Instagram today engaged in what was arguably one of the most transparent rip-offs of a competing company’s product in recent memory, as it launched Instagram Stories, apparently a clone of Snapchat’s Stories feature, right down to the name. In response, I’ve seen some people saying that such feature copying is actually good for users. Though I think I understand what those people are saying, those words need quite a bit more context. Here is some.
Steve Jobs and stealing
The reality is that copying at some level has always been part and parcel of the tech industry. Steve Jobs famously said in an interview for a 1996 TV show:
Ultimately it comes down to taste. It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things in to what you’re doing. I mean Picasso had a saying he said good artists copy great artists steal. And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.
I’ve seen that quote interpreted in a number of different ways, but it’s important to understand what it does and doesn’t mean. Picasso likely didn’t originate the quote; TS Eliot did, as follows:
One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.
In this original version of the quote, Eliot implies that there’s an important difference between imitating and stealing. The imitator merely apes the original (often badly, thereby actually degrading it), while the thief takes it but makes it his own by improving on it. It’s very similar to the definition of fair use under copyright law: if you create a fundamentally new work, your use of the work of others is fair game, whereas mere copying is not. But the point here is that there has to be some improvement on the original — some standing on the shoulders of giants, one might say — in order to qualify.
Users can benefit from copying
Do users benefit from such copying? It’s arguable that they do. If someone finds the absolute best way to do something, it’s to some extent ridiculous to do it another way. The introduction of graphical user interfaces for computers are a good example here — the GUI was so clearly better than the command line for most users that it would have been nonsensical not to embrace it. Almost all progress in technology builds on what’s come before, just as in science. Ignoring the advances of others is simply bad practice.
There are limits, and Instagram has gone too far
The problem here, though, is twofold. Firstly, this only applies to the kind of “copying” we’ve outlined above — that which improves on something that came before, rather than simply aping it. And secondly, the baser sort of copying can quickly become circular and stifle innovation if not counterbalanced by real innovation by all companies in a market. Companies have to drive their own new, differentiating features in addition to borrowing the best invented elsewhere. The problem with what Instagram is doing here is that it’s so barefaced and unashamed, while not exhibiting any of the positive characteristics of what Eliot and Jobs referred to admiringly as stealing.
There’s essentially nothing in Instagram’s appropriation of Stories which builds in a meaningful way on Snapchat’s implementation and makes it something new and different. Right down to the name and somewhat unintuitive interface, Instagram seems to have literally stolen the whole thing. That’s problematic, because it’s a lot more like the sort of IP violation that Asian (and particularly Chinese) device makers have engaged in over the last few years. There’s really nothing to admire here except possibly Instagram’s sheer brazenness.
I think it’s inevitable that services that occupy similar spaces in the broader communications and content markets will end up building feature sets that look very similar on paper. But that ought not to mean that they also look similar when implemented in apps. That smacks of laziness and a lack of imagination, which is a shame from a company like Instagram, which has fostered real innovation in the past.