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published 22 Jul 2014 in Estonia 3 minutes 35 seconds to read

What to do when someone steals your idea?

Last time we wrote about Estonian startup Pipedrive, they had secured a 2,4-million-dollar investment and were going strong. Today, the latter seems to continue to hold true, so we’re sharing their experience on a topic that quite a few competitive startups may have to deal with at some point in their existence: copycats.

Estonian startup Copycat Pipedrive

So, what do you do when someone steals your startup idea? The following text was originally published in July 2013 by Pipedrive’s CEO Timo Rein here.

The short answer is: get back to work and try not to worry about it too much. Swearing also helps, but is 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.

What comes to copying ideas it’s 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.

In addition to design they were also using our code. The Easter egg we had planted 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 that initially approached to become a partner, then snatched up our local domain and then 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 the following: “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 it 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 make some retreats, and 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 that proved theft. The case got a few mentions in local blogs (which actually increased our sign-ups – every cloud has a silver lining).

Although the accused denied any copying, they removed said lines of code and stopped our local domain redirect 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 and/or encrypt it, 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.    

When inventures.eu contacted CEO Timo Rein on this issue, he said that also from today’s point of view, Pipedrive reacted the right way: "Looking back I think we did exactly the right thing - dropped a few coins in the swear jar, took some immediate legal action, but didn't waste too much time on it. We've grown over 4x in that country since then and getting stronger day-by-day. What it eventually comes down to is understanding the problem. If you've copied the solution not really knowing why it's built the way it is, you're competing on a lower level, if at all."

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