Ask DN: Open source design

over 6 years ago from Allan Grinshtein, Founder at LayerVault

  • Jeff EscalanteJeff Escalante, over 6 years ago

    Because of my development background, I'm going to think through how code reacts to these situations, then apply them to design. Here we go:

    First, it's interesting to think about when code is "steal-able" or not. All html, css, and javascript on the web is inherently steal-able, because the code must be public in order to work. That means you can copy the code, paste it into your own document, host it on your own site, and congrats you just stole someone else's website.

    There are also some pieces of code that can be made "un-steal-able", like putting it on With Facebook, the html and css their back end produces holds little value -- the valuable piece is the code that handles user registration, database actions, post sorting, etc. And that's all hidden, and could not be copied without as much effort as it took Facebook to create it in the first place. And although you can't steal that code (unless you break into their servers), you could copy it. Copying would be more difficult than stealing, but eventually you'd be able to produce almost exactly the same thing.

    Now let's think about design. All design is inherently steal-able, much like front-end code. If you like that graphic on layervault's website, you can just view source, save it to your desktop, and it's yours. Congrats, you just stole a piece of design. As is the case with code, and real world goods, stealing is pretty hard to get away with legitimately though. As soon as someone recognizes something you have stolen as a stolen good, it will probably be reported, and you will be called out. If someone broke into facebook's servers, jacked their codebase, and put up an exact copy of facebook, people would notice this, and it would get shut down. Same with if someone downloads and re-hosts your website, changing a couple piece of text -- and this happens all the time.

    Design and code are also copy-able though, and copying is much different than stealing. Rather than taking someone else's hard work, putting it up, and sitting back in your lounge chair, when you copy something, you are actually putting in a lot of hard work, making it yourself, and then releasing something that simply looks very similar to an already existing thing. This happens all the time within code, and it's actually pretty well-respected. There are a bunch of different database adapters, blog generators, html parsers, etc. And programmers love this because there's competition and variety - the best rise to the top. This is also the case with real world goods - if you've ever been to Chinatown, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. This is also the case with "un-stealable" code, it can still be copied. Pinterest is a great example of this.

    Within both programming and real world goods, the original creators are not bothered by copiers, unless the copier has actually produced better work than them. But it's almost always the case that the original creator made something better - they were the first one to take it to market, have already gained a lot of influence, and in addition to having a big popularity boost by default, most people recognize a knockoff when they see it. And the ones that don't are not target customers anyway.

    It does not appear that designers have got to this point yet. As was demonstrated by Dustin Curtis' outrage when people started copying svbtle, and by Layervault's outrage yesterday, designers haven't got down these three points that I think developers have a handle on just because of the prevalence of copying and open-source in the community already:

    • copying is flattery. accept or discourage it graciously.

    • no copier will ever exceed the prominence of the original unless their work is better, in which case you need to pick up your game anyway

    • you cannot prevent yourself from being copied unless you pour a lot of money and time into legal, and even that will only work rarely, if the work is an exact replica of yours. generally, it's just not worth it - the best you can do is politely ask the author to remove it and move on.

    3 points
    • Chris RodemeyerChris Rodemeyer, over 6 years ago

      If we're talking about visual design, its also easily copyable. Take a screenshot and trace it pixel for pixel. It's all there for the taking. Moving beyond the "copying" discussion here though, is the bigger question that I think Allan is posing, which is — is there equivalent philosophy to open source (with all of it's spawned services and platforms) that could exist for design?

      0 points
      • Jeff EscalanteJeff Escalante, over 6 years ago

        Yeah you're right for sure. I just don't think that's a difficult question to answer compared to the whole copying debate.

        I guess my answer would be yes, there is. Showing a design and offering a psd download is open source design. Twitter bootstrap is open source design. Just design anything, put it on github with the source, and allow anyone else to use it, and it's open source.

        Layervault could take advantage of this by better hosting psd files and making it so that you could edit someone's psd and send a "pull request" back, where layervault could show where the changes were made and offer the ability to review and accept them, as it happens in open source code. This would make open source design easier, but not change the fact that it already definitely exists : )

        1 point
        • Chris RodemeyerChris Rodemeyer, over 6 years ago

          Good point. Interesting direction for the LV product to go, if it had a more of public dimension for those who wanted to open it up.

          0 points