the right architecture, to design that font, and the 9,999 iterations on the icon. How much trial and error, how much self-doubt and skepticism, how much fear, failure and frustration, how much will, courage and optimism it sucked into its current form and shape.
And we get that. Copy cats don’t understand and they don’t care how we feel about our ideas and the time we invested into them. They just like their Friskies. So we learned to pet them—they’re annoying, but also cute and funny. Products without their own vision and proper ideas, don’t get very far, anyways.
Piracy: The Raccoons
Piracy is a clear cut case of theft. And, for a small developers, it’s just as annoying as it is hard to deal with. In one way, software pirates get some sympathy. They’re honest. They don’t hide behind contorted arguments. They don’t try to justify stealing.
These raccoons know exactly that they are criminals, and they simply don’t care. None of them would argue in any way that what they do is legal or ethical or okay. You can’t address software piracy by explaining to them that they affect your finances, that they philosophically steal your time, or behold, that they hurt your creative feelings when they snatch your ham sandwich from your plate.
We can measure more or less how many apps are pirated and we estimate that plus minus one quarter of our apps are illegal. Most likely those who pirate apps won’t buy them, because they don’t need and they don’t want to.
Pirating is time consuming, risky, and if you have a conscience, it makes you feel bad. Stealing from an independent developer is as heroic and cool as leaving a pizzeria without paying the bill. We sometimes discuss whether we should send our pirates a message. Something along the lines of: “We know what you are doing and we’d really appreciate if you’d pay for it.”
1:1 Clone Plugins: The Rats
There are copycats who steal our Friskies, and there are the rare raccoons, but when the rats come in, you’re dealing with a bigger problem.
While similarities in competing apps can be debated, a theme that copies an existing design as closely as possible is also clear case of stealing. It’s the text book definition of copyright infringement. It’s a definite no go.
To us, reading the forum posts about how to replicate iA Writer’s design and functionality is like watching someone dismantling your bicycle, stealing everything except the frame because it’s still locked to the lamppost, and then screwing its pieces onto their 60 Dollar Walmart special deal. It’s nasty.
- It’s a clear case stealing
- It invites others to steal
- It pretends to be ethical and cool
A pack of rats will band together, surround your app and nibble it into pieces, maul apart its design and features and share the spoils as GitHub packages. Here’s the iA Editor typography, here’s Syntax Highlight, here’s Focus Mode, here’s Style Check. Enjoy. They share the meat among themselves, but it’s not theirs to share. They’d say:
- What’s not cool about open source?
- Isn’t it nice that we advertise your brand in the land of free apps?
- Aren’t we generous when we offer our repositories to everybody for free?
Rats don’t follow ethics, they follow their own appetite. There’s not much generosity or coolness about what they do. They could be generous—if only they weren’t distributing our work as open source, offering our ideas for free, and actively directing our customers towards theft. Appropriating someone’s creation and distributing it is everything but open-minded, it can be selfish to a point that is perplexing:
“iA Writer is simply great […] But I would have to pay over $90 to be able to use iA Writer fully. This price is a real obstacle: […] if you try to earn some income through platforms like Medium, this kind of investment can quickly impact your profitability or your finances. My solution: adapt [free app] to make it “iA Writer-like” […] Everything is like iA Writer. But it differs from it, because it is freeware. However, I encourage you to support its developers [of the freeware app] by purchasing a [freeware app] license!”3
What about the apps with the ratty plugins? They profit from the copyright infringement, and they can’t tell their users what to do. And they certainly won’t be caught using foul words like copyright or intellectual property in a free app. They take a hands-off approach. It’s user plugins.
One of our priorities for [our app] is making it easy to heavily modify the app. This means that users/developers can easily create plugins that port features they like from other tools (not just writing apps). The fact that iA Writer and [our app] have very different design goals I think is healthy for the longevity of the Markdown ecosystem, even though I acknowledge it may feel uncomfortable at times.
The exchange above and below is a follow-up on a previous chat with one of these developers. We saw them lauding the ‘innovation’ and ‘ingenuity’ of one of their users, who makes iA Writer clone plugins for their freemium app.
Thanks for your thoughtful message. I understand where you are coming from, and definitely could have mentioned iA Writer in my tweet. I can add another tweet to the thread giving you credit if you would like? Everything I have ever worked on has been shamelessly copied and I know how that feels.
We didn’t know how to answer at the time. How can you not like an open, friendly developer? They’re open as a platform and open as people, and they’re easy to talk to. It’s not their fault when people copy other people’s stuff. Adobe is not responsible for users that edit stolen photos with Photoshop. There is not much they can do against the raccoons.
Or can they? They could, for example, tell their base to not clone other people’s products—instead of lauding their stolen ingenuity…
Okay, but would it really make a difference? Yes, it would. A simple guideline would do wonders: “Don’t use our openness to clone other people’s work, especially if it’s from one of our peers.” Easy to understand and easy to follow.
As you see, dealing with copyright is not simple. It’s a greyscale. Now, sometimes, we stumble upon apps that are beyond debates about intention and openmindedness. There are those who pretend to be us and trick people into spending money for nothing. The most recent example is one of these AI bricolages. It has our logo, but instead of iA it says AI.4
There’s nothing cute or animallike about scammers. Using our name and brand is an in your face copyright infringement, confusing our customers and adding support costs on top. They simply use our name to create confusion and profit from it.5
So what do you suggest?
Here’s what we suggest: Draw inspiration from our work, copy it as much as you need—so you can learn from it. Then make your own product from what you have learned. Change it. Improve it. Design it yourself. Work on it until it is substantially better. If you can’t beat our design, then let it be and do something else.
What can we do?
There is not much we can do about cats and raccoons. There is something one can do about rats and scammers.
Scammers need to be addressed, and if they don’t comply they need to be sued. We’ll hire a lawyer to send a professional and informed take down notice. Lawyers cost, but a professional lawyer will save you a lot of time and nerves.
What about the rats? They also are in clear copyright infringement territory, because they copy with the stated intention to clone your design. As stated above, talk to the developers of the platform that offers the free clone plugins, first.
The clone plugins always bothered us because it’s a cheap trick to use our work without paying for it.
“But your font, an evolution of IBM’s Plex, is free to use and it’s open source! So…”
Yes, the font is open source, but our app is not. Neither our app’s code, nor their design nor their templates are open source. None of those are free. So use the font as you want, but do not use the font to replicate our apps or templates. You can’t take someone’s design, music, or novel and make it free because you think it should be. It took years to shape our products. It’s our stuff.
So let us be clear: We’re moving our font from GitHub to our site. If you want it, come get it, use it for your projects, but don’t use it to clone our work. Independent creators can define how they want their designs to be used. They can. And then, it’s up to everybody else to respect that.
And if not? What are you going to do about it? – Is it really us that have to do something? We have already done a lot. Do we not clearly own our work? What else do we need to prove our ownership?
What can you do?
Think about it. There is someone who knows exactly if a design is stolen or not. The person that steals a design knows that and how and why they planned the heist. This may sound funny, but putting the weight of copyright on creators has it all backwards upside down.
The question is not what we can do against being ripped off? Making intellectual property fair is on those who profit from existing work, not on those who already put a lot of time and effort into making it. If people steal from you they steal your time and energy. To make things right, you then need to spend even more time and energy. And, whether you’re right or not, there is a high probability that you lose that fight, because it’s complicated. And then you lose time over lost time.
If you’re building on someone else’s idea, which we all do, don’t just copy it and hope that no one will notice; make it your own. Don’t just change the color values or use a slightly different font. Work on it until you’ve earned it.
Finally, here’s an idea you can clone for free. You’ve probably heard it before. Simply ask the author how they feel about your interpretation. It’s the least you can do to recognize the time and effort of the people offering free friskies.
Intellectual property is an ugly can of worms, spiders and snails. IP rights in patents, DRMs and international copyright laws are a mess. They were created to protect authorship. Today, only big corporations can afford the whole process of researching and registering trade marks, checking copyright violations, filing patents, and fighting hairy court cases. Patents and copyright laws do not protect those who compose the music, create new mechanics, write books or design furniture. They protect the conglomerates who own the art, the books, the music, the technology and the ideas. For creators, IP rights are mostly a trap to avoid. You don’t have your own legal department? Patents will be a big waste of time and money. Why do we know? Oh, we know… Filing patents was the most misinformed, expensive, image damaging move in the history of iA. We all make mistakes. We felt that something had to be done against the constant cloning. We self-righteously shot our foot instead. ↩
If something is not that special, then there is no need to steal it either. ↩
Yes, this is real, but obviously, we won’t link to the source. ↩
It’s part of a tsunami of apps that take an existing idea and add ChatGPT. These apps have no imagination, no vision, no ambition, no reason to be. They’re just another attempt to make a quick buck. There is also an exact copy of iA Presenter that uses our exact template design and adds ChatGPT. No not the one that is similar and pivoted to using chatGPT, it’s an exact copy. We won’t amplify it by linking to the post. ↩
A lot of latin languages say “IA” (“Intelligence Artificielle”) instead of AI and that confusion has already cost us rankings and erroneous downloads and bad reviews (“This app has no AI!”). ↩