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


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.