Digging Deeper into the Plurk/Microsoft Plagiarism Case

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Microblogging service Plurk dropped a bombshell on its site yesterday when it accused MSN China of plagiarizing its service in the creation of its new product MSN Juku, which launched in November.

Plurk, a small startup in the Microblogging field, has not gained much traction in the U.S., especially when compared to Twitter, but has found success in Asia, especially Taiwan, which they consider their biggest market, and had been growing rapidly in China before being blocked by the nation’s firewall. With that in mind, the opening oif MSN’s Juku service was not just a competitor to Plurk, but competing with them in a market they had been doing well in but were removed from.

But what exactly happened in the case and is the fallout going to be? We’re going to take a look at this case, both sides of the story and try to find out just that.

Background

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Sometime in November, Microsoft China launched its MSN Juku microblogging service. Almost immediately, technical bloggers in the area noticed the extreme similarities between the new service and the more established Plurk, as this automatically translated post shows (Note: Plurk provided the link).

However, as Plurk developers began to delve into the code of the new Microsoft service, they began to find that the similarities were not just skin deep. According to their blog post, approximately 80% of the client and product codebase appears to have been lifted from Plurk directly.

The story broke across the Web almost immediately. Plurk, though not widely used in the U.S., is well-recognized, especially in tech circles, and the David vs. Goliath struggle of a startup being victimized by a global giant like Microsoft made it all the more interesting.

But the story left a lot of unanswered questions, including “Why Microsoft would do this?” and “What is next fr MSN Juku?” answers I tried to get the answer to.

Plurk’s Side

I reached out to Plurk for their side of the story and received a lengthy reply from Dave Thompson, Plurk’s Asia Pacific Press Contact.

According to Plurk, the situation runs much more deeply than indicated in the post. According to Plurk, the code reusage wasn’t simply a “copy and paste” job as Plurk’s code is proprietary and not easily accessed. All of the code, both client-side and server-side would have needed to be decompiled and cleaned up to be ready for usage on MSN Juku. As Thompson put it, the process would have required someone to “spend some real effort” to obtain and use the code.

In short, this wasn’t a straightforward plagiarism job, but something requiring time and skill.

When asked how certain Plurk was about the allegations, Thompson said the following:

We would not be going out with this story if we weren’t fully confident in our allegations of willful intent on their part in taking our code.

Thompson also highlighted several other similarities between the two code sets including that both sets of intenal vars use short names on internal code (A, B, C, etc.) and long ones on client-facing code (variablename, username, etc.).

As of his letter to me, Thompson did also say that Microsoft had not contacted them regarding the incident and that they had not been in touch with Microsoft either. In short, the two sides aren’t talking to one another, apart from the public statements, and there has been precious few of those as well.

Microsoft’s Side

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Microsoft did not return my request for comment but has issued a public statement regarding the matter.

According to Microsoft, the code was not written by developers working for Microsoft or their joint venture that makes up MSN China, but rather, by a third-party vendor. They say that they are working with MSN China “to investigate the situation.”

Without mentioning Plurk by name, Microsoft acknowledged that “questions have been raised about the code base comprising the service (MSN Juku)” and that they have disabled the service while they look into the matter.

It’s a very ugly, if temporary, end to a short-lived product but it is clear that Microsoft responded relatively quickly to the matter. Still, it may not be an end to the case.

Future Direction

When asked what their ideal conclusion to the case would be, “We were really just hoping they’d pull down the existing site and reevaluate their strategy in China.”

It seems now that the first half of that has happened already and the public black eye for Microsoft may force the second. However, with the two sides not actively talking, it appears likely that the case could easily go to the courts, something Plurk has begun exploring the possibilities of. However, the acknowledge that there are a lot of thorny issues for a small startup to overcome, none the least of which is venue. With at least three countries involved (Plurk is based in Canada, Microsoft in the U.S., MSN China and the vendor in China) it’s unclear what the correct venue would be and if it would be worthwhile.

In the end, Plurk will likely leave the decision up to their counsel.

In the meantime, on Microsoft’s side, it seems likely that this is the end for MSN Juku in its current format and it seems likely there may be legal or other action against the vendor involved, which has not been named yet. According to Microsoft, MSN Juku was only in beta but it seems likely that it will remain down until it can be rewritten, if nothing else than to be certain the code is clean.

The end results, as TechCrunch noted, is that Microsoft ends up looking very ridiculous and this may be the best thing to have happened to Plurk in some time, at least from an awareness standpoint. Though Microsoft seems to be fairly far removed from the alleged infringement, which was done by a vendor of a joint venture partially owned by them, it was their name on the service and their reputation to be hurt.

Whether or not this case goes to the courts, Microsoft has a lot of work ahead of them in regards to damage control and Plurk’s status received a huge boost on both sides of the Pacific.

How this will affect Microsoft’s reputation in Asia remains to be seen, especially if the “plagiarist” label will stick, but the short-term effects are very clear.

Bottom Line

Normally I am loathe to encourage shame tactics when it comes to resolving plagiarism disputes. However, it is hard to argue with the results in this case. Not only has Microsoft closed MSN Juku, but the company has taken a black eye over the affair and Plurk is back in the headlines in a relatively positive way.

That being said, this might have been a somewhat unique case. Not only is there no doubt as to the time frame of the two services, but Plurk was able to provide some convincing evidence and was able to be very certain of the infringement before moving forward, part of why it took them almost a month to say anything.

I don’t want to encourage anyone to use their blog as a tool to resolve plagiarism issues. Not only could it have been legally dangerous for Plurk if they had been wrong, but they would have been staring down the barrel of a much bigger opponent. Still, the evidence in this case seems to be fairly clear and public sympathy is on their side. There wasn’t much risk of being wrong or being thought of as a bully.

However, I still would have preferred it if Plurk had approached Microsoft privately about this matter beforehand. Though the results have been positive for Plurk, they come at the potential expense of burning bridges with Microsoft. Given Plurk’s issues within China, Microsoft could have been, or still could be, a powerful partner.

It seems odd to close those doors based upon a misstep, albeit a major one, by a vendor.

In the end though, we’ll have to wait until we hear more from Microsoft to explain what happened, where the failings were and what they are going to do to prevent it from happening again. Even if it is just a shady vendor, it raises serious questions about Microsoft and MSN’s vendor selection and oversight.

This is not a mistake Microsoft wants to repeat, especially if the next person infringed is far more litigious in nature.

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