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If I see something I like in another application, and create something similar from the ground up in a commercial product, could I get sued over it?

Of course it would be styled to look differently, however most of the functionality would be the same since the functionality is what I liked about it. It also would not be the entire system, just a part of one.

I live in the US.

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This is a law question. Ask a lawyer. –  doppelgreener Dec 1 '10 at 16:34
    
I plan on it, but was curious what some more experienced programmers thought of software patents/copyrights and what they have done in the past when the situation comes up. –  Rachel Dec 1 '10 at 16:37
    
While you are a start-up, do not bother applying for new patents or worrying about infringing on existing ones. –  Job Dec 1 '10 at 19:28
    
Patents and copyright are two very different issues! Code and artwork (which are arguably the main components of the UI) are usually under copyright even if they're not patented. I hope this clears a bit the terms of the question. –  Agos Dec 2 '10 at 0:58

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

From everything anyone (including lawyers) have told me, you can get sued for anything. The real question is whether or not you will, and whether or not they'll win.

One lawyer told me, "if anyone thinks you're big enough to take a run at, then that means you're successful." In other words, suing someone is a big undertaking. It has to be worth someone's time and money.

That doesn't mean you won't get a strongly worded cease and desist letter.

(Of course, IANAL).

Assuming you didn't directly copy any code or screenshots or whatever, then you're probably not breaking copyright rules. Patents, on the other hand, are overly broad, and if someone big enough to sue doesn't like you, they likely have a patent that covers anything you might be writing.

Further reading: it would be worth looking at the "look and feel" part of this case.

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Its America. We sue when were bored –  TheLQ Dec 1 '10 at 21:36
    
@TheLQ, that statement has been used before. I'm bored. I'm going to sue you :) –  Stargazer712 Dec 1 '10 at 22:18

Can I get sued over duplicating another program's UI?

This may happen.

I live in the US.

This is the biggest problem. US patent chamber seems to accept patenting of trivia.

As you know Apple patented their iPhone's "pinch to zoom" with two fingers. Other companys (Samsung, HTC) implemented this functionality as well and ship it worldwide, but disable it for the US market. You may want to provide a different version for the US users as well.

One other option would be to register a company elsewhere to get out of the US jurisdiction. This won't protect you from attempts to sue you though however may lower their success rate.

At the end of the day, it would also depend how close you duplicate the UI. I believe there is always a room to play, not just to make it look different but also much better in the process. Also if other folks start duplicating it, the mass might win.

One other consideration: while you're small and not really a competitor they won't come after you. When you're on the level they likely will. If you're huge and successful (like Google) everyone will come after you even if you're clean.

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The Economist once noted last year that it is all but impossible to develop most any kind of software without accidentally bumping into someone's patent(s). –  Philip Regan Dec 1 '10 at 16:33
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I believe even the idea of downloading images by including them into HTML has been patented. As well as some way of applying for a patent has been patented. Idiots. –  user8685 Dec 1 '10 at 16:48
    
In my part of the world (but I guess in most of it), something doesn't have to be patented to be under IP protection! –  Agos Dec 2 '10 at 0:56

I'm not a lawyer, so I can not tell you for sure, but I believe it is possible to get sued for copying an existing UI, especially if parts of it are patented. A good example of this is the Amazon 1-Click patent which means Amazon could sue any online shop that allows user to make purchases with one mouse click.

In reality, I think if you are modeling you UI after an existing program that uses pretty standard UI techniques I doubt they would come after you, but again I'm not a lawyer.

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There are certain elements, within any UI that any computer user is going to expect. You would be amazed (or not) at how many of those elements are patented, or have a patent pending. I'm sorry, but that has gotten so absurd that trying to work around them would be equally absurd.

When it comes to stuff that is actually original, you do have to be careful. Don't clone someone's artwork for menu icons. Obviously, don't clone a trademark logo and substitute your own slight changes to it.

A good programmer is going to do their best to make a very intuitive interface. Given the features of the software, there are only so many ways you can arrange all of those buttons while still keeping the program intuitive. This means, a programmer at foo is likely to make something remarkably similar to a programmer at bar, if both were given the same project specification.

In short, don't let other people's accomplishments stop you from innovating. If you are in doubt about something, you probably shouldn't be doing it.

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I'm a little confused on how to reconcile the last two sentences of your post. The second seems to contradict the first -- lots of people with worrying tendencies, like myself, doubt everything -- which would stop you from innovating. –  NickC Dec 13 '11 at 20:08
    
@Renesis I have this great idea, it's been done before. If you're sure that you're doing it better, go for it. But, real innovator beware, here be dragons. And that's just how things are, at the time of this writing. –  Tim Post Dec 13 '11 at 21:14

If the User Interface includes graphical assets, such as something done by a professional designer, then yes, you may get sued for copyright infringement.

If you're laying out a treeview and a grid control in a manner similar to Microsoft Outlook, I doubt anyone will care/notice.

However, the manner of laying out data may be protected since that is a work of art. Take for example the grid used in TV Guide. Anyone who puts TV shows in that grid format is required to pay a fee, otherwise they need to pay the patent holder.

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Yes, I'm referring to the way controls are laid out, not the graphical assets. –  Rachel Dec 2 '10 at 13:03

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