Updated: Retweet.com's reputation will be permanently stained by the Tweetmeme affair

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Now the dust has settled a bit, let’s take a look at exactly what happened yesterday.

At around 2pm in the afternoon, after reading our story about a new challenger to Tweetmeme called Retweet.com, TechCrunch commenter @travisketchum found the live, public server where Retweet.com’s files were being kept. The TechCrunch community quickly found remarkable similarities between Retweet.com’s and Tweetmeme’s code.

Alerted to this, Nick Halstead from Tweetmeme investigated himself. Evidently, he was not happy with what he found. Nick accused Retweet.com of directly copying Tweetmeme’s code, and indicated that he was seeking legal advice.

Our own investigation seemed to back Nick up: we observed Javascript functions like “tm_update($content)” (where “tm” is clearly a reference to Tweetmeme) and references to “rednose” (Red Nose Day is a UK charity event – there’s no reason why it would exist in a US start-up’s code), coupled with line after line of identical code, on Retweet.com’s server.

Some time after we broke the news, Kevin Mesiab from Mesiab Labs (the company behind Retweet.com) published a blog post. In it, he wrote:

After some prompt discussions with our development team, we discovered that, indeed, one of our developers had based a prototype button and widget on tweetmeme.com’s publicly viewable scripts […]

As a company that prides itself on innovation and cutting edge development, we were a bit embarassed by the blunder, and promptly removed the scripts. Despite being well within our rights to use the publicly licensed code, we believe we can do better.

Something’s not quite right here. “We discovered that” and “blunder” imply that the management at Mesiab Labs had no idea their code was ripped off. So why not just apologise? Why defend their actions with this “publicly licensed” malarkey? Was Kevin simply trying to insulate himself from legal action?

The post continues:

Any time two sites attempt similar functionality using limited technologies and well known design patterns, similiarities tend to crop up.

Err, hang on a minute, guys. Are you now saying you didn’t copy the code, and that the similarities are just the logical result of two sites trying to achieve the same thing?

I’d like to think we’d have caught this during quality control, prior to releasing Retweet.com. Yet, serendipitously, the power of crowd-sourcing (and the rise of the informed reader, go @travisketchum) allowed us the opportunity to improve our site ahead of time.

There’s no room for manoeuvre here: copying others’ work for commercial gain is simply unacceptable. Writers accused of plagiarism often never recover from it – particularly in the US, where it’s a huge taboo. Accusations of plagiarism are a permanent blot on a journalist’s reputation; they dog him for the rest of his or her career – not because it’s against the law, but because it’s morally wrong.

And so it will be with Retweet.com, because computer code is no different. It’s interesting that their domain name is equally unoriginal and remains subject to the whims of Twitter, which could easily threaten a trademark on the phrase, as they have with the word Tweet. Retweet.com’s reputation will be permanently stained by this ugly episode.

Update: In a comment below Tweetmeme’s founder Nick Halstead has now accused Retweet of deliberately reverse engineering Tweetmeme’s code rather than building their own.

  • http://www.wearetherangersboys.com/forum scott

    Neither of them have a commercial plan so who cares.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jof_Arnold/727946532 Jof Arnold

      How do you know they don’t have a commercial plan? Have you asked Nick? Presumably you’re the sort of commenter that reckons Bit.ly and YouTube don’t make any money either. Just because it’s a simple-looking service it doesn’t mean there aren’t big opportunities.

      Besides, what’s wrong with making relatively minimal gambles in order to build a product that could make an awesome exit within a year of operation? Surely that’s worth the risk?

      Sorry to single you out, Scott, as you may well already be the CEO of some awesome company and not just the usual TC comment troll. BUT my general opinion is that rather than knee-jerking all the time, TC commenters would stand to learn a great deal by asking themselves “why and how do these companies make money” and putting the effort into researching it.

      • http://www.wearetherangersboys.com/forum scott

        99% of startups dont have commercial plans. All they hoped for was to be bought up by google and/or blag some unrealistic VC funding that they’d spunk up the wall and then go back to their day-jobs. Fair play to those that did before it all went belly up.

        You ask

        “why and how do these companies make money”

        They dont.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jof_Arnold/727946532 Jof Arnold

        I understand what you are saying, and I understand WHY you are saying it, but I think it’s worth looking at the bigger picture. Two important points that you are missing:

        1) Tweetmeme and many other small startups DO have revenue. Bit.ly has huge revenue could probably breakeven fairly easily if it weren’t pursuing an aggressive growth strategy.
        2) Making no money and then exiting to a bigger company is a perfectly legit approach (although it’s not my personal favourite).

        I’d love to continue this conversation on twitter with you (@JofArnold); TechCrunch rarely discusses these different approaches and I think we could all learn a lot by researching and debating it.

  • Jessi

    I’d agree with scott, this blog post is rather dissappointing to say the least. The site was in development and not even launched.. nor is it now hahaha. tweetmeme has simply failed terribly in a world dominated by brands and marketing and now this seems to be a way from keeping competition arrise before it comes swinging.

    I for one am looking forward to trying out the future retweet site, as it only makes sense “retweet” would be associated with retweet.com not tweetmeme.

    Maybe this blog post is biased because its the UK version of TechCrunch and where again is TweetMeme located? hmmm

    • http://uk.techcrunch.com/author/milo-yiannopoulos/ Milo Yiannopoulos

      Out of interest, why do you think Tweetmeme has “failed terribly”?

  • Andrew Parker

    Pls guys, it’s embarrassing for TC Europe to make 2 posts about something so insignificant and irrelevant to the grand scheme of things…

    • http://uk.techcrunch.com Mike Butcher

      Sigh. Ok, back to covering Afghanistan for us then!

  • Jessi

    why didnt tweetmeme simply obtain the reweet.com domain name and submit a trademark for the retweet term. What will tweetmeme’s investors say if retweet.com obtains the pending retweet trademark and all the sudden all those green buttons verbiage has to be changed to tweetmeme? 99% of the planet doesnt even know what a meme is?

    Overall, branding power is free “powerful” marketing!

    • http://uk.techcrunch.com Mike Butcher

      99% of the planet doesn’t know what a Tweet is dude.

      • Jessi

        well lets take a vote..

        All Twitter Users ( which is over 10 million now )

        Please define meme?
        Now, please define retweet?

        Mike, by your comment above:

        [ Sigh. Ok, back to covering Afghanistan for us then! ]

        its clear why you have such a biased opinion and defence for a UK based twitter application, which is fine..

        But, Here is an idea.. lets let the startup launch and then evaluate istead of running around with a noose in hand.

      • http://uk.techcrunch.com Mike Butcher

        Sure, that’s why we’re reserving further judgement until they have launched. For now we’re just calling them out for the obvious theft this was. If Retweet’s buttons are open source, and they could have simply used open source code for their button and other code, then why did Retweet.com’s button have reference to TweetMeme AND Red Nose Day – a UK event? QED. Next!

      • Jules Morgan

        I wish this was true. Sadly the fact that mainsteam media bangs on about it at any given opportunity means that it’s not.

        A meme, on the other hand ? Even people who know what one is should deny it.

        Whilst I wouldn’t want to discourage the writing of articles on what I can only assume is a fairly slow news week, it would be fair to say this is all a bit “so what?”

      • Jessi

        Wait…. Mike, can you please send a list of all the online sites you have built? I’m not quite sure you even know what a “development” or “testing” server is.

        Web developers are constantly testing other competitors code, modifying, improving, and then releasing. Walk into a lab or “development” plant at any computer manufacturers headquarters and you’d see multiple competitions products dissembled being studied.hmm, funny how that works huh?

        I think you need to read Kevin’s post below. If you ask me this Nick guy emailed you personally asking you to release this article to help protect tweetmeme from a retweet takeover.

      • http://uk.techcrunch.com Mike Butcher

        Nope, he didn’t. But thanks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin_Mesiab/629049795 Kevin Mesiab

    A rather uninformed perspective of the situation, at best.

    At worst, a tremendous disservice to readers unfamiliar with the subtleties of software development, licensing and the collaborative nature of open source initiatives.

    Share buttons and website widgets were not invented by Tweetmeme. Sites like slashdot.org and digg.com (including our own http://smartoons.net) have developed and shared variations of code to achieve the same end goal, sharing a link.

    The buttons referenced are actually free and publicly available on the popular open source wordpress.org codex, where they were published with a very clear public use license. A practice common among development companies. Mesiab Labs alone has shared tens of thousands of lines of open source code under the popular GNU-Public License.

    What tweetmeme and techcrunch seized upon prematurely was not even released to the public and existed on a development server, as the previous commenter has pointed out.

    Most importantly, is for us to remember that the value in sites like Retweet.com and Tweetmeme have little to do with buttons – and everything to do with the complexities of crawling, ranking and presenting relevant and timely crowd-sourced news.

    As a fellow marketer, I understand that sensationlized stories bring healthy click-throughs, they have a nasty habit of being poorly fact checked.

  • http://tweetmeme.com Nick Halstead


    You continue to dig yourself a massive hole, we have documentary proof that you had not only copied code, but had taken code which in itself was encoded ‘obfuscated’ is the technical term, this code was on your servers de-obfuscated, your developer had gone to the lengths to reverse engineer it and then use it, if you think that is acceptable then you have a problem.

    I do actually find it very amusing that you try and put your development as ‘innovation’ – when you have copied everything direct? is that innovation?

    The reality is that we will continue to innovate and you will only imitate, and that will get you nowhere.

  • CarltonBanks

    Who cares really?

    Both sites will be useless in 3 years when Twitter declines (as Myspace did, and as Facebook is doing at the moment).

    None of the sites have any kind of plans to make money it seems – they will just be the usual ‘Take investment, build growth, become worth a lot although never making a profit’ companies that will inevitably die out.

    Pointless caring about this battle between Tweetmeme / Retweet. Twitter is inevitably doomed in itself – thus killing all its offspring applications.

    Twitter is a nice and helpful tool but all it’s really done is bring real-time into the spotlight to make way for the next giant website that will do it right. Twitter is in too deep to change the things they should have thought about at the beginning.


    • http://uk.techcrunch.com Mike Butcher

      I don’t think you quite understand that Twitter’s business model will be based on realtime search of live information, something which is extremely valuable to companies, brands and individuals.

      • CarltonBanks

        will be…? I think their problem is that their business model is coming *after* the site’s popularity surge.

        If they had known that would be their business model from the beginning – they wouldn’t have implemented these crazy short urls (which will be a nightmare to track since there are SO many different shortening services and API’s to run through).

        I agree the business model is going to be very helpful to businesses and individuals with insights into the exposure of their tweets (and various other stats). It just seems that this idea wasnt thought through in the early stages – otherwise things would have been built differently.

        As a web developer, without an actual Retweeting function on the site, aggregating tweets is forced to use a Tweetmeme-style solution (twitter streaming API hosepipe – checking each tweet).
        Some of Twitter’s implementations could have been done in a more optimised manner (making things much easier for them to extend functionality at later dates. i.e. right now when they need to)

        I just don’t see it being as strong as it is now in a few years.

      • http://uk.techcrunch.com Mike Butcher

        That their business model is coming *after* the site’s popularity surge is a problem a lot of startups would be happy to have. Indeed this has been the model of most popular web services – once you HAVE 20m people you figure out the best way to monetise that. That’s pretty much the point of this whole game :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin_Mesiab/629049795 Kevin Mesiab


    While I appreciate your advice, clearly you have missed the point.

    We have not, nor have we ever publicly deployed code we did not develop or license.

    We do not intend to compete with Tweetmeme on the grounds of a share button.

    We will do it by providing consistently higher quality results and focusing on the consumers of our service.

  • http://www.techchuff.com TechChuff

    We love the use of the phrase ‘stained’ because it brings images of Kevin Mesiab’s pants also being permanently stained by the Tweetmeme affair

    • http://www.techchuff.com TechChuff

      especially given we have stained our pants in nail-biting excitement of this Web 2.0 industrial-espionage themed episode of 24

  • http://www.domavin.ru IJ

    This affair is too funny…

    I am pretty sure that majority of web developers have at one point or another taken a bunch of Javascript code from another site and tested/reverse engineered it. It is no big deal and it happens all the time.

    These guys had it running on their dev server, so what? They hadn’t launched with it nor have they taken any users away from Tweetmeme – so no commercial gain there yet.

    Saying that their reputation will be permanently damaged because someone found a few lines of copied Javascript on their DEVELOPMENT server is just silly. I for one am looking forward to seeing their product, if it is better, I will use it.

    I would think that if they have a good product people will use it regardless of their “permanently damaged reputation”.

    And their domain is unoriginal? What compared to tweetmeme?

  • http://furnish.co.uk Simon Hill

    Kevin, like it or not, you come across as an arrogant thief.

    It’s sad that this was spotted now, because you’ve had the chance to remove the offending code. Had retweet gone live with this code (which it surely would have done), Nick would then have had a far stronger case to take you to the cleaners.

    I hope he still can.

  • http://www.domavin.ru IJ

    I hope your product is better and this is doing wonders for your marketing.

    No one will care about this if you launch a better product :)

    • CarltonBanks

      ^ Kevin?

  • http://praguebob.com Robert Morrison (@PragueBob on Twitter)

    I tend to side with CarltonBanks. I’ll also add that to me it seems the post went off half-cocked, with way too much conjecture to take the moral high ground on an issue where it’s not at all clear that all the facts are even straight. Childish, actually.

  • Bob Andrew

    This is a bit rich from a blogger who stole a photo last week and had to take it off.

    • chris

      hahaha, Massive fail.

      and tweetmeme, prepare for a “retweet” takeover! Brand is power, and the name / logo are going to be tough to beat.

    • chris

      hahaha, Massive fail.

      and tweetmeme, prepare for a “retweet” takeover! Brand is power, and the name / logo are going to be tough to beat.

      TechCrunch, you should have done a positive story on retweet.com, negative press on a company who hadnt even released yet is a bit sad to see.

  • Gillian Helfer

    This is a bit rich from a blogger who stole a photo last week and had to take it off.

  • Martin Eriksson

    A dev server is one thing, but how often is a dev server publicly available and advertised to the general public through a design competition?

  • Journalist

    The OTT reporting of this “story” says more about Techcrunch UK than Retweet.com

  • Martin

    Got to agree. Feels a bit storm in a tea cuppish to me.

    As a developer would I be annoyed if someone took my obfuscated javascript and started using it on there site? Damn right I would. However, I’ve been around long enough to realise that if I put javascript up, that competitors can and will go after it.

    Any firm is well within there rights to try and enforce their copyright and I do hope TC follow this particular angle – i.e. enforcement of copyright of content, javascript and designs.

    As to it being a stain on their brand? Doubt it myself. Don’t really think most users will care.

  • http://www.newsjacker.co.uk/media/updated-retweet-com%e2%80%99s-reputation-will-be-permanently-stained-by-the-tweetmeme-affair/ Updated: Retweet.com’s reputation will be permanently stained by the Tweetmeme affair 

    […] In a comment below Tweetmeme’s founder Nick Halstead has now accused Retweet of deliberately reverse engineering Tweetmeme’s code rather than building their […]

  • Mike

    Internet. Serious Business.

  • banter

    What about Tweetmeme ripping of Digg, Techmeme?

  • http://www.muchosmedia.com Stefan Richter

    So they’ve stolen some code which would in all fairness take them half an hour to write themselves.

    It’s a really stupid thing to do, but does it really warrant all this excitement? I mean it’s not as if they’ve stolen anything of real value like app logic or server side code…

  • http://uk.techcrunch.com/2009/08/16/has-twitters-aggressive-protectionism-come-too-late/ Has Twitter’s aggressive protectionism come too late?

    […] attached to the tweet. So what does this mean for services like Tweetmeme and the upcoming (and somewhat […]

  • http://uk.techcrunch.com Mike Butcher

    Why does this screen shot of Retweet.com have layout tabs all identical to tweetmeme even down to ad placenent and type?

  • http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/08/19/retweetcom-launches-sure-looks-a-lot-like-tweetmeme/ ReTweet.com Launches, Sure Looks A Lot Like TweetMeme

    […] the woodworks, TweetMeme was already threatening Mesiab Labs with a lawsuit over the latter’s flat out copying of its retweet button code and website design. Both startups aim to become the king of retweets, an increasingly popular activity on the […]

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