What’s the Most Ethical Way to Borrow a Code Idea?

When a coder pours their heart and soul into a new idea, they naturally think of that code as their intellectual property. Unless they openly share the code on a platform like GitHub, many tech pros guard their ideas like Fort Knox. However, most great ideas in this world are born by taking something that exists and improving upon it. People borrow and steal ideas every day, in every industry. But no one wants to be branded a thief, and blatantly copying ideas can actually put you in legal hot water. So, what is the most ethical way to borrow a code idea?

Don’t Swipe Code, Investigate Instead

No coder should ever outright swipe another developer’s code idea. But there is nothing wrong with picking apart a website to see how things work. You can learn a great deal by looking at code to determine which parts work well and which parts do not. Building on the ideas of others and improving upon them is how innovation happens.

Blatantly knocking off someone’s idea, however, is never a good idea. Take the worldwide mobile gaming sensation Pokémon Go, for example. If you browse your phone’s app store for Pokémon, you’ll find a variety of knockoffs that don’t even try to hide the fact that they are ripping off the original game, including one called “Pokeball.”

The difference between the two lies in intent. Borrowing someone’s code to learn how to become better at features like animation is perfectly acceptable. Stealing someone’s app idea and making a virtual clone is not.

Creativity comes from observing the world around you, taking in other people’s ideas and reworking them or improving them to make them your own. Over a century ago, Mark Twain famously said:

There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.

The bottom line is simple: if what you’re doing feels like stealing, it probably is.

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