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I'm creating the UI for a web application which will mainly run on Macs. So my goal is to preserve the look and feel of Mac OS. But since I don't use Apples Frameworks I'm not allowed to use their UI design. So my question is: how closely am I allowed to copy their design without violating copyrights?

Do you think this is still legitimate?

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3 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

No, those are all way too close. You're suffering from Red Shorts Syndrome.

What does that mean? Well, let's say you watch a race, and the guy who won the race wore red shorts. If you want to win a race, do you go out and buy red shorts and assume that wearing them will make you win? No, you look at what the winner did to train himself so that he could win. Did he run half-marathons every day? Eat minimal carbs? Drink seaweed tea? What techniques did he use to make his skill set better? That's the idea you want to copy. Not even the actions: the mindset. This guy knew that carbs made him sluggish, so he ate as little carbs as possible. Maybe your albatross is dairy, so you cut out dairy instead.

In this UI instance, you need to deconstruct what about Apple's interface makes it appealing: a high contrast between the background and the letters, a three-dimensional feel, an easy-to-read sans serif font, that kind of thing. Then you figure out how to apply those ideas to your unique, individual work. And you shouldn't use every trick they do, because your work isn't theirs.

Copy their work ethic, not their end result.

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Thanks for your answer. So even though its not a 1:1 copy, it's close enough to charge me with copyright violation? I think, the Red Shots Syndrome is a bit far-fetched here, because since the web app will run mainly on Macs I actually want to integrate the look and feel of Mac OS as close as possible. –  mcb Aug 16 '11 at 14:10
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@mcb I would think that Apple would prefer it to look as native as possible. Do they specifically state that you can't use their look and feel if you don't use their framework? If so, what is the major disadvantage for you that you can't use their framework? –  Matt Rockwell Aug 16 '11 at 14:35
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Sorry I missed the web application part in the question. In that case I would not try to make it look like Apple's design at all. If it is not native, don't try to make it look native. –  Matt Rockwell Aug 16 '11 at 15:25
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"Copy their work ethic, not their end result." +1. Very well stated. –  Philip Regan Aug 16 '11 at 15:28
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@Matt "If it is not native, don't try to make it look native." I didn't think of it that way. Thanks. –  mcb Aug 16 '11 at 15:36
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The answer to this question only exists in the courtroom, and even then, it's a blurry grey line.

That's the legal issue, at least.

The moral/ethical part is highly subjective heavily dependent on way to many variables to have any meaningful generic answer.

Finally, sometimes it makes complete sense to outright steal. Especially in UI design where familiarity and conventions go a long ways towards making something usable.

If you're making OSX software, then Apple would actually ENCOURAGE you to use their standard Human Factor interface standards. Apple understands the value of consistency and familiarity.

EDIT: I also didn't catch the 'web app' part of the question. I definitely agree with the others, if it's not a native app, then it shouldn't look like one. This is where familiarity would actually backfire. The UI is familiar for users that are used to native apps on OSX. However, the behaviors won't be the same, so that's actually a huge detriment to usability.

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Lauren's right. In this specific case, the answer is pretty clear.

Your more general question ("How closely ...") is one that's constantly being addressed in many courts in multiple countries and on at least three continents. Once upon a time, the issue was purely one of copyright, and you would certainly be in violation in this case without an explicit, written go-ahead from Apple. Copyright is a complex subject in itself, but even an untrained eye could see this is a "derivative work" (one that is clearly based on someone else's work, with a few minimal changes). Your solution, as Lauren says, is to invest the sweat equity and give your creation its own personality, its own look. You're clearly a Mac person, so you'll know when you have something that fits with the Mac persona, even if it looks entirely different than the Mac UI.

In general, "make it different." If I see something that inspires me (and you should, like any designer, have a book of items you've come across that struck you as particularly good), I work out why it works and how they did it. That technique becomes part of my designer "bag of tricks," and I will use the technique (not copy the style!) later, in some completely different context.

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For general graphic design, I agree, but specifically for UI design, giving everything its own look isn't necessarily good design. –  DA01 Aug 17 '11 at 0:07
    
You're right, of course. Nonetheless there are infinite variations of things that are nevertheless familiar (buttons would be a good example). It's a bit impolite to simply copy what somebody else did. –  Alan Gilbertson Aug 17 '11 at 1:05
    
For general web site interfaces, I agree. But for say, an iPhone app, there are a lot of good arguments to lift iPhone GUI elements directly from the source for a consistent user experience on the device. It's more of an exception to the rule. –  DA01 Aug 17 '11 at 2:24
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