But unlike the so-called patent trolls—companies that exist solely to extract money from new start-ups via broad, vaguely-worded software patents—the fast followers are considered an acceptable part of the web ecosystem rather than contemptible parasites. Like the fast fashion houses, fast follower startups serve different markets, iterate on the originals, and keep first movers moving fast to stay ahead.
As University of Washington professor and former Microsoftie Scott Berkun says in his book The Myths of Innovation, all new inventions are basically collaborative. Technology evolves by group effort. Even the Chinese clones, safe in their protected market, eventually start innovating on the original ideas. “Zhihu [Quora clone] and DianDian [Tumblr clone] are following a common pattern of Chinese internet companies. Copy first, innovate later,” Kai Lukoff wrote on the Chinese tech blog TechRice. “Clones though they may be at present, I personally find myself rooting for these upstarts.”
In January, Match.com introduced a feature called DateSpark, which Aaron Schildkrout, co-founder of the local dating site HowAboutWe, thought looked familiar. “The Match implementation was, like, a very overt copy of HowAboutWe, the language, the design,” Mr. Schildkrout said. “It was kind of like an ugly, poor duplicate of what we had built. I felt like it was a little lame but I understand why they would do it and felt simultaneously that it was really affirming.” Match.com did not respond to a request for comment.
Hitting back, HowAboutWe offered Match.com subscribers a three-month subscription for free, though Mr. Schildkrout sounded decidedly unthreatened by the larger company. “The core outdated lameness of Match persisted,” he said. “It would have been cool if they did what we did and did it better, so we could learn from them.”
Does HowAboutWe copy other people? we asked.
“Yeah, constantly,” he said, citing Twitter and OKCupid. “I wouldn’t say copy but we have taken huge pieces of ideas from other people and their great implementations—that’s part of what being a great user experience designer is. I think that’s a healthy dialogue that exists between competing companies.”
HowAboutWe has not attempted to patent the idea of a dating site built around proposing date ideas. “Our task is to be incredibly innovative, creative, try things quickly and figure out what works, kill what doesn’t work, continue to iterate on what does, and therefore beat out anybody that’s trying to copy us,” he said.
Entrepreneurs do often have identical ideas independently as technological evolution makes new things possible. The emergence of services like Twilio, which makes it easy for developers to send text messages and make phone calls from mobile apps, inspired a staggering number of group texting startups around the same time, including GroupMe, Groupie, Fast Society and the recently-folded Freespeech, and that’s just in New York. Mr. Furman gets waves of clients who ask him about patenting the same thing. “In a month, six or seven people come to me with virtually the same idea!” he told Betabeat.
But it’s a different story when there is a possibility of consumer confusion. A trademark application takes only six to 12 months to process, and it only costs a few hundred bucks to send a cease-and-desist letter, as the New York-based founders of the application-hosting service Nodejitsu did when an Arizona startup offering the same service launched under the similar name NodeFu.
At the time, the NodeFu website referred indirectly to Nodejitsu: “We started this project because the ‘other’ node.js hosting services were not sending out coupon invitations.” But NodeFu’s founder Chris Matthieu said the branding was unrelated. “There is a trend in the software industry now around ninjas and apps/sites ending in the suffix ‘fu,’” he said in an email. “In addition for my fondness of ninjas, my son is also a black belt in karate and a red belt in kungfu. I have been surrounded by martial arts for 14 years now. There really isn’t that much in common between the Nodefu and Nodejitsu sites other than being oriental. I didn’t see any ninjas on their site. Not sure what the big deal is nor do I see any concerns with copyright.”
Still, Mr. Matthieu later changed his company’s name to Nodester.
*UPDATE: This ad turned out to be a parody. “This can’t possibly generate any responses, I thought,” writes Ted Dziuba, the listing’s author. “Nope. 31 replies in about 2 hours, before Craigslist pulled the post.”
A version of this story appeared in print in the New York Observer the week of Sept. 2, 2011.