“One can steal ideas, but no one can steal execution or passion.”
Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek
Because the tech industry is so focused on innovation and disruption, it’s easy to forget that many of its biggest success stories were not based on original ideas of their founders.
Instead, the key to success often depends on taking a concept that already exists in the world and executing it better than anyone else (including the companies who came up with the idea). Improving upon the initial concept could mean optimizing the user experience, offering better content, or broadening its scope.
If the founders of the new company can convince investors to fund their new and improved concept, they may find themselves with more resources than the originators of the idea ever dreamed of, which can help to build bigger, faster, prettier products that can eventually eradicate the “old site” from the minds of users. For example, most people don’t even remember Friendster, despite the fact that it pre-dated almost all of today’s social sites.
Here are five of the most famous cases of successful rip-offs:
1. Facebook vs. ConnectU
Even if you’ve never seen The Social Network, you’ve probably heard bits and pieces of Facebook’s origin story which very closely overlaps ConnectU (a social website that launched in 2004) and its origin story. As the story goes, Zuckerberg agreed to collaborate with his Harvard classmates on ConnectU (or HarvardConnection, as it was initially called) but, was then inspired to take the idea and build his own platform, which eventually led to the launch of Facebook. His classmates accused him of stealing source code in addition to the overall idea. Several lawsuits eventually ended in a settlement, as depicted in the movie.
2. Google vs. Apple
This is a rare case in which both companies are not only still in existence, but are still incredibly successful. Steve Jobs once referred to Android as “stolen product,” – was he being dramatic, or was there truth to his accusation? There is more to the rivalry between Apple and Google than just corporate giants competing for market share. Jobs’ comments on Android had to do with what he saw as flagrant violations of patents that Apple owned and the Android technology violated, and he took it personally. That’s because, in 2003, when Google founders tried to convince Jobs to become their CEO, Jobs instead offered to mentor Larry Page and Sergey Brin, sharing many of his personal resources and contacts. Jobs believed that he was deceived by the Google founders, who he believed to have stolen Apple secrets to create Google technology.
3. Twitter vs. TechRadium
The thing about Twitter that differentiates it from other social media sites, its short form method of messaging large groups of people, didn’t originate with the company. In 2009, a Texas-based company named TechRadium filed a patent lawsuit accusing Twitter of stealing their technology and using it for profit. TechRadium had invented the technology as a way of dispensing emergency information to a large group of people quickly, what they called “Immediate Response Information System.” The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court.
4. Hulu vs. Joost
Hulu was the first television-to-internet video site to find and keep an audience while monetizing, effectively wiping out similar sites, even those that had inspired Hulu in the first place. Hulu’s main advantage was probably the fact that networks like Fox and NBC didn’t license their programs to any other site. In addition, Hulu cut out the download step, streamlining the user experience. Joost’s peer-to-peer network, the network content and faster experience that Hulu offered was enough to win over audiences, despite the fact that they had stolen the idea from predecessors like Joost.
5. PayPal vs. Billpoint
Paypal is often compared to other pay platforms, such as Venmo, Stripe, and Google Wallet. However, in terms of original concept, PayPal owes much of its concept and early adopter presence to eBay’s early platform, Billpoint (which eBay acquired in 1999). Paypal’s founders saw that Billpoint lacked protection for both buyers and sellers. They optimized the checkout process. Soon, eBay and Billpoint were working together to try to win over eBay users, who preferred using PayPal despite the fact that it wasn’t integrated into the eBay platform. In 2002, eBay acquired PayPal and phased out BillPoint completely.
Although, business plagiarism typically doesn’t get much publicity, it is on the rise. More and more people are starting their own businesses and are looking for profitable ideas. Take measures to safeguard your business concept and intellectual property.