A group of Facebook engineers, no doubt worried (and rightly so) about what the “Circles” feature of Google+ could do to their company’s market position, has come up with something of a work-alike feature, involving Facebook’s existing Friends List feature. One Hacker News commenter said in response, “Back in my day, copying a competitor’s feature was denounced as ripping off.” The commenter might think that, but going all the way back to the Founders, U.S. law has encouraged copying competitors’ (publicly-known, unpatented) useful features.
The rationale for encouraging copying of this kind is that society benefits as a whole when better ways of doing things get put into practice as widely and as quickly as possible. A second-order benefit is that the prospect of being “ripped off” encourages innovators to keep innovating instead of resting on their laurels.
A worthwhile read on this point is the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Bonito Boats v. Thunder Craft Boats. The Court unanimously struck down as unconstitutional a Florida statute prohibiting plug-mold copying of boat hulls. The Court said, in part, that “imitation and refinement through imitation are both necessary to invention itself, and the very lifeblood of a competitive economy.” The only permissible restrictions on copying of publicly-known useful articles, said the justices, are those of federal patent law, which have been crafted by Congress to strike a nationally-uniform balance between the interests of inventors and those of the rest of society.
Of course, we’ll have to see if Google applies for patent protection for the Circles feature, and if so, whether it succeeds in obtaining any meaningful protection.