Usually we hear about stories of Chinese copycats aping foreign tech products, and examples of that aren’t hard to find. But thanks to Twitter user Samuel Wade and our own former editor Rick, we’ve come across another case of copycatting in which it seems a Chinese copycat has stolen the design of a Chinese app.
Just take a look at the image below. On the left is the official website of Mou, a markdown app developed by Chen Luo. On the right is the official website of Markdown Live. As you can see, the sites look very similar, and if you look closer at the screenshots and feature lists, you’ll see that the app design itself is more or less the same.
But here’s the thing: the Chinese-developed Mou has been around for more than a year now. Markdown Live, as far as I can tell, has been around for about a month. It seems like a pretty clear-cut case of copying.
Mou developer Chen Luo says that this isn’t the first time this has happened. “When your design and creation become popular, the copycats will follow. This is unavoidable,” he told me. “Last year, July 2012, a shameless team called “Intelligence Gear Team” [also] copied Mou.”
Luo says that these copycats aren’t actually stealing his code, but that isn’t the point. “What these copycats lack is not coding ability, but design ability, the imagination,” he said, pointing out that even the name Markdown Live is not original.
So who is behind this copying? The answer is far from clear. On the app store, Markdown Live is listed as having been developed by a company called Little Big Monster. The seller’s name is listed as Hong Jiang. However, Little Big Monster’s apps’ websites are all registered in the name of “John Hermes.” Both the geographical address and the email account associated with these websites appear to be fake; attempts to contact Mr. Hermes (if he exists) for this story went unanswered, as did comments left on the wordpress blog of one of Little Big Monster’s apps. The Hermes name was also used to register a website titled “Jiang Weining’s homepage,” so it seems probable that the person behind the Little Big Monster name is surnamed Jiang.
There’s no way to be sure whether this Jiang is China-based, but both Hong Jiang and Jiang Weining are Chinese names that use the pinyin romanization system common mostly in mainland China. Moreover, the only app site on which Jiang actually posts makes it quite clear that he or she is not a native English speaker, and the grammatical mistakes there are consistent with those commonly made by Chinese native speakers (for example, here Jiang says “mailbox” instead of email address; this is a common mistake for Chinese users because “mailbox” [邮箱] is a common way to say “email address” in Chinese). While there’s no way to prove that Little Big Monster is a Chinese company, it seems to be by far the most likely guess.
It may be that Little Big Monster is purely a scam artist. While one of the company’s other apps has decent reviews on the Apple App Store, its “Media Fixer” app has only seven reviews, all of which rated the app only one star and say that despite the $25 price tag, the app simply does not work. (The copied Markdown Live app does not yet have any reviews). Moreover, none of the support links for any of Little Big Monster’s apps lead to support pages or even any way of directly contacting the developer.
We have contacted Apple to ask about its policies regarding copycats and Little Big Monster’s broken support links, and will update this story if we hear back.
While it’s easy to be incensed by Little Big Monster’s unethical and apparently fraudulent behavior, this case also shows how the general narrative of “China copies the West” is flawed. Yes, copying is quite common in China, but we should not take this to mean that China lacks real innovators. Chen Luo’s Mou is a very sharply-designed app and a good reminder that while in copycat cases Chinese developers are often the aggressors, they are also quite frequently the victims.