Is it legal to copy a user interface?


Is it a copyright infringement to copy a user interface? I'm not talking about the specific graphics, but the layout and the way users interact with the application.

For example, Blippy 's UI seems very similar to Twitter. Hatebook is obviously similar to Facebook.

Where do you draw the line as whether or not there is a case of copyright infringement?

Legal Copyright User Interface

asked Dec 16 '09 at 02:31
Olivier Lalonde
2,753 points
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3 Answers


The short answer: It depends, but typically user interfaces (UI's) are not legally protected. You should not be able to patent obvious, non-novel ideas (but sometimes the patent office fails to verify the originality of patent applications, sadly). You also cannot patent ideas that are already in general use in the industry, or a visual appearance (a look'n'feel). All common controls (menus, scrollbars etc) are already in use in the industry. Thus you can't patent a whole user interface (which is a collection of controls, with a certain look'n'feel applied).

If a UI is a 100% ripoff of someone else's, with the exact same colors etc but just a different company name, then I'm pretty sure the courts would rule against the infringer. But it would probably not be based on copyright or patent law, it would more likely be based on rules against impersonation, phishing or brand infringement.

One thing to note: While you typically can't protect a full user interface, you can protect single elements of a user-machine interaction it if they are deemed novel. For example, there are patents on ActiveX controls loading in browsers, and the shopping cart metaphor when used on a website.

Where is the line drawn with regards to UI ripoffs? There is no way to answer that really, it depends on the jurisdiction, the protection in place (registered trademarks), the intent of the infringer, and the legal posturing of the infringed. The latter is especially important, trademarks etc are not automatically upheld by the police or courts, the company that is infringed upon must itself act to protect its interests.

If you're in doubt in any way, or if you're doing something outside the commonly accepted, then go see a lawyer who is specialized in intellectual property protection.

Steve Blank recently wrote a good overview of intellectual property protection, with links to some good papers and articles (US centric). It's well worth a read, and it helps to clarify how copyright, patents, trademarks etc relate to each other.

Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer, and the above should not be construed to be legal advice.

answered Dec 16 '09 at 03:06
Jesper Mortensen
15,292 points
  • A correction: you can copyright obvious ideas. Copyright has nothing to do with the "idea", everything to do with the form. – Alain Raynaud 14 years ago
  • +1 on being way more likely to into trademark problems by copying than copyright issues. If you take large bodies of text though (like if you copies a product description page) you could run into copyright trouble but I don't think that is what you were thinking of. – Dane 14 years ago
  • +1, really the question is: Are you doing something that harms the company in question? If yes, look out for a lawsuit = time + expense regardless of legality. If no, probably OK. And +1 to Alain's comment too. – Jason 14 years ago
  • @Alain: You're completely correct, thank you. I'm correcting that line in my answer now. – Jesper Mortensen 14 years ago


This is a very good question. It is asked whenever someone starts new product. For example, you've been using an application that you company need. After some time you figured out that you need it much better.

Now, you like a UI of the previous product you were using, but that product lack a set of feature you need.

You decided to create a product that fully suits your need, plus you decide to go public whit it since there is a quite good chance someone else will find it useful and pay for it.

But, the major question is: should you collect the UI ideas from product you was using and just adjust it and add/change features you need.

I am not talking to completely take UI (naming convention, colors, fonts etc) but to get idea about layout and usability. What are the thoughts about this?

just to point out, I am not talking about all those social networking web site that look exactly as facebook :) (and even market them selfs as a facebook of something?!)

answered Dec 18 '09 at 20:29
594 points


Google finally got the patent to the look of their home page. You cannot have a website that looks exactly like googles home page. (ie buttons in the same places ect.)

answered Dec 16 '09 at 07:53
Cory Mathews
326 points

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