I wanted to create a new website that was a Question and Answer site in a specific niche (one that SE is not in right now). My problem is that the more I design and create the website, the closer it is becoming just like another SE site.
Are there any legal ramifications to this? The code is all my own, the design is all my own. The concept was inspired by SE, but I am trying to verge from them as much as possible, it just keeps coming back.
I almost feel like I am cheating SE as I am an avid member on a few of its sites.
You should read this post about creating Stack Exchange clones.
Basically it says:
There's also a whole bunch of questions linked to that question on the same page which ask the same question.
Here is a question which lists all of the clones that have already been built. So basically you are not the first person to want to or who has already cloned Stack Exchange.
On another note I wish I had a dollar for everyone who had a "great business idea" based upon a Q&A site since this site became successful. As many people have pointed out on other sites, the success of Stack Overflow and other Stack Exchange sites is mainly about the community and only partly about the functionality.
If I had a Q & A site I would be more focused on how I could build a community and less about what my site looked like. These guys (Joel and Jeff) had tens of thousands of loyal readers that they were able to bring across to SE when it first started (myself one of them).
SE is using proprietary code. As long as you write your own code and not rip it off theirs I think you should be OK. A lot of sites can look alike, and have similar functionality, but as long as there's something that differentiates your idea from theirs I think you should be OK.
Think about "Like" button introduced by facebook and "Follow" concept that came from Twitter. Have you seen similar implementations on other sites?
Just make sure you document somehow your site -- you don't want them to add something similar to your idea and then come after you (if you guys indeed are too close). The easy way to do it is to put your idea on paper and mail it to yourself as a certified letter to keep it unopened. Now sure if it is a bullet-proof solution but it'll certainly have a time reference when you started working on your unique idea.