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I'm talking about Google Style Buttons in WPF question.

From a pure-coding view, this is a nice exercise (to reverse engineer it), and right now it has two upvotes.

  1. Is it acceptable on SO to reverse engineer a control that somebody else took the time to design?
  2. What if the question is about the functionality of the control rather than the design?
  3. Are there any legal considerations?
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@Michael - thanks, that really helped. I couldn't find it since I was checking under the 'etiquette' tag. Should have thought about 'ethics' also... – XAMeLi Jul 31 '11 at 19:15

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Imitating the appearance of a user interface element is a legal gray area, but precedents tend to show that it's allowed — it's a very light shade of gray. The general issue is known as look and feel. There is no explicit legal protection for the appearance of a user interface. Copyright can cover specific visual elements (e.g. a picture or a font), not the appearance of a button. Patents don't cover aesthetic elements. Protection through the concept of trade dress has been attempted, but it would usually only apply if the imitator was trying to deceive the public into confusion with the original.

Code is covered by copyright, so copying someone else's code is not allowed unless the code comes under a license that explicitly allows it. That isn't an issue in the question you link to, since the asker is asking for help with his own code.

Copying functionality is perfectly legal. Functionality can only be covered by patents, and clicking buttons is not patented. Clean room design (copying the functionality while demonstrably not copying the code) is legal, there is converging jurisprudence on this issue.

In summary, there is no legal issue here. I'm not going to argue on whether it's ethical; the wording of your question clearly shows you think it isn't. But most of the informed world see nothing wrong with copying ideas, only with copying work. The question does not violate any “professional etiquette”.

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Copyright and trademark discussions aside, in general it is not illegal to reverse engineer (it may be if the target has been packed or encrypted though). Reverse engineering may break the licence agreement you agreed to when starting to use the product, but that is a civil matter, not a criminal one.

In any case, emulation can be done without reverse engineering. As the old saying goes, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery". In learning to imitate a design or piece of functionality one can learn a lot of valuable lessons. One of those lessons is that it can be very hard work to emulate something and they should have just licenced or bought the original to begin with.

In any case, there is nothing illegal or unethical about asking questions about the designs and approach of others. There is also nothing illegal or unethical about answering those questions. If the OP wants to take it too far and too closely copy a design that someone wants to protect and risk a civil suit then that is their problem, it is up to them to know when to stop. This sort of thing can be very hard to prosecute unless the OP copies the code exactly, or directly violates a trademark or patent.

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IANAL, but content posted in a public domain may not carry with it license stipulations - unless those licenses and statements are also included.

  1. No need to reverse engineer, it has been posted
  2. Functionality and design (I think you mean aesthetics here) are both copyrightable, trademarkable, etc...does not matter which we are looking at.
  3. Without a license agreement attached, SO's user agreement would have authority. You should check that out first. Otherwise, the user knowingly posted data to a publicly available website - there is no expectation of privacy.
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If the user would have said something to the effect of: "My designer has fled to Costa Rica with his mistress, need help designing this button" - I'd gladly help, not even realizing that it's a Google's button design. But since the OP has specifically stated that he wanted to copy Google's design (and I'm sure Google has copyrighted it) - it makes the matter stickier. – XAMeLi Jul 31 '11 at 19:31
Posting someone else's design is another matter, I hadn't realized. – CrackerJack9 Aug 2 '11 at 0:01

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