12

Meta is about to release an app called Threads that has been labeled by news sources as a Twitter rival or Twitter clone.

I don't know how similar Threads actually is to Twitter, but hypothetically if it were almost identical, would that be legal? More generally, can anyone just copy an existing website (without copying the code or images)? Could I make a website that lets people post pictures like Instagram but call it MyPics? How similar do two websites or apps have to be before there's a legal/copyright issue?

8
  • 8
    You’re asking about the wrong kind of intellectual property. It’s patents that protect inventions against duplication, not copyrights.
    – Mike Scott
    Jul 5, 2023 at 7:03
  • 13
    The trouble with this question is that it asks about copying things which weren't original and which have been copied widely without issue, rather than copying genuinely novel stuff. There's nothing novel about posting pictures or messages online, and lots of sites did it before Twitter and Instagram. Flickr was hugely popular as a social image-sharing site before Instagram was a thing. Twitter was a bit more novel in its focus on short messages and things like retweets and quote-tweets, but drew heavily on blogging and earlier sites' status updates, and has been widely copied since.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 5, 2023 at 11:34
  • 4
    Truth Social is almost exactly a clone of Twitter, I'm sure it's more similar than Threads will be. Jul 5, 2023 at 12:48
  • @user2259438 I'd mention that Truth Social was caught using the Mastodon codebase without attribution, but had the good grace to fix things promptly when challenged. Jul 5, 2023 at 13:48
  • 1
    I would just take a look at tiktok vs facebook and youtube shorts.
    – Styxsksu
    Jul 5, 2023 at 17:44

2 Answers 2

37

More generally, can anyone just copy an existing website (without copying the code or images)?

Yes.

Could I make a website that lets people post pictures like Instagram but call it MyPics?

Yes.

In general, copyright protects particular expressions of ideas, not higher level ideas or concepts.

3
  • I am confused by the wording. Wouldn't a website (probably more like a web-application ) for pictures count as a "particular expression of an idea" rather than the higher level concept of 'a place for people to share visual media' or something of the kind?
    – marts
    Jul 5, 2023 at 11:47
  • 29
    @marts A particular website, comprising its layout, content, and source code, is a copyrightable "particular expression". You can't copy another website wholesale, but you can make another implementation of the same idea. It's the same with other works, you can write a book about a boy who goes to a wizard school, for example, without infringing upon the copyright for Harry Potter. Jul 5, 2023 at 13:29
  • 5
    @marts A "website that you store images on" has to be a website, and has to let you store images. Those are intrinsic requirements for its function, which protects/limits them from falling under copyright or patent — unlike the specific methods used to do so, or the branding/layout, since there can be multiple implementations that will achieve the same result. This simultaneously attempts to reduce monopolies (no one can patent "mobile phone" as a concept), and incentivize innovation (since you can patent specific types of mobile phone, and competitors have to invent new types) Jul 5, 2023 at 22:10
17

Copyright applies to creative expressions, not abstract ideas. Copying the general functionality of an application is not a copyright violation. Only copying the code, art assets etc. is.

However, under some circumstances, an idea can be patented. That is if that idea is a new "invention". It is possible for companies like Twitter or Instagram to protect certain features of their websites they invented using patents. In fact, Twitter does that. But patents have some limitations:

  • They can only protect what's actually new. When someone did something like that before, then that is called "prior art" and it invalidates the patent. For example, you could not patent "A website that allows users to upload images" today, because websites that allow users to upload images have already been invented and exist for ages.
  • And because you can't patent something that already exists, you have to be really specific in your patent description. Which means people can get around it by doing things slightly different than claimed in the patent. For example, if your patent says "Uploaded images are displayed on the left side of the screen", then someone could avoid infringing it by displaying uploaded images on the right side of the screen.
  • Patents have a rather short expiration time. How long exactly depends on the country and the type of patent, but they are generally not longer than 20 years.
9
  • 3
    Ideas can't be patented. You need much more than an idea for that. And you can't get a patent on the effect of an invention, but only on a specific method. The "idea" of twitter would be completely unpatentable.
    – gnasher729
    Jul 5, 2023 at 9:11
  • 1
    @gnasher729 I made it a bit specific that in order for an idea to be patentable, the idea must be an "invention".
    – Philipp
    Jul 5, 2023 at 9:22
  • 4
    The idea also has to be non-obvious. Online discussion and chat were almost an immediate creation when the Internet took form.
    – Barmar
    Jul 5, 2023 at 14:32
  • Probably the only thing that was innovative about Twitter when it was first created was linking it to SMS. Does it even do that any more, or does everyone use the app?
    – Barmar
    Jul 5, 2023 at 14:34
  • 3
    @Barmar Tweeting from SMS has been shut down in most countries back in 2019. Facebook copied that feature for a while, so even that feature isn't protected
    – Martheen
    Jul 5, 2023 at 16:01

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .