Besides, it’s not like Hinge can really do anything about it. The reality is tech companies have ripped off each other’s interfaces for years, even if Facebook has a few recent, brazen examples. And legally, they’re entitled to.
“I don’t think any claim that Hinge could plausibly raise would stand much of a chance of being successful, ” says Evan Brown, a partner at the firm Much Shelist who specializes in technology and intellectual property law. Brown explains that copyright laws are designed to protect creative expres, rather than methods of doing something, like crafting a successful dating app. “When you look at the similarities between how Hinge seems and Facebook looks, those similarities–as I see it–are purely factual or methodological, ” he says.
Brown points to a 1996 Supreme Court case, Lotus Development Corp v. Borland International, in which a software company tried to assert that a drop-down menu it generated was protected by copyright. The high court was split, but a lower tribunal held that copyright doesn’t extend to the user interface of a computer. Brown says many of the same issues would come into play with Hinge. “No one would think they have exclusivity under copyright, it’s the very same thing here, ” he says. “These are just stock elements of how interfaces appear and operate.”
That hasn’t stopped other dating apps from suing each other, though. In March, Match Group, which owns Tinder, sued vying dating app Bumble for violating its patents and trademarks, as well as misusing trade secret. Bumble promptly countered with a suit of its own–accusing Match of coaxing it into uncovering confidential information under the impression that it might buy it. Whitney Wolfe Herd, the founder of Bumble, was previously one of the earliest employees at Tinder.
‘These are just stock elements of how interfaces appear and operate.’
Evan Brown, Much Shelist
Daniel Nazer, a staff attorney on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s intellectual property team, thinks Tinder’s lawsuit faces many of the same pitfalls. “I think most utility patents in this space face the same problems, ” he says.( Utility patents protect new machines, processes, and other inventions ). He specifically quotes Alice Corp v CLS Bank International, a landmark Supreme Court case from 2014 that determined an abstract idea doesn’t become eligible for a patent just because it’s implemented on a computer. The decision is largely seen as having played a critical role in helping software companies fight back against patent trolls. He believes the case decision makes Tinder’s patents invalid. IAC, Match’s mother company, declined to comment on ongoing litigation.
Facebook’s copycat moves can still feel unjust, especially for a company of its sizing. But bringing already successful features to new products mostly stands to benefit users. If Stories are any indication, people won’t mind that Facebook Dating’s seem originated elsewhere. The social network announced earlier this week that a whopping 450 million people use WhatsApp Status every day, the Facebook-owned app’s version of Stories. Snapchat, by comparison, has less than 200 million users total. For now though, all Hinge can do is keep talking to Facebook, and hope the social network doesn’t kill its business.
“Since the proclamation, our squad has been in touch with Facebook about what our relationship will look like moving forward, ” says Hinge’s MacGougan.
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