In this whole series I'm not sure I've ever stopped to actually articulate my views on theft. I'd like to do that now to make my position clear.
Note: This is not an attempt to define theft in any absolute sense. I have included examples, but no definition. This is just me sharing my views regarding theft and stealing as it relates to issues we've been discussing and according to my own internal moral compass.
I think stealing is wrong. Taking a physical object that is the property of someone else and calling it your own is "bad" and usually illegal. I think this holds true even when that property is digital; like a piece of software, or a digital copy of a song. It's still stealing in my mind. If I'm going to listen to a song I'll pay Amazon or iTunes the $.99 to own a legal copy of that song.
I don't steal music or pirate software.
And I don't just think these things are wrong solely because it's the "law". I have no problem breaking the speed limit every day. I guess it comes down to money. If I illegally download an MP3 I am denying one of the companies that sells musically legally that $0.99. In my head it's like I just bought the song from them and then stole the $0.99 back. Not to mention I deny the artists their royalties. I know not everyone sees it that way, but that is how I view it.
When I speed I don't steal (directly or indirectly) from anyone... in fact several time's I've actually contributed to the local economy by paying not only speeding tickets but also lawyers fees so that those speeding tickets don't infringe on my ability to continue to drive fast in the future. :-)
Now lets look at four scenarios quickly and I'll tell you how I feel about each...
I feel cloning an app shows bad taste
I think cloning an app tit for tat, pixel for pixel, word for word, feature for feature, design for design, tab for tab, button for button is just bad taste. It shows no originality, no vision, no insight. I can't think of any reason not to use the original if it was reasonably priced... but wait, a reason cometh...
Basecamp has evidentially had some exact clones; just localized to other languages... I can understand how 37s not localizing leads to that happening. Unless the clones were using Basecamp's HTML, CSS, or JS though I'm still not sure you'd have a case of copyright infringement... it would come down to the copyright-ability of the body content ("word for word") I think.
Copyright violation or not I still think this shows bad taste. It's not a project I would start or get behind.
I feel cloning and then expanding an app is definitely "less bad"
So... no gantt charts in Basecamp? What if a company makes an exact Basecamp clone and then starts to add complex features 37signals has said "no" to? If no code is stolen... isn't this just good business? Like building a bigger or faster hard drive than the competition? Or the first hard drive with a built in memory cache... This still feels a bit shady to me though. Mostly I think it's the implied "intent to clone completely" that rubs me the wrong way.
I feel writing a similar app from scratch is FINE
So lets say I need a simple address book app and I just don't care for Highrise or it doesn't have all the features I need... I use sheet of paper design... I use design concepts and methodologies that 37signals and Apple have popularized. In the end it does a lot of the same stuff as Highrise and Address Book... adding a contact feels similar in all 3 of our programs...
But it isn't a clone... I didn't set out to clone 37signals or Apple... just to build a simple and clean address book using popular design concepts and methodologies. The screens are all a little different (or a lot)... there may even be features that 37signals and Apple never dreamed of or simply chose not to add.
I don't see how this is wrong.
I feel writing an app for an entirely different market is FINE
So lets say I need an app to manage my zoo... keep track of feeding animals, arrival and departure of animals, baby animal births, visitor tracking, habitat environments, etc... I use sheet of paper design... I use design concepts and methodologies that 37signals (and others) have popularized. My app has zero potential to take any customers or business from any 37signals product. In no way does it break the law, infringe their copyrights, or hurt their business.
Why should they be pissed off about it?
The above are simply my personal beliefs on right and wrong in the context of this discussion. Now, what about ethics as a topic?
So I try and have a dialog with some friends about ethics and get hung up on stuff like this:
i mean there are still tribes of cannibals... is it ethical for them to eat people? are our ethics superior? because we are in the "majority"?
If that stumps you too then you see why I'm not ready to discuss ethics yet. And if you think that makes no sense... or you think "wtf does that have to do with ethics" then you also see why I'm not ready to discuss ethics yet. :-)
I know some of you are patiently waiting. You haven't been forgotten. It's still on the agenda to wrap this whole discussion up.