What do you do when you’re a small startup that releases a Web application, only to have something strikingly similar come along from a large, established vendor?
That’s the position Reframe It found itself in when Google launched its Sidewiki Web annotation service Sept. 23. Sidewiki is a browser sidebar that can be installed and launched from the Google Toolbar, allowing users to open a notepad on the left side of a Web page and make comments on that page.
Reframe It makes a Web browser extension that opens a notepad on the right side of a Web page and lets users make comments on that page. The extension works with the Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari and Google Chrome browsers.
Sidewiki and Reframe It are two separate products, but they generally do the same thing: let users add notes to one side of a Web page. There are certainly noticeable differences. Reframe It has group functionality that Sidewiki lacks.
However, Reframe It co-founder and CEO Bobby Fishkin, who started Reframe It in 2006, told eWEEK Sidewiki appears to have emulated Reframe It’s features right down to positioning of the buttons.
There are striking similarities between the applications, which are compared side by side on Google Watch here. As said above, both applications appear as notepads in the margins of Web pages, allowing users to write comments and annotate the Web pages. Both Reframe It and Sidewiki comments are anchored and in line adjacent to the comments’ reference text on the page. Both applications let users share their comments via Facebook and Twitter.
Reframe It and Sidewiki also use icons to represent comments. Both sets of icons are mapped within the margin to represent their positions on the page. When clicked on, icons for Reframe It and Sidewiki move the page to the corresponding text, scrolling to the exact highlighted location of the comment.
“The interface, the layout, the look and feel, look extremely similar,” Fishkin said. Even Web visionary and Reframe It adviser Esther Dyson sent this tweet when Sidewiki launched, noting that Sidewiki looks like Reframe It did as of February.
That’s the concrete comparison. Fishkin pointed out some more occurrences that hit a little too close to home for him, but would appear to be coincidental or circumstantial to outsiders. For example, he said more than a year ago Reframe It advisory board member Terry Winograd attended a meeting at Google in July 2008, and suggested that a top Google executive look at Reframe It. This executive said it looked interesting and that he or she would pass it along to the team.
A few months later, Fishkin said at least six Google employees registered to use Reframe It, “allowing them plenty of time to explore every nook and cranny of our functionality.” Moreover, two days before Google launched Sidewiki in September, Google tried to hire Reframe It co-founder and Lead Engineer Ben Taitelbaum.
Did Google plan to copy Reframe It’s technology and lure Taitelbaum to cripple Reframe It? That’s what Fishkin and his team at Reframe It suggest.
IP Lawyer Evaluates Reframe Its Case
When eWEEK asked Google about Reframe It’s complaints, a Google spokesperson told eWEEK via e-mail:
““We’ve worked hard to build an easy-to-use product that addresses users’ demand to contribute to the web and that ranks Sidewiki entries by quality to ensure users only see useful and informative entries. The variety of existing products in this space and the increasing number of sites that enable user generated content shows that there is growing demand for allowing users to contribute to the Web. We are very excited by users’ response to Sidewiki and will continue to use their feedback to iterate more on the product.”“
This all sounds juicy, but what does it prove? More importantly, could something be proved in a court of law, which is where this standoff appears to be headed?
eWEEK asked Edward J. Naughton, an IP (intellectual property) attorney and partner at Brown Rudnick in Boston, to share his thoughts. Naughton told eWEEK Reframe It would have to have patents on its IP-for example, on comments in the margins of a Web page-or at the least technology copyrights to make a case in court.
Fishkin has said Reframe It has a utility patent pending and other IP that is patent pending, as well as copyrights on the code, interface and the look and feel of the technology.
Naughton said, “A pending patent is helpful. They can’t sue for infringement until the patent issues. When a patent application is still pending, however, they can amend the patent to add claims (if needed) to cover exactly what Google is doing.”
Naughton added that the copyright claims provide some protection, not for the idea of marginal-commenting software, but for the specific way that idea is expressed and implemented. And if a close analysis of the code reveals significant similarities, that could make the copyright claim stronger, he said, adding, “In terms of functionality and purpose, it’s very clear that there is a knockoff. The question is: Is it an impermissible knockoff?”
For its defense, Google would likely argue that it is has implemented and expressed the Web annotation idea differently, from color to layout. Google would also likely note that its ranking technology, and other characteristics under the hood, are unique in the industry. Google could point out the differences between the Sidewiki source code and the Reframe It source code as evidence that the applications are markedly different.
Google would further point out that several Web annotation startups have come to the market with comparable technologies, from Third Voice in 1999 to more recent offerings from Diigo, Trailfire and Fleck.
Moreover, Google CEO Larry Page has been talking about creating annotation services for several years. PageRank, in fact, was originally intended as a way to rank annotations.
Fishkin said he really doesn’t want to sue Google because his company is about to release a major new rollout-Reframe It 2.0-and he and his team of 14 people don’t need the distraction.
Fishkin said he also hasn’t approached Google about this yet. By going public, Fishkin is hoping to get his story out there and see what happens next.