Friday, September 11, 2009

When A Friend Becomes A Competitor

I get asked all the time, how do I know nobody is going to steal my idea? A while back, a site I follow regularly ran into just this problem.

The Setup

You can read all the details here, but to make this a very short story I'll summarize the issue as:

Site A decides to collaborate with site B; they do; it goes so well that site B decides it can do the service of site A, but even better; site B steals the name of site A and stops communicating with site A

(Got that? Again, this is a very brief one sided view of the story - but for our purposes it should work)

At this point, site A is pissed and publishes his whole side of the story - including personal e-mails - on the web. Things get ugly. While some readers of site A are supportive, a great many are not.

My Two Cents

After much thought, I've come to the conclusion that I think the owner of site A was out of bounds - he shouldn't have publicized the argument and gone all guerrilla warfare on site B. Why? Two reasons:

Reason 1: Normally, I should try to explain this point with a sports analogy. But what do I know about sports? I know programming, so here ya go. In programming, the programming language sets the rules, not the programmer. While the programmer might like to assume the following is true:

  "2" == 2 == 2.0

(In english: the string with the letter 2 equals the integer 2 equals the floating point number 2.0)

Depending on the programming language, this may be true or false. In other words, just because you're used to PHP where the above is true, doesn't mean that you can say the above in C and expect it to work.

What the heck does this have to do with our controversy? Everything. Let's say the rules of business in the US require that if you want to use a name exclusively you have to trademark it - well, then, if you didn't trademark it, and your competitor starts using it, tough noogies. Doesn't matter if you own the domain name, or you were using it first - what matters is the law of the land.

If site A's name was so precious, he should have talked a lawyer and got it protected properly. If he didn't, and he loses the name, he has no one to blame but himself.

Naturally, if A did have his name properly protected, and B started using it, the way to handle the issue isn't publicly, but through proper legal proceedings.

Reason 2. I'm sure the owner of site A was beyond bummed when he thought he had been swindled out of his name and concept. But here's the thing - in my opinion what's going to make his site, and businesses in general, successful isn't a name, or idea in general. No, it's two words: endurance and innovation.

OK, so site B is now offering the same service as site A. The service, in this case is publishing interesting programming examples. This, for a geek is fun to do. But, in a month, or 6 months, or a year, will it still be fun to do? That's where the endurance part comes in. If site A is in it for the long hall, he really doesn't have much to worry about - because offering the service he does is something that takes effort, and statistically speaking, his competition (site B) probably doesn't want to put in all that effort.

Let's suppose though, that site B is just as serious as site A and they both have the endurance side of things down. That's where the innovation part comes in. Sure, site B may be able to coast by on their name or reputation for some time, but if site A is truly being innovative, people will find their way back to site A.

The Verdict

While I sympathize with owner of the site who feels like he was cheated, in the end, I think he was handed a terrific teaching moment - and handled it poorly. If something is important to you in business (or life) don't assume it's protected - invest the time and money to know this. And at the end of the day, it's not the name idea that decides the success of your business, it's just how hard you're will to work, on how creative you're willing to get.

Incidentally, the issue has been since resolved. Site B is no longer using site A's name. Huh, maybe site A's approach was effective after all?


  1. I am the author of Site A.

    Alex and I had an agreement: I would write content for his blog, he would link back to mine (though none of the commenters noted it, I did propose that arrangement in one of our early emails, and he responded saying he had the same kind of arrangement in mind). Then Alex changed his mind with his "Moses moment" email -- his concept was for me to work for him, contributing to his success, whereas I wanted to build my own success. Hence, the split. Then he decided to keep my name, and told me I would have to be happy to share.

    My name is my lifeblood. Even today, a Google search for "programming praxis" returns my site first, Alex's second, even though he no longer uses the name (he changed the category name, but one of his exercises used the phrase in its text). That causes confusion for my readers. Alex was trading on that confusion for his own benefit.

    The law was absolutely clearly on my side. My trademark is mine, whether I register it or not (many commenters got that wrong). Alex knew that. But he took my name anyway. He was guilty of trademark infringement. There is no question of that. He knowingly, maliciously stole my trademark.

    Alex's blog is commercial, generating ad revenue. He has a paid staff. I am myself, writing for fun, earning nothing. Trademark registration costs a lot of money ($375 for a US trademark), and defending the trademark costs lots and lots of money.

    I did approach Alex through normal legal channels -- I sent a cease and desist letter, which he ignored. I couldn't afford a legal fight; he could. My choices were to share my name with Alex, change my name and start over building my brand, or go public. I went public, and Alex surrendered.

    By the way, even as he changed the name of his blog exercises, he lied, saying that a name change was planned all along and I simply didn't give him enough time to make the change. In truth, he never told me he was planning to change his name, and he even sent two emails proclaiming that he would keep my name.

    What would you have me do?

    Alex has slowed down, from weekly to every-other-week, and the signal-to-noise ratio in his comments has fallen with every exercise.
    On the other hand, my blog stats have improved every week. As you suggest, I continue building my success by giving my readers good content.

    Alex was a jerk, stealing my name as he did. I fought him the only way I could.

  2. Phil -

    First off, I love the site. I think I've blogged about how cool it is in the past, yet can't find the post - so maybe it's still stuck in my drafts.

    Second of all, I appreciate you taking the time here to respond to my comments.

    You ask: "What would you have me do?"

    Here's what I don't get: if you had a legal right to the name, why not go through the legal channels to resolve this? Isn't that the point of the legal system in the first place?

    So the answer to your question - I'd have a lawyer write up a nasty letter threatening action, and then I'd take that action.


  3. The problem is that lawyers cost money. Lots of money. Right or not, hiring a lawyer was not an option. As I said earlier, my choices were to share the name, start over with a new name (losing everything I had built over several months), or fight a cyberwar. All three choices were bad. I picked the one most likely to succeed, and you know the results.

    You blogged about my site in your entry describing If you want to blog again, feel free. And, if you are willing, please contribute a solution to the comments on Programming Praxis.

  4. >> Right or not, hiring a lawyer was not an option.

    I'm sorry to hear that. Something is definitely broken in our society when a person who's been legitimately wronged can't get the legal assistance they need to have this wrong corrected.

    I do wonder if there are any hacks out there to get around this, at least to some degree. Like writing up a threatening letter and put it on fancy looking stationary you create? Or, what about getting help from a law school or some other type of organization that offers discount services?