Web annotation is a sexy and increasingly crowded space in the market. As in any such pool, the amount of elbow-rubbing between individuals and similarity between products can lead to suspicion of theft.
Annotation startup Reframe It, a 14-person team, claims that Google's hot new product Sidewiki crosses the line between competitive innovation and IP infringement. And with a few Googlers caught with their hands in Reframe It's cookie jar, there might be some validity to this claim.
We first came across Reframe It about a year ago when it first launched. The company's product allowed users to "basically write comments into the margins of the Internet" and was in heavy competition with services such as Diigo and SocialBrowse. When Reframe It added Twitter and Facebook integration and received an official nod from Mozilla this past spring, Diigo remained as a serious competitor, but Reframe It had the further advantage of a stellar advisory board.
Fast-forwarding to this fall, Google launched Sidewiki in September, almost a full year after the debut of Reframe It. Looking at these demo videos back-to-back, the similarities are obvious:
For an in-depth side-by-side comparison of both apps, see Google Watch's post on the subject. The basic conclusion is that the products look similar enough that Google's source code had better be drastically different from Reframe It's if they are to avoid a major lawsuit.
But if we had a nickel for every time we spotted disgraceful similarities between web products, we'd be... Well, never mind what we'd be doing with that stack o' nickels. Here's the interesting part: Reframe It CEO Bobby Fishkin, who claims his company has neither the time nor the resources to take on tech behemoth and pop culture darling Google, told eWEEK that there were several attempts to learn and assimilate his startup's technology and interface, right down to the icon designs.
According to eWEEK, Fishkin claims that one of his board members, Terry Winograd, sat in on a Google meeting in July 2008 and told a top Google exec to take a look at Reframe It. The as-yet unnamed Googler said the startup looked interesting and that the info would be passed along.
In the months that followed, at least six Reframe It accounts were registered to Google employees, which would allow engineers "plenty of time to explore every nook and cranny of our functionality," said Fishkin.
But the real kicker is Google's alleged attempt to hire Reframe It co-founder and lead engineer Ben Taitelbaum just days before Sidewiki launched.
And what was the official Google response to these reports?
"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," a Google rep wrote to eWEEK in a measured but definite dismissal of Reframe It's claims.
Certainly, Google has been talking and thinking about annotation for years. And its end product has many differences from others on the market. And the market has a few notable competitors aside from Reframe It, all of which Google probably explored in due diligence processes. But if and when these two products face off in court, attorneys will be arguing whether the Google product - which, if only because it came after Reframe It's version, is without question a knockoff - is in actual violation of Reframe It's patents. And since Reframe It's patent application is still pending, they can amend the language to include Sidewiki's UX, technology, etc.
The situation is, indeed, fraught with run-of-the-mill, workaday, tech IP drama. And we look forward to following up on these reports accordingly.