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Popular startup stole my code – now what?
51 points by x1024 on Mar 26, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 35 comments
Hi, I want to ask HN for advice - a somewhat popular startup recently took a page straight out of Dilbert. Is this common? Should I do something about that?

I went on an interview at flipps.com and wrote some "sample" code to fix their horrible, memory-hungry iOS app. I only improved a single view of the app(because I suspected something like this might happen).

The company didn't wish to move forward and hire me to fix the rest of the app. I didn't think much of it and thought that was the end of that.

But to my surprise they immediately shipped my sample code to production! Now, I am aware of the legal status of code written as a "sample" and they probably don't owe me money for it.

I'm not looking for vengeance, and I'm not really all that angry. There's more code where that came from and I won't starve without their business. But this an unethical way to go about software development.

And it is especially dishonest toward their investors(who think they've made an investment in a technologically-savvy company, not just software thieves).

If you wish to drop them a line, the site is flipps.com, and their main investor is http://launchhub.com.

Wait until they are close to exiting and then threaten to sue for 5%, settle for 2%. It's the absolute worst timing for a startup to get hit with something like this.

Of course, only do it if you're actually in the right, so check with a lawyer first.

Indeed. At any investment event, they're exquisitely vulnerable to the threat of a lawsuit.

How will you know if someone is about to close or exit? I feel like startups go out of their way to keep that private.

That's a problem. It's easiest if the exit is an IPO, since that's announced in advance.

I've seen this strategy used on a fairly large company about to be acquired by a public company, when there were already rumors going around before the acquisition. It caused the management there an enormous amount of stress, and they settled for a significant amount of money, even when they believed a court would rule in their favor.

You're an awful person if you use this, so better make sure the company you use it on is even worse.

In all honesty it's probably not worth pursuing. It's unethical and if they operate other parts of their business this way one can only hope they eventually implode.

I had a similar experience. I founded a company 3 years ago where we open source the majority of what we do. We entered into a discussion with a well funded (>$40M) "startup" about how they could use our service as a whitelabeled SaaS offering to their customers.

After a few promising exchanges including a Skype call with their Founder and VP of Engineering they stopped returning all of my attempts to see what the next steps should be. Turns out the reason was because they forked a private repository of the work we did - web, iOS and Android.

We found out they're using our code because they didn't even bother taking out our Crashalytics code and we started to get a bunch of pings. To this day their iOS app still uses our "yellow" color for toggle buttons.


They didn't violate any terms of our license (MIT) but I lost some faith in humanity because of what they did :).


My company is Trovebox - code @ https://github.com/photo

I don't get it, this isn't similar at all. Why did you lose faith in humanity because they did exactly what you told them they could do?

> our license (MIT)

Why did you MIT your code if you didn't want this to happen?

GPL exists for the exact reason you're bringing up here.

Sorry I don't mean this to be negative in anyway, I just don't get the thought pattern here.

Disclaimer: fan of bsd/mit/asl style licenses, feel gpl is better suited for things which need protection from the big players and enforce participation.

While I can understand your pain I feel it is a necessary pain for the greater good to have unrestrictive open source. (companies can always donate/contribute in other ways after the fact etc)

It is similar because of how it happened. There are lots of people using the code for various reasons and many of them participate in the community or contribute patches.

No one else that I know of has engaged in a conversation and then refused to reply to any further correspondence while at the same time asking questions to the community under pseudonyms.

Like the OP what the other company did was probably legal. That doesn't make something okay or right. Likewise (as I admitted) this other company didn't break any laws. But that wasn't the point.

You know what would have been okay? If they said, "look, we have some engineers that are going to have a go with the code - let's keep in touch" or "we are going to fork the code but will submit patches back". That is the spirit of the MIT license. Be civil.

Hope that doesn't come off as negative either :).

Yup. Consider it a cheap lesson in trust and that their reputations are blown. It's a small valley and word will get around.

Sorry to hear. Seems like they were fishing to see what else they could get from you that wasn't already open-sourced. When they found that the open source code was enough, they dumped you.

As this changed your mind about open sourcing the code or how you open source code now?

> As this changed your mind about open sourcing the code or how you open source code now?

That question deserves an entire blog post.

Ultimately, no. But along the way it's made me much more cautious. Their use of our code didn't impact our business at all. It's mainly principle - they used our code and didn't contribute back any work they did.

Not a single Engineer on their team http://www.flipps.com/flipps-team/ - such overhead.

what is a CAO anyway?

Chief Administrative Officer http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chief_administrative_officer

That position existed at my company several years ago before being acquired. Rumor was it used to be a more popular position back in the day. The company was over 100 years old.

To be honest I would just keep clam and carry on. I really doubt you can do anything about it.


Proof. You say they took your code but whats to say they already had something similar in development. Without actually seeing the code changes you are just making assumptions (although it does sound suspicious).

Personally I would say take the moral high ground. Just forget it and move on. A lawyer will take you money and you will probably be worse off than before.

>>To be honest I would just keep clam and carry on...

Yes. In times of stress, I too often seek solace in mollusc husbandry.

If you didn't sign an NDA when you interviewed post your code fix here or on your blog. That should bring some visibility to your "cause". Otherwise it is your word against theirs.

Here are the parts not covered by an NDA:

* Our initial email communication.

* The description of my task.

* The schedule for our meeting (in-office, where the code was written)

* The bill that my consulting company sent them, including a detailed description of the issue and the applied fix.

* Their refusal to continue working with my company.

* Their shipping of a new version two days after the interview.

I know it's all circumstantial. That's why the title doesn't say "I'm starting legal action against a popular startup".

Again, I'm not out for blood. But I do want to spread the word and raise awareness.

What he said^

Wow that looks like the most boring, un-inspiring group of people I've ever seen. You are a lucky man (or woman) to have walked away without a job.

How do you know they shipped your code?

Because it was shipped about 48 hours after I wrote it, and I see details in it that are specific to my implementation.

In fact, if you use their iOS app(especially on the more memory-consuming devices like an iPad Retina)you'll notice that the app reproducibly crashes on all screens. Except one.

"reproducibly crashes on all screens. Except one"

This reminds me of the story about a large telecom company in North America and one in China. They were able to show that their code was stolen because they had the same bug.

Exactly. My product was stolen by a competitor. In court I could show their product had the same bug as mine. That was the start of their downfall. They bankrupted.

You could reverse engineer their app and see if it matches your implementation. Super easy if it's html app. Not too hard if objective-c since it is very verbose, even with symbols stripped.

A popular startup once stole some content I created, but I decided it wasn't an amount that was worth suing over right then.

What bothers me is that there are no technical people on their "team" page. Only an "R&D manager".

I counted four CS majors on their page...

I really must know what a CAO is.

Gee, I wonder why.

It's cool guys, they mention UX.

I don't understand why a company would expose their source code to a job applicant who was not yet hired?

You have their email, how long was the interview? Just send them an invoice for your typical hourly rate...

I did, but they just said they are not interested and paid nothing. The whole thing took most of a work day, all of it spent writing code.

Can I ask why you agreed to spend "most of a work day" on a "sample"? I have heard others saying they spent a "few" hours on a technical test but I think most of a work day triggers alarms for me.

How are you sure they shipped an update with your code

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