The conversation about the ethics of what it means to copy WordPress plugins, theme, applications, and more isn’t new. In fact, just the other day, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about what competition looks like in various marketplaces.
Based on my conversation with him (and a number of others, for what it’s worth), there tends to be two schools of thought on releasing products into a marketplace that can be summed up in the following two statements:
- If a similar product already exists, don’t do it.
- If a similar product already exists, do it.
Sure, that’s an oversimplification of the idea and there’s a lot to be said about both; however, I’ve seen this same thing discussed in the context of both WordPress theme and plugin development.
Specifically, the quote I read was as follows:
1. Check the plugin repository to see if similar plugin exists.
2. If so, don’t reinvent the wheel.
Initially, I categorically disagreed with this perspective.
Believe The Best (Don’t Assume The Worst)
But here’s the thing: As we all know, when it comes to the Internet, we have a habit of condensing our thoughts into the smallest pieces of consumable information – with the exception of our blogs – for others to read (thanks to Twitter, Facebook, et al.).
To that end, I think that we owe one another the benefit of the doubt when people make statements like that above, because I want to believe the best (rather than assume the worst) and think that most people won’t speak in terms of sweeping generalities. That’s a byproduct of the means of communication we have today.
It happens, but surely it’s not as common as we accuse one another. But I digress.
The point still remains: if a similar plugin – or product, for that matter – exists to what you’re attempting to build should you aim to to create something different?
I don’t think anyone would advocate for simply copying an existing product down to the bits and bytes (or to the exact design, ingredients, or what have you). By that, I mean what’s the purpose of doing so?
- When you go to the grocery store, how many different kinds of ketchup do you see?
- How many different brands of cars are available?
- What about how many varieties of ice cream we have?
All of the above have a single thing in common, too: All ketchup serves the same purpose. All cars get us from point A to point B, and all – well, most – ice cream is cold and tastes awesome.
The Price is Right?
Odds are, if there’s already a leader in the market that you’re attempting to tackle and you aren’t doing anything different, what incentive to other people have to swap to your product?
One of the primary answers, in this case, is price. If you offer an identical product for a lower price, you may get some conversions, but you can’t discount emotional or sweat equity.
People put time, energy, and a lot of their work into using an existing product and a cheaper price still may not be enough to convince them it’s worth swapping.
Here’s the thing: it’s important to distinguish if you’re copying an existing product, or if your core product is the same with a differentiation in features (be it more or less), or a different approach to solving the problem.
At this point, I think it’s worth pursuing, because there are often n-number of ways to solve a particular problem.
Some do it elegantly and some just do it. If you’re second or third or ninth to market but you’ve got a sleeker, more elegant solution to solving the same problem as another product, market it.
Other people will likely take notice and at least investigate it.
And, if you’ve done the job well, price is less of a factor here. Because if a customer has invested hours in a similar project but it causes them pain, and yours comes around and makes it a dream with which to work, then the cost of their time to migrate to your solution may be worth the extra cash.
Competition Fosters Innovation
Overall, I think that it’s all about how well the problem is solved. It’s not about copying, it’s not about imitating, and it certainly isn’t about ripping off. That’s a whole other post.
As people seeking to provide a solution to the needs of others, it’s about making their lives easier. So sure, look to see if another plugin – or product – exists, but do so with the intent to know your competition and what you’re up against – not to dissuade yourself from working on it.