Kevin Cheng  

Design is Not Original

December 13th, 2006 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

Here’s a timeline of a recent buzz between Yahoo! and Google. First, Jeremy Zawodny of Yahoo! discovers that Google has taken Yahoo!’s IE7 upgrade page and cloned it almost identically - down to having the same image with a Yahoo! toolbar blurred out. Then, it got covered in TechCrunch, , Digg, etc. Robert Scoble offers some unsolicited advice on how to handle the situation and in doing so, spurs Matt Cutts of Google to respond by first saying it’s unacceptable and adding that Yahoo! has mimicked the sponsored search designs that Google has implemented multiple times.

Matt’s response is a little lacking in class because it’s distinctly an, “ok, I’m sorry, but you still smell funny and I want to get the last word in,” kind of apology. Especially when his point isn’t even valid.

In case the comic doesn’t say my point well enough, let me spell out an analogy. The format of using boxes and panels for comics is an established standard. Somebody set up that standard and others thought it was a good idea. No patent existed on it, as far as I know, and so it was adopted. A good thing, too, because comic strips would be pretty hard to read if they didn’t follow any standard at all. In fact, Matt mentions he’s a fan of Penny Arcade. Our comic uses the same dimensions as a Penny Arcade comic.

Yahoo! having similar (or really, nearly identical) sponsored search look and feel to me is similar to us using a similar layout in our comics. Google copying an actual image is like us taking a Penny Arcade comic and just changing the speech bubbles and calling it our own. They are not the same.

Matt also asserts that the sponsored search is a product of many hours of user research. I know that Yahoo! spends an inordinate amount of time on their user research as well. If I was redesigning sponsored search, I’d certainly try out a few different designs, including one similar to the number one product, against a set of users to see which one works best. If it’s based on effort alone, which it isn’t, I highly doubt Yahoo! was lacking in that department (why do you think things take so long to ship?).

Standardization is a Good Thing. We use drop down menus, double click, standardized keyboard shortcuts, scroll bars, sign out links on the top right, etc. all in an effort to make it easier for the users to get what they need to do done.

Now I’d argue that the IE7 upgrade pages should be following a convention set by Microsoft. A template, as has been suggested in the discussions, would make sense. But such a template doesn’t exist. I’d actually think it wouldn’t be such a big deal for Google to take the same layout as Yahoo! had they actually created their own image. The line is definitely grey though.

Perhaps this is an argument in favor of design patents. The iPod wheel has become somewhat standard as an interface for mp3 players (though I personally don’t think it’s the best interface for it, it just feels nice) but you won’t see many direct copies of it due to patent restrictions.

While we’re on the topic of patents and trademarks, it’s traditionally the responsibility of the owner to actively protect and enforce their intellectual property so even if Google believes they’ve been ripped off in their sponsored search design, they didn’t act on it.

The whole situation, while overblown, does (re-)raise questions around what level of design can be protected legally but also what level, from a philosophical standpoint, should be protected instead of being shared. Regardless of where that line is, it’s clear that some level of copying is necessary for designs to succeed.

12 Responses to “Design is Not Original”
John Kuo wrote:

Heh… I worked for the first company ever sued for violating a ‘look and feel’ infringement. Long ago, in the dark ages of the 1980’s, a little software company called Unison World made a program called PrintMaster. This was a direct rip-off of Broderbund’s Printshop, but had a 100% different code base.

Borderbund sued for violation of ‘look and feel.’ The settlement ended up being done out of court, but I recall that Apple sent Brodebund a case of champagne afterwards and then promptly sued Microsoft, and Borland sued Lotus, etc. etc. None of them won. No one has tried to sue on copying of UI since.

The truth is, good design is like convergent evolution. There really are best solutions for design–it’s not just a consensus opinion.

Jay Zipursky wrote:

Matt’s response isn’t valid for an even simpler reason. Forget about patents and trademarks — copying the image is copyright infringement. There’s not a lot of gray there.

Chris wrote:

The funnier story here is that whiner Jeremy Zawodny of Yahoo has Google as his default search engine in FireFox… or at least the screenshot sure makes it look that way. Gimme a break…

Kevin Cheng wrote:

@Jay: I was trying to get that point across somewhere in there but I probably lost it somewhere. Thanks for condensing it =)

@Chris: I don’t see why that’s relevant nor even interesting. Google people use Flickr, or even Yahoo! Groups. Likewise, many Yahoos use Google search, GMail, dodgeball and certainly YouTube. I firmly believe in using the best product for the task, no matter what company you’re working for.

Joshua Kaufman wrote:

I’m surprised you didn’t use the word “pattern” once; isn’t that what you mean by “standardization”?

Jay Zipursky wrote:

Thanks, Kevin, but my brevity really hurts my word count. :)

I think the rest of your discussion about the layout and ad design does fall nicely into the design patent realm, though.

Diarmad McNally wrote:

On seeing the first panel I thought the cartoon was about the Linksys/Cisco iPhone.

Tim wrote:

Another funny thing:
I’m sure I’ve already seen that design at Google before: for their optimized Firefox download.

Oh well, life goes on

Sebhelyesfarku wrote:

Much ado about nothing.

Aaron Brethorst wrote:

What’s especially funny to me is that the blond guy looks *a lot* like Chuck, the much-abused Mac user on Penny Arcade ;-)

Tim wrote:

Which blond guy?

nah wrote:

“I firmly believe in using the best product for the task”

I think what Chris was trying to say is that Yahoo’s JZ thinks Google is a better search engine. Something like that anyway. A bit like turning up to work at a BMW factory in a Mercedes (when people do that they are told to park it elsewhere).

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?