Startups: If You’re Going to Copy, You Have to Do it Better Than This [UPDATED]


We write a fair amount about copycats — see this story from early last week, for example — but it’s rare you come across one so audacious that it almost takes your breath away. That was what happened to me when, browsing 17Startup’s list of China’s newest startups, I came across

(Sometime after Tingzhong admin email accounts were contacted for comment about this story, Tingzhong’s site went offline. It is unclear whether this is a temporary server issue or the site has actually been taken down).

Tingzhong is a Chinese startup that was founded in December of last year, and it claims to be “a micro publishing media site with commercial value and influence.” But it’s actually just a run-of-the-mill news website, with a twist: the design, and quite a bit of the content, is copied wholesale from The New Zealand Listener. Tingzhong is so blatant a copy, in fact, that they’re literally still using the Listener‘s logo. (Presumably, the folks behind Tingzhong have figured out this isn’t a great idea, as they’ve set up a logo design contest to come up with a logo of their own). Just take a gander at the two site’s designs. They are almost virtually identical (the real Listener is on the left, Tingzhong is on the right).

And the copying is more than just skin deep. Although Tingzhong’s front page features a lot of unique, China-related content (much of it is about Spring Festival right now), its back-catalogue is littered with stolen articles. Take, for example, this article posted on the Listener by Toby Manhire and then take a look at this one posted by “Peter” on Tingzhong. It is exactly the same, save that it has been poorly translated into Chinese and the “author” forgot to include most of the images. Just search for “New Zealand” in Chinese and you’ll find dozens of articles like this on Tingzhong.

At this point, you’re probably thinking the same thing I was — this must be an official Chinese version of the New Zealand Listener or something; there’s no way any copycat could be this dumb. But alas, it seems to be very real. The Listener did not respond to Tech in Asia‘s request for comment (see update below), but The Listener‘s official site makes no mention of a Chinese version just as Tingzhong makes no mention of an English version. Moreover, the copied articles on Tingzhong all list different author names and give The Listener writers no credit for their work.

UPDATE: New Zealand Listener columnist/blogger Toby Manhire tells us:

We’re gobsmacked – [Tingzhong] looks like a bizarre cloning operation – and it’s not in any way affiliated with or sanctioned by the NZ Listener.

We have attempted to contact the “entrepreneurs” behind Tingzhong via several contact methods listed on the Tingzhong website but did not receive a response. Tingzhong’s website also lists Gao Qiang, ostensibly a lawyer at the Beijing Longan law firm, as its legal representation, but according to Longan’s website it does not employ anyone with that name.

So Tingzhong is a blatant copy. There’s probably no harm done; the site doesn’t appear to have many readers and I can’t imagine it’s going to attract many. But there is a valuable warning here. Startups often do copy little things, and I’m not sure that’s not such a bad idea. Taking someone else’s idea and making it your own can be a good first step for a startup so long as you’re careful about the balance and you provide credit where appropriate. But if you find yourself copying so much that you’re literally using another company’s logo, you have gone way, way too far. There’s a big difference between a little creative borrowing and straight-up IP theft.

(Also let’s please remember when discussing cases like this that while Tingzhong is Chinese, there are thousands of really unique and creative Chinese startups out there too).

(And yes, we're serious about ethics and transparency. More information here.)

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