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I'm not asking from a business sense exactly, but for example, both reddit and Twitter are completely open source. It is my understanding that at least the large majority of their profit comes from advertising on their website. So what exactly is to prevent someone from copying their code and making their own website with some small but effective changes?

I ask this because I have a website, and I want to make money on it through advertising. I also want the code to be open source, just to be nice, but I don't want this to happen to me. My site is not (and will probably never ben close to) an institution like Twitter or reddit. I'm not sure if they're just so big they're not worried about someone copying their site, or if they actually have some protection in spite of being open source.

reddit uses CPAL, and Twitter uses the Apache license -- does this offer the protection they need or is there something else I'm not getting?

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You got some really great answers but I am thinking that OnStartups could have given you some great answers too. –  maple_shaft Apr 17 '12 at 1:13

7 Answers 7

up vote 22 down vote accepted

There's no "protection" when anyone could take their codebase and put it up on another server. None. Zip. Reddit and Twitter are instead relying on the network effect to make their sites valuable. (The Wikipedia article even cites Twitter as an example of the network effect.)

The basic idea is that for a service that connects people together, its value is based primarily on the number of users. (If I'm the only person in the world with a phone, it's useless. But once everyone has one, that phone is an incredibly valuable tool.) So yes, they're "just so big they're not worried about someone copying their site," because the site itself isn't what they're about. Having a site that's that big is.

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Do you happen to know if either of these sites went open source once they had built up a huge community or if they just started out that way (and I guess got lucky)? –  Explosion Pills Apr 16 '12 at 22:33
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@tandu Reddit went open source 3 years after founding, in 2008 –  tobyodavies Apr 17 '12 at 3:46
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I wonder what would happen if you were in a territory where Twitter was not allowed because it didn't conform to local laws (e.g. allow government censorship). If you cloned the source and added that feature, you'd have the recipe for success in that territory - but you'd still need to build the community to spread the word (~ network effect) –  JBRWilkinson Apr 17 '12 at 12:09

I've struggled with this concept myself, and here's my best shot at an answer: Your job as a software developer is not to write code; it's to provide some sort of service (whatever that may be).

Most code will move from being a novelty to a ubiquity with time anyway, so I think that's a good attitude even in a proprietary environment . For example, nobody needs to code anything anymore to create a basic webpage for small business or fanclub.

Making a profit off open source software is like making a profit from a bake sale where everybody knows that your recipe for brownies came off the back of the box. People could have made their own brownies, but they didn't or they don't want to or [long list of reasons]. They'll buy yours out of convenience, or [another list of reasons]. Don't try to monetize your recipe. Focus, instead, on providing the service.

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This is reasonable advice, but I'm just one guy -- say some group of people saw and liked my idea and wanted to rip it off, they could in theory just do it from scratch, but if they had access to my code, that would save them quite a few steps. –  Explosion Pills Apr 17 '12 at 3:12
    
@Dave, the term back of the box is derogatory. Some of the best code in the world is open source. Especially in web dev. I'll stop before being accused of being a fanboy. tandu: unless your idea is radically different (as in redefining web altogether), any group of people could copy your idea in a few days, no matter how complicated it is. People have been implementing Twitter-likes as an exercise way before they open sourced their code. Being first, being robust and being new is what makes success.Not your "secret recipe" –  rahmu Apr 17 '12 at 9:20
    
@rahmu well I certainly wouldn't say it's radically different -- are you suggesting I just go open source then? –  Explosion Pills Apr 17 '12 at 14:34
    
@rahmu My intent was not to be derogatory, but after you pointed that out I can see how it might be - thanks for pointing that out. –  Dave Kennedy Apr 17 '12 at 21:44
    
@tandu: I'm not suggesting you open source. You're the only one who can decide that. I'm only saying that your fears about people stealing your code aren't much justified. Most developers can copy any idea, whether they have access to the code or not. On the other hand, open source brings some strong benefits to the project. Again, you should know whether to open source or not, and more importantly when and how to open source. Open source is only useful if you build a community around your code, and believe me that takes a lot of work! –  rahmu Apr 18 '12 at 7:01

Reddit and twitter can open source their codebase as it's not the primary reason they are so popular. Their biggest commodity is their community and their content. If they were to make their community and content freely available to others, then they would be putting themselves at risk in the same way as you're describing.

Wolfram alpha on the other hand is an example of a site that would be at risk if it was fully open source. If a company like google integrated their codebase into it's search, it could be devastating for them.

I guess the answer to your question is how valuable do you think the code is on your site, compared to the benefit it would get from being open sourced.

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There are many forms of open sourcing a website, out there.

  • You may open source the code, but not the data.
    (you may not even own the data to the extent of being able to open source it, btw)

    ...then people come to you for the unique contents.

    Cloning: cloning the site is simple, but then you just get an empty shell.

  • Open source the data, not the code (stackoverflow model)

    ...where we users keep coming because the software here is very good at continuosly extorting from other people contents we may want to read.

    Cloning such a site is harder, but certainly is possible.
    Still, cloners start a race with light years of gap behind the original authors and have to keep up-to-date while providing new competitive features to overrun the original site and compel more people to visit.

    It's a race so hard to win, that if someone does, they objectively earned it.
    (and it may happen if the original site is lingering in a state of neglect)

    In general, it is meant more of a safety net for the community if the site disappears for one reason or the other, than anything else.

  • Wikipedia it out of the window. (open source everything)

    Clones, they will happen.

    The original site, still, has an head-start:

    • on data: there is an active community, generating, updating and revising content
    • on code: no one understands and can maintain an hefty lump of rotting code like the brain that conceived it in the first place

Another factor: copycat sites are frequently downranked by search engines (google, at least) sorting algorithms, (after so many wikipedia clones tried to cash-in on Adsense) so cloners may never get the visibility they wanted.

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Even if you'd make some small but effective changes, your alternative twitter probably wouldn't catch on. People wouldn't be able to use their clients on it (as no client I knows allows you to change the domain it uses), their friends won't be on it, etc. You'd be completely detached from everything that makes these sites what they are: their community.

I think (but IANAL) there is nothing legally stopping anyone from creating a new twitter (hell, someone has probably tried at some point), but the chances of it working are just very slim.

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speaking of making a better twitter, what do you guys think about twitter with a 131 character limit. Small change. Incremental value add. Because sometimes you need one more character for punctuation or whatever to make your point. The site could be called, "Twitter!" –  Kevin Apr 17 '12 at 3:59
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Call it "!Twitter" for extra geek points. :) –  Martinsh Shaiters Apr 17 '12 at 6:03
    
The next step is of course to go for 132 characters. Or if you're real badass, 133. ;) –  MaienM Apr 17 '12 at 8:15

I agree with the other posters the the value of Redit and Twitter is about network effect, fanbase, community etc.

I would also point out that it wouldn't be much effort to write a Twitter or Reddit like web site from scratch. A basic copy would probably take a couple of man years, reproducing all of the more sophisticated features would probably still be less than 10 man years effort. These figures are trivial to a venture capitalist who thinks there is money to be made. So close sourcing the code only makes it slightly more difficult for a potential competitor.

In addition there is a substantial number of open source projects that do something similar so you would not need to start from scratch to replicate their functionality.

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In addition to the network effect mentioned above, Twitter also earns money from licensing its whole data. I'm not talking about the API, which is used to create 3rd party apps thus increase the network effect. I'm talking about running data analytics algorithms that can mine patterns and trends that is only present in the data as a whole, but not in parts of it. The more data you have, the more its value increases, so you can sell that to businesses. One can for example predict financial market movements, political opinion, sports games results based one what users do on Twitter or reddit... This is what I'm working on right now and we pay a lot for the data...

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