Startup slammed for copying 37signals

Curebit 'inspired' by design but also hot-links to code and images

Controversy raged this weekend as online referral startup Curebit was caught red-handed using not only design from 37signals, but also code and images directly hot-linked from the 37signals website.

37signals partner David Heinemeier Hansson was quick to slam the startup's actions, at one point labelling the Curebit team "fucking scumbags", responding to seemingly flippant and dismissive claims from Curebit co-founder Allan Grant, who said: "We're a tiny startup - what's wrong with a quick & dirty test?", and suggested that Hansson "chill".

As the exchange continued, Grant's attitude changed and he reasoned: "New lessons: don't copy. If there's a good idea worth incorporating, redesign it from scratch with the ideas in mind." He then apologised in full on the Curebit blog, admitting that the rip-off "did more than take inspiration from [the 37signals design]" and calling said action "stupid, lazy, and disrespectful of their creative efforts".

When we asked Hansson for comment about the incident and what designers should do to avoid being in a similar situation, he succinctly replied: "Don't plagiarise other people's work - and certainly don't make lame excuses if you do and get caught." Curebit did not return our request for comment.

The incident once again shows that inexperienced designers don't always seem to understand where the line should be drawn between being inspired and outright copying.

We spoke to independent management consultant and user experience strategist Whitney Hess. She said that while inspiration helps us generate ideas, consider new approaches, and gain the motivation to do our best, it "quickly becomes imitation once you fully replicate another person's execution of those ideas". And while imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, she continued, "no company wants their fans to show their devotion by directly copying the results of its hard work".

The line where imitation becomes plagiarism, said Hess, isn't terribly thin anyway: "Designers have access to scores of pattern libraries that illustrate best practices on how to implement common pieces of functionality. But there's a huge gap between reusing the layout of a component and reusing the layout of a whole page, including imagery, information hierarchy, text styling, and even actual copy!"

She went on to argue that not only did Curebit's actions "demonstrate a lack of mentorship from more seasoned professionals, a lack of imagination, and some seriously questionable ethics," but also a lack of business understanding.

"What works for one business with its audience won't automatically work for another," she said. "One-size-fits-all does not apply when it comes to design. Conversion isn't transferable."

(Image credit: David Heinemeier Hansson.)