The free software world is experiencing another legal storm. This time, the trouble doesn’t involve a big company attacking a free software project—this time, you could probably call it a “civil war". A former contributor to Pligg (a very important free software content management system for creating digg-style sites) intends to take Pligg’s developers to court. I managed to talk to Eric Heikkinen, the co-founder of Pligg, and ask him a few questions...
TM: Hello Eric. Please tell our readers a little about yourself and Pligg.
I’m Eric Heikkinen (also known as “Yankidank" on Pligg.com) the co-founder and web director for Pligg. Pligg was formed by myself and “AshDigg" in December 2005 as a free software content management system (CMS). Originally it was simply an English translation of Meneame, a Spanish site similar to Digg, but after a few months we started offering extra features and an intuitive installation process. By Spring of 2006, we were separating the code from the templates and we offered users the ability to build templates based on the Smarty templating system. It was at this time that we adopted the template mollio-beat, named after the original template design (Mollio) and the person who ported it to Smarty (Beatniak). Mollio-beat then became the standard skeleton for creating templates for Pligg, and most Pligg templates to this day are based on it.
TM: When did the problems start? Was it with a specific developer?
During the Spring, Pligg was still in an infant stage and only had a few contributors, one of which was a user named “3dkiller" (James Phelps). 3dkiller would often create images demonstrating what he wanted to see made, but rarely demonstrated any useful skills besides user interface design through Photoshop mock-ups. Since making mock-ups was already one of my jobs, he and I clashed. He also had some unfriendly moments with a couple of the other developers. 3dkiller left after a few months and started his own project “SuperGu" during late Summer 2006.
TM: What was SuperGu?
SuperGu was basically 3dkiller’s version of what he wanted Pligg to become. However, at the time it was only a series of image mock-ups. SuperGu remained as mock-ups for a few months and at one point they had a demo of software running late Fall 2006. The result was pretty much Meneame with a new template. 3dkiller then used the Pligg forum to heavily promote his new product and was even friendly enough to offer “Pligg to use the SuperGu site template as their own".
TM: Well, that seems pretty friendly...
He pulled the demo shortly after first showing it, claiming that Digg sent him a cease and desist letter for his interface design being too close to that of digg.com’s.
TM: A C&D letter from Digg! How can you be sure he actually received it?
Well, from what I have heard through some inside connections at Digg, 3dkiller probably never received any C&D because it would be horrible publicity for Digg to do such a thing to a free software project. We have never seen anything to prove or disprove this, so for now it’s just speculation that he was trying to get some publicity. From what I’ve seen 3dkiller do in the past it wouldn’t really surprise me if he didn’t get receive it.
TM: Yes, but you cannot be 100% sure... What’s happened to SuperGu since then?
Since pulling the demo he hasn’t offered any new images or files for download from his site. The original SuperGu release can still be found if you google around, and we put up a test site soon after we received our C&D so that we could have a reference. Notice the SuperGu footer “All other content is licensed under a Creative Commons Public Domain License". Not only did he license it under the Creative Commons, but being a derivative of Meneame it is required to be licensed under Affero (just like Pligg).
TM: But this is not the end of the story, is it? Things after this got interesting...
A few weeks after SuperGu had supposedly received a C&D from Digg, I received a C&D in the mail from SuperGu’s lawyer. The funny part was that it was sent to my mom’s address in Ohio, rather than my current address in Georgia. She called me late at night and sounded really confused and concerned. After I saw what the first batch of papers looked like I was also concerned, but at the same time laughing out loud.
TM: What did SuperGu actually claim?
The papers claimed that SuperGu owned the rights to some very common verbiage and web design elements such as the login box, rss feed icon and the term “powered by".
TM: Can you be a little more specific here?
To best describe what SuperGu is attempting to copyright I must refer to the first and second pages of the cease and desist letter.
The overall layout and functionality of your yget template is similar in look and feel to SuperGu’s software. First, the location and shapes of the vote box are substantially similar with only a minor variation of inverting the chevron between the vote option and total vote tabulator. Second, the navigation tabs along the top of your yget template, “Published", “Unpublished" and “Submit a new story" are identical. Third, the left side vertical menu on SuperGu has only been shifted to the right side. Fourth, the “Search" field is in the same location as SuperGu. Fifth, the “sort" feature located underneath the search field is in the same location as SuperGu despite the utilization of different words to achieve the same meaning to the user. Sixth, the “RSS" button (top right) next to “sort" and underneath “search" is similar to SuperGu’s RSS icon. Seventh, the “Tag" feature is located in identical location as SuperGu’s placed in the storybox beneath “posted by" and above “story description". Eighth, the “Storybox" is the same location as SuperGu and includes the same features of “comment", “Add the link to..." (Save), and “Tell a friend" (Email). Ninth, the page numbers at the bottom of the screen are similar to SuperGu’s design, and they function the same as SuperGu. Tenth, the verbiage “Powered by Pligg" is identical to “Powered by SuperGu".. Last, the “sidebar" menus are the same as SuperGu in appearance and method of operation. Within the sidebar menus the registration/login box which looks and operates the same as SuperGu. Furthermore, the Ajax effect applied to all the boxes within the sidebar menu when they open and close is identical. The dialog boxes open/close with a button which operates and looks similar to SuperGu with only the minor variation of placing the down arrow in a circle as opposed to a square. The “read more" link operates the same and is in the same location as SuperGu’s “more" button.. It is thus our opinion that your product is an infringement of our client’s copyrights. Moreover, based upon the sheer number of similarities and reproductions between your yget template and SuperGu it is unlikely that this is the result of serendipity but rather a premeditated effort to duplicate SuperGu’s software design..
According to this document SuperGu is claiming ownership to ajax effects, sidebars, login boxes, “read more" links, navigation tabs, the expression “Powered by", tags, the RSS icon and a plethora of other common web design elements and layouts. You also must remember that every single thing that SuperGu is claiming copyright to was earlier released under the Affero Public License. It’s understandable that many of the design elements are similar since SuperGu is copyrighting OUR code.
TM: So, what did you do?
My family lawyer, after discussing the document with a copyright lawyer, advised me to contact him back asking for proof of copyright for any of these items that he claims to own the rights to. We wrote back a brief letter and about a week and a half later I received a much larger packet of papers with copies of the SuperGu copyright application. The packet was over 50 pages long and the majority of those pages were images of SuperGu’s unreleased mock-ups. The way the images were created, it was obvious that they existed as nothing more than just images.
TM: Copyright application papers! Was it actually James Phelps’s (3dkiller) design that was being protected?
Well, the papers covered the CSS and the images used for SuperGu. The application stated that he originally created both works in 2005 and first published them on January 1, 2006. It would be interesting to see this since the code that he listed as his own CSS was nearly identical to the CSS that Pligg uses for its “Yget" template. It was obvious that James Phelps (3dkiller) had just taken our code and slightly changed a few CSS elements. Our CSS was based off of the Mollio-beat template and original CSS design by a Pligg user named Athle who’s based out of China. The images that James Phelps was copyrighting didn’t even apply to us because he was copyrighting the image not the general layout of the site design. It’s like copyrighting a drawing of a dog and saying that no one else is allowed to create an image that has similar dog-like features. I should also mention that I am in no way a legal expert in any way, but I’m willing to take any legal help I can receive.
TM: Is there any evidence to back up what you are saying?
Yes. Soon after we sent him a letter back asking him to prove he owns a copyright, we found a text file (
notes.txt) on SuperGu.com, addressed to someone named “Alex", and which we assume was written by James Phelps. The note was left for a developer and it detailed that he wanted the developer to rip the code from Pligg’s Yget template and port it over to Meneame. The full details of this letter can be found temporarily here. Thanks to a “Digger" we found a link to a scriptlanceproject that seems to have been created by 3dkiller (meneamesg = meneame (Meneame) + sg (SuperGu), also note that in the google cache there is a
meneamesg.zip file) that reads as follows:
Port existing css and graphics in Pligg 9.1 to Meneame. Pligg is based on Meneame so the file structure is similar. I’m really looking for an “ace" css programmer who is comfortable working with php.
The “Chosen Programmer" for the project, “domybest", is named Alex, same as the “Alex" that the
notes.txt letter is addressed to.
TM: Do you know when this
note.txt file was written by James Phelps?
A note written by James Phelps that was intended for a developer was left on his server sometime between the time he submitted the project to scriptlance (March 1st) and when we found the files on his server (March 5th). This was only a few days after we sent him a response asking him to prove that he owned any copyrights to the items listed in his cease and desist. The letter is signed “Sincerely, James Phelps" and the google cache of this shows it to be uploaded 04-Mar-2007 13:51. We believe this note serves as proof that he ported our own Yget CSS into Meneame’s publicly available code and then copyrighted it.
TM: So, what are the best and the worst case scenario here?
Worst case scenario... SuperGu forces us to take Yget offline. We would have to pull it from our releases and track down every person who has downloaded it. Even-worse-case-scenario, since he’s copyrighting quite a bit of the Mollio code all Pligg templates based on Mollio (which is the skeleton we have based every template on) would be infringing on SuperGu’s copyright if his CSS copyright request went through.
If it went to court, I would have to drop out of school temporarily (I’m a college student) to defend Pligg and do this with basically no money. James Phelps could go after my personal income (which is already barely above zero) and assets if the court sided with him. The cost of a lawyer specializing in this area and court fees would be terrifying.
Best case scenario... SuperGu is denied copyright for his (rightfully other people’s) CSS. It would also make me happy if SuperGu dropped any idea of ever presenting a legal suit and issued a formal apology for making a mistake in his copyright papers about the creation date and for taking the ideas and code of other developers. His images probably aren’t anything to be concerned about as long as we don’t copy any of his exact pictures. As far as I know, you can’t submit a picture for copyright and claim that having that image means that no one can create anything nearly the same inany form.
This information is probably not accurate since I don’t have a background in legal practice, so don’t hold me to it.
TM: Is anybody helping you out right now?
Since publicly sharing this information, which we have been sitting on for a couple weeks now, we have begun making some contacts with some generous people who are in positions that are able to help us out. We appreciate all offers from people willing to donate their legal expertise to help us and we are always willing to accept additional help. We at Pligg.com also wish to take a moment to thank all those of you who have supported us, this includes the financial and code contributors, the legal advisers and of course our friends and family.
For more information I suggest reading the full PDF that contains most of the legal papers sent to Pligg thus far. Excluded from the PDF is the contact information for James Phelps, his lawyer and some of the unnecessary images from the copyright papers.
Thank you for answering my questions, Eric. Best of luck with everything!