What to Do When Someone Steals Your Startup Idea?

Fake brand bag

The short answer: Get back to work and try not to worry about it too much. Swearing also helps, but it’s not critical.

Let me start the longer answer with some background information. Last summer we found out that a company in a large country we serve had blatantly copied our ideas about pipeline management software, our UX, design and large parts of our front-end code.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as the old saying goes. But the opportunists had also copied our design pixel-for-pixel. Here’s an example of their little “spot the difference” game:

Copycat screenshot 1
Pipedrive Copycat Screenshot 2

Besides design, they were also using our code. The Easter egg we had planted (have you found it yet?) was fully functional. They hadn’t even bothered removing the Pipedrive logo that appears in some views. And all of this was done by people who initially approached us to become a partner, then snatched up our local domain and fell silent. We felt like we had been burgled.

Lawyer advises: send a “cease and desist”  letter, and elevate to lawsuit if necessary

We explained the situation to our lawyer whose advice was:

“Generally what happens in this situation is that either the company or its counsel sends a “cease and desist” letter to the other company telling them to stop copying look and feel.  Sometimes, these get elevated to lawsuits. (I’m thinking about Zynga – Vostu ).

“Sometimes ends up being a bad public relations problem in the blogs. (I’m thinking about Curebit – 37Signals.)

“You can’t really stop someone from copying – I think your response is to send a letter, and elevate to lawsuit if necessary.”

We got the copycat to retreat somewhat; more importantly, no real damage was done.

We didn’t want to invest too much time into this, so we used a rather pragmatic approach to sending a “cease and desist” message. We got in touch via one of our investors, who is well-connected in the country in question. He wrote a public Facebook post, pointing out the visual similarities and lines in their code served as evidence of theft. The case got a few mentions in local blogs (which increased our signups).

Although the accused denied any copying, they removed those lines of code and stopped our local domain from redirecting to their service. They also removed The Team section from their site.

Looking back, signups from that country have not slowed down, and the only tangible loss is our relevant domain.

What you can do to protect yourself against copycats:

  • Get domains and protect your trademark in key markets as early as possible. As a startup you can’t protect yourself against everything because time and money is tight. But make sure you’re covered in key markets.
  • Plant watermarks in your software or encrypt it, or both so if there’s a need to pursue legal action, you can prove theft.
  • If possible, look into patenting key components of your software – this offers more protection than copyright. More on that here.
  • Last but not least –  have a clear vision about how you want to change the world and don’t be dependent on any single feature. If your vision is any good, there will be copycats. But if your vision is bigger than a feature (think cutting-edge tech, API, partners, support, etc.), copycats won’t be your biggest worry.

P.S. If you’d like to see the sales software that inspired this copycat, you’re welcome to check out Pipedrive (it’s free for 30 days).