Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

A bit of a curious case


A minor ripple of news yesterday concerned the fact that Curebit, a “social referral platform”, had been caught ripping off the design and layout of Highrise, a 37 Signals product. 37 Signals, of course, are probably more famous for their “Signal vs Noise” blog and book “Getting Real” than they are for their own products, although from my fairly limited experience of them (I’ve used Basecamp a bit) they do appear to know what they’re talking about. The blog’s rather pretentious style has spawned a number of parodies, including 38th Signal and the now unmaintained 47 Seagulls, which are worth reading as well!

Anyway, tech news website Venturebeat reports that 37 Signals founder David Heinemeier Hansson called Curebit “Fucking Scumbags“, and the whole thing seems to have led to a colourful exchange on Twitter.

If that was all there was to it, it wouldn’t really be worth discussing. But some commentators, including blogger and author Paul Carr, chose to interpret Hansson’s reaction (and the fact that most people in the tech community took Hansson’s side) as evidence of double standards. As Carr put it on Twitter:

If I understand the tech community correctly, stealing a movie, song or book is cool but stealing code should be punishable by death.

Several people, including me, challenged him on that assertion, without getting any real response, and Carr went on to write a fuller article on Pandodaily titled “Angry Nerds: Copyright Theft Is Bad, When It Happens To People We Like” in which he essentially repeats the same claims. After another Twitter exchange between me and Guardian Technology editor Charles Arthur in which we disagreed on the level of Carr’s understanding, I decided it was time to stop trying to make a complex point in 140 characters and blog about it instead.

So, that’s the background. I still don’t know whether Paul Carr is really misunderstanding the difference between piracy and plagiarism, or whether he’s just disregarding it in order to make a point, but it seems to me to be worth exploring further.

For the purposes of this article, I’m using “piracy” as shorthand for large scale unauthorised non-commercial copying, of the sort facilitated by the likes of The Pirate Bay and the now-defunct Megaupload. I’m aware that some in the pro-sharing camp dislike the term, and I agree that it’s misleading if used in the wrong context (in particular, it’s very misleading when used to conflate filesharing and counterfeiting, both of which are commonly described as piracy), but I really can’t be bothered to type “large scale unauthorised non-commercial copying” every time.

So, is piracy the same as plagiarism? Well, yes and no. It is in some ways, but not in others. Let’s look at the similarities and differences.

Piracy and plagiarism are the same in that…

  • Both are an infringement of a legally granted right. The law gives content creators the right to control copying of their work, and also to assert ownership over it.
  • Both are relatively recent additions to the legal canon. Creative works, in the form of books, music and art, have been with us for many thousands of years. But it wasn’t until the 18th century that copying, in any form, became subject to legal control. According to Wikipedia,

    The modern concept of plagiarism as immoral and originality as an ideal emerged in Europe only in the 18th century, particularly with the Romantic movement, while in the previous centuries authors and artists were encouraged to “copy the masters as closely as possible” and avoid “unnecessary invention.”

  • Both are widely considered morally wrong. There is, of course, a significant body of opinion to the contrary, particularly when it comes to piracy, but it’s still fair to say that most people support the basic principles which underlie objections to piracy and plagiarism.
  • In most cases, neither causes any real harm to the rightsholder. I say “most cases” because there are, of course, cases where both can be very harmful – plagiarism probably more so, since it not only has the potential to affect revenue but also reputation – but, on the whole, neither plagiarism nor piracy causes any significant harm to the victim. There is plenty of research which supports the assertion that the putative loss to rightsholders from unauthorised sharing is minimal, since in almost all cases those taking unauthorised copies would not have paid for it anyway.

But, on the other hand, plagiarism is unlike piracy in that…

  • Plagiarism involves a measure of deception which is absent in piracy. If I let one of my friends take a copy of a U2 CD in my rack, I’m not pretending that I wrote the songs and played the instruments. But plagiarism is making a false claim to have originated something which was actually originated by someone else.
  • Both have at least a theoretical potential to damage the revenue of the victim. But only plagiarism can damage the victim’s reputation. Nobody is going to be fooled into thinking that when YouTube user MissRipOff99 uploads a Lady Gaga video, it’s actually Miss Ripoff performing the song. But if a plagiarist’s copy gets wider circulation than the original then the original creator can face an uphill battle proving ownership. (That can happen even when the “plagiarism” is entirely unintentional: A lot of people still wrongly think that the words to Baz Luhrmann’s 1999 hit “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” were written by Kurt Vonnegut).
  • Piracy is perpetrated by consumers, but plagiarism by competitors. Consumers pirate material because they can’t make their own. Plagiarists plagiarise because they won’t make their own. Piracy is often driven by the lack of available content in a format useful (or a price affordable) to the consumer. Plagiarism, on the other hand, is driven mainly by a desire of a potential competitor to avoid having to put in the work necessary to create original content, or because of an inability to do so.

Looking at the 37 Signals/Curebit spat, it seems clear to me that most of the tech community’s objections to Curebit’s conduct are based on reasons which are found in the second set of bullet points: The differences between piracy and plagiarism. So there’s no real basis for a charge of hypocrisy or double standards against those criticising Curebit, because they’re criticising something for reasons which are entirely different to the complaints of the media industries about piracy.

In particular, Curebit has broken an unwritten principle of webmaster geekdom: Learn from your competitors, don’t replicate them. There’s nothing immoral or illegal about using the “view source” button to see how someone else has done something, whether it’s a clever CSS/HTML trick or a neat bit of Javascript, provided that you’re doing so in order to expand your own knowledge of how HTML/CSS/Javascript/whatever works, rather than blindly copying what you’ve seen. It only becomes immoral when you take someone else’s work and pass it off as your own without either acknowledgement of the source or putting in your own contribution in order to create something else that’s new. As David Heinemeier Hansson puts it himself:

Nobody’s against inspiration or learning. Look at design, view source, forge the influences and come up with your own original work.

As it happens, Curebit haven’t caused any real harm to 37 Signals, so in that particular sense it is equivalent to piracy. But, on the other hand, I haven’t seen Hansson, or anyone else from 37 Signals or the wider tech community, calling for new legislation so that they can take down sites like Curebit without the hassle of going to court. Hansson is clearly angry, but – unlike a lot of the media industry – he isn’t stupid and he does understand the Internet. Again, here’s what he has to say on the subject:

BTW, stealing isn’t the apt metaphor here. Plagiarism is. Taking other people’s work and passing it on as your own.

So, Paul Carr clearly doesn’t “understand the tech community correctly”, given that nobody is making any accusations of “stealing” anything here – not code, not movies, not music, not books. And anyone else who, like Carr, thinks that this episode has any bearing on the filesharing debate is merely demonstrating just as much ignorance.