Author Topic: Formal rules for determining what is and isnít a copycat IC/GB?  (Read 2042 times)

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Offline NoPunIn10Did

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So there appears to be a pretty fierce debate that bubbles up from time-to-time about ICs and GBs that offer similar color ways to those seen in the past. Can a designer ďownĒ a set of colors in a manner similar to copyright?

From a legal standpoint, the answer is pretty clearly no. And when it comes to actual copyright and IP enforcement, designers sometimes find themselves skirting just outside the lines of infringement.

But itís certainly understandable that communities like Geekhack, r/mm, r/mk, etc. might not want to support copycats, particularly considering the amount of ancillary work involved in running an IC or GB for an uncommon color scheme. Moreover, running same or similar colorways repeatedly can potentially discourage creativity.

The trouble is this: nobody can own colors. As such, there are no external rules to lean on to back up an assertion of copying. So instead, that enforcement takes the shape of badmouthing by people seen as Keyboard design & community leaders. Itís a very clique-ish approach. Itís not transparent, and it doesnít scale.

Note: I donít mean to be down on those designers for wanting to protect their work. I just hope they, and everyone, can see that a formal system of rules would be preferable to relying on what is currently in place.

This community keeps getting bigger. If avoiding copycats is of value to the community, then there ought to be some clear, easily accessible written rules. These rules would then need some sort of quasi-democratic body to oversee them and maintain them. Hypothetically, this could all be done in cooperation with other major keeb communities.

Because we need some clear rules on what *counts* as copying. If two sets share one color but not others, is that a copy? Is a dyesub set that uses completely custom legends a copy if its colors happen to be similar to an earlier GMK set? Are GMK and SP standard colors always fair game so long as youíre not using the same exact combination? What about the RAL K7, whose colors were explicitly chosen to support color standardization in plastics?

Are colorschemes lifted from existing vintage keyboards (Dolch, Olivetti, Triumph Adler) fair game, since the IC/GB-runner didnít design them?

If a person throws together a color scheme in a half-assed render or KLE chart, but doesnít show other signs of preparation, do they hold rights to those colors? Maybe just temporary rights, giving them a chance to follow through on improvements?

What about running something like a standalone GB for an Assembly, Ergo, or language kit that the colorway designer didnít think was worth the effort?

And for how long do these rights last? Are they renewed every time the colorway is rerun?

I understand the desire to hold IC/GB runners to a different standard than what is supplied by copyright and/or trademark laws, since IP law is insufficient to prevent knockoffs and copycats. But what exactly is that standard? And who has the authority to make that judgement? And could it be appealed?

It just doesnít seem fair to anyone involved if the anti-copying rule remains unwritten, unclear, and enforced via clout. It would be far better to have a clear set of rules that vendors, designers, and forums can argue over, modify, and uphold.

« Last Edit: Thu, 11 June 2020, 19:39:38 by NoPunIn10Did »

Offline NAV

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Re: Formal rules for determining what is and isnít a copycat IC/GB?
« Reply #1 on: Thu, 11 June 2020, 18:48:54 »
lmao here we go

Offline MKUltraCorp

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Re: Formal rules for determining what is and isnít a copycat IC/GB?
« Reply #2 on: Thu, 11 June 2020, 19:26:23 »
lmao here we go

Very helpful to the conversation, but maybe something like "While 'designers' got that title by being first to the line with a certain color scheme or theme, that same title doesn't impart any super powers or legal powers that the next guy without that title may or may not have when working with similar colors or themes" would have been slightly more useful.

Offline NoPunIn10Did

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Re: Formal rules for determining what is and isnít a copycat IC/GB?
« Reply #3 on: Thu, 11 June 2020, 20:02:28 »
lmao here we go

Very helpful to the conversation, but maybe something like "While 'designers' got that title by being first to the line with a certain color scheme or theme, that same title doesn't impart any super powers or legal powers that the next guy without that title may or may not have when working with similar colors or themes" would have been slightly more useful.

I donít think thatís entirely fair. I would say that what we call ďdesignerĒ in the IC/GB realm isnít necessarily the best descriptor for what is actually involved in an IC or GB. In some way, a ďdesignerĒ here often ends up learning quite a bit on-the-fly about product development, targeted marketing, communication, etc. The colorway is important, but itís just the beginning.

My concern is more to define what a ďdesignerĒ gets to treat as their own with regard to things that arenít supported by IP law. I do think thereís a good incentive for discouraging copies, but the big problem I see is the lack of clarity on what is and isnít a copycat set.

Too often the question comes up in a shouting match over a specific set rather than an earnest look at what the rules should be.

Offline premise_

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Re: Formal rules for determining what is and isnít a copycat IC/GB?
« Reply #4 on: Thu, 11 June 2020, 20:23:11 »
IP laws are enough to prevent copycats and knock-offs.

See what happened to GMK Blink. That's what happens when you violate IP.

Offline NoPunIn10Did

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Re: Formal rules for determining what is and isnít a copycat IC/GB?
« Reply #5 on: Thu, 11 June 2020, 20:44:27 »
IP laws are enough to prevent copycats and knock-offs.

See what happened to GMK Blink. That's what happens when you violate IP.
Thatís a good example for dealing with external IP, but the question of colorway isnít sufficiently handled by IP law. No one technically owns colors. You can trademark certain colors and logos in use in specific contexts, but people donít receive trademark rights automatically. They have to apply for them, pay for them, and actively defend them from infringement.

Copyright you get automatically, so original novelty designs and whatnot are covered. But colors arenít.

This community seems to have some vested interest in avoiding copycat colorway sets, but there isnít a good, clear definition of what constitutes that.

Offline funkmon

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Re: Formal rules for determining what is and isnít a copycat IC/GB?
« Reply #6 on: Thu, 11 June 2020, 21:09:35 »
What happened to GMK Blink?

Online jamster

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Re: Formal rules for determining what is and isnít a copycat IC/GB?
« Reply #7 on: Thu, 11 June 2020, 22:33:45 »
This is a really tough one. I'd completely agree that there is no legal aspect relevant to this, and that even if there was, it would be totally impractical to consider. Christian Loboutin sucessfully fought over trademark rights for red soled shoes, but that involved cases going up to the European Court of Justice, and even then probably doesn't have global coverage. And a large proportion of keyboard related products are made in China, where IP protection ranges from weak to non-existent.

I think there are two important non legal aspects though. One is the ethics or morality behind copying. I know that the Chinese attitude to copying is totally different to the Western one (I bring this up not for political reasons, but because I live in China and see this all the time), but the designers I know here, they all hate it. They are resigned to seeing bastardised copies of their products appear in the market, but they certainly do not appreciate it. As designers, or product managers as they resemble more on Geekhack, contribte so much to the community here and to the hobby outside of this forum, I think that the forum owes them a duty of care, not legally but ethically.

A more pragamtic aspect that derives from this if designers are discouraged by having their designed directly ripped off (rather than used as inspiration, which is also a grey area), then they will gradually be discouraged from designing. Which would negatively impact us a consumers of their creativity.

How to approach this though is difficult. I don't think there can be set in stone rules for something like this. There's a massively blurry area between copying and drawing inspiration from. Here are a couple of questions that would occur to me:

Has the designer been able to articulate their design process? Or have they simply said "here's a cool thing we would like to sell it to you". An example of the former, even though it was not well recieved, was the Holy Panda key cap IC this week. It was aesthetically dubious, but there was a clearly articulated theme or source of inspiration. An example of the latter was the Nautilus/SkyDolch/Violet on Cream set yesterday which had no obvious theme, and the only possible way it could have come about was "we noticed these colourways were popular so we want to offer all three in PBT instead of ABS".

This leads to a second question: Does the new product provide something new or novel? There was an argument made in the key cap IC yesterday that the caps provided PBT instead of ABS. I would argue that this is not a sufficient point of distinction, especially given the very high quality of the ABS products in question (GMK). It seemed to me that this IC was really pushing a pricepoint. It does get blurry when it's a matter of aesthetics which would lead to:

There's also the "man on the street" approach which goes along the the lines of "would a reasonable man on the street confuse these two products"? Something like the Nautilus/SkyDolch/VoC colourway, they looked, well close enough to identical as to be the same. In this case, even the naming of the second set was an obvious derivation (DeepSky instead of SkyDolch").

I realise that there are lots of grey areas, and hey, fundamentally these are all just keyboards and keycaps, which mostly resemble each other anyway, but it's a start.

Edited to add:

Were prior works acknowledged and given credit, were previous designers consulted and have they given their blessing? I only added this because the copycat IC yesterday made zero mention of the obvious sources and hoped nobody would notice, and also because I have seen older posts from other GB organisers to the effect of "yes, anyone can use or modify this as they see fit" or "we spoke to XYZ and he was cool with it."

« Last Edit: Fri, 12 June 2020, 00:55:26 by jamster »

Offline premise_

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Re: Formal rules for determining what is and isn’t a copycat IC/GB?
« Reply #8 on: Fri, 12 June 2020, 00:56:32 »
IP laws are enough to prevent copycats and knock-offs.

See what happened to GMK Blink. That's what happens when you violate IP.
That’s a good example for dealing with external IP, but the question of colorway isn’t sufficiently handled by IP law. No one technically owns colors. You can trademark certain colors and logos in use in specific contexts, but people don’t receive trademark rights automatically. They have to apply for them, pay for them, and actively defend them from infringement.

Copyright you get automatically, so original novelty designs and whatnot are covered. But colors aren’t.

This community seems to have some vested interest in avoiding copycat colorway sets, but there isn’t a good, clear definition of what constitutes that.

You can apply for a different form of IP and enforce your exclusive rights for it. That's the legal way how to do it. Depending on which country you intend to assert your IP rights, you're gonna have to apply for it for that country. For most countries, it's called an industrial design.

That's 1 tool on how to protect an exclusive colourway.

Online jamster

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Re: Formal rules for determining what is and isnít a copycat IC/GB?
« Reply #9 on: Fri, 12 June 2020, 01:24:06 »
I do not think that relying on legal protections are practical here at all. The time and money involved in contesting trademark cases will run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I had a look at what happened with GMK Blink- the organiser was told to back off by the Korean music management company. A big music label is going to be much more interested in protecting their IP or trademarks, and have vastly, vastly deeper pockets (their revenue in 2017 was USD324M) and more full time lawyers than a lone enthusiast who designs keyboards or keycaps in his spare time whilst holding down a day job. If anything, this serves as an example of why strict legal protections are not relevant to most of this hobby.

I don't think this thread should really be about 'protecting exclusive colourways'. It's more about how to stop some fly by night vendors simply swooping in out of nowhere and blatantly taking advantage of the work of others, and it seems to be a topic solely in the context of how it's approached in this one forum.
« Last Edit: Fri, 12 June 2020, 01:41:46 by jamster »

Offline Findecanor

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Re: Formal rules for determining what is and isnít a copycat IC/GB?
« Reply #10 on: Fri, 12 June 2020, 07:56:43 »
My opinion:
- Colourway: Free for all
- Name: First person who names it owns it, unless it is a recreation. ("Dolch", "Triumph-Adler" etc.)

But for the love of God, talk to each other, be gracious and work things out. This is supposed to be a community, not a cut-throat marketplace.
Man must shape his tools lest they shape him
-- Arthur Miller


Offline pwade3

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Re: Formal rules for determining what is and isnít a copycat IC/GB?
« Reply #12 on: Fri, 12 June 2020, 09:22:39 »
I wanna start off by saying I think this thread means well and just start rambling from there.

I'm honestly not sure if you can make some sort of checklist to determine if something is or isn't a rip off, as people have different impressions as to what constitutes a "ripoff". Some people think it needs to be a 1:1 copy, other people are much more loose with it.

Speaking from my own experience, I received a handful of comparisons between Analog Dreams and Hyperfuse Remix.

Personally, I think fleshing out the new theme (vaporwave aesthetic) and a completely different alpha color (beige vs grey) sets it distinctly apart from hyperfuse, but there's going to be some people who feel otherwise. When it comes to certain "unique" colors being a defining aspect of a keyset, there's only so much you can do to change minds. In this case: purple on mint modifiers. Even though the purples and mints are both different colors (technically Analog Dreams is a "pastel green"), people will still draw comparisons.


As far as "historic" sets go, I think the community has shown to be fairly content to leave those in the realm of whoever has recently re-ran them when it comes to certain profiles. Look at Drop with GMK WoB/BoW, Janglad/Dixie with GMK 9009. Yet since these colors are so ubiquitous, no one has issue with them being carried across profiles.

Or when something unique is added to those sorts of colorways, it's also seemingly fine. For example, Originative has generally ran Dolch, but LightningXI's Dolch with R5 bottom row and some new accents distinguishes it as something "new" and I haven't noticed any complaints.


There's a lot to be said about mutual respect in this space. Some people act like just because a colorway hasn't been brought to a certain profile/material that must mean the designer doesn't want to and thus is up for grabs. But designing takes time, even if the colorway is being ported kitting is still different for every manu, not to mention finding vendors these days can be a lengthy process as well. Or they may just be sitting on a project so they don't reveal it too early and have the hype for it come and go before the GB can even happen. Or they may be waiting to do something else first (I know I wanted to run something different before re-running GMK Taro as I didn't want people to think of me as a one trick pony).

So much of this can be resolved by a PM. I know I try to be available to pretty much anyone who reaches out to me. You may find out that project you want is something they're working on. But on the other hand, they may just say no to what it is you want. Letting go of "creative control" can be a difficult prospect and it's not a one size fits all situation. If someone with experience messaged me wanting to do some sort of add-on kit for GMK Taro I'd be more amenable to hearing that out than say, someone I have no clue who they are wanting to do a full-blown KAT Taro. If I've got my own reservations on going from doubleshot to dyesub with those colors, why should I put faith in someone I don't know to do it well and thus maintain my reputation? Even if I'm not attached to it, I'd know people would still associate me with it.


There's a lot of edge cases that would happen with trying to make some formal rules. What about something like GMK Hype Abused? The IC got a lot of positive reception, are these rules going to have a special "has this set run 5 years ago, shipped back and forth between multiple sorting destinations, missing F8 keys and 0 idea of what's happening with the remaining sets" checkbox?


All of this is to say, leaving it undefined is probably the best we can hope for right now. I think designers need to be more familiar with what sets have run in the past so they know they're not directly copying something on accident. They should also be prepared to sort of "justify" their set if comparisons get drawn to something else (like I did above with Analog Dreams). Or in the worst case, should be more willing to take one on the chin and say "yeah this is too similar, gonna scrap it and move on". Learning to navigate this space is just one other duty that falls on designers that I think has somewhat fallen by the wayside in recent history.

Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.

Offline NoPunIn10Did

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Re: Formal rules for determining what is and isnít a copycat IC/GB?
« Reply #13 on: Fri, 12 June 2020, 10:11:08 »

All of this is to say, leaving it undefined is probably the best we can hope for right now. I think designers need to be more familiar with what sets have run in the past so they know they're not directly copying something on accident. They should also be prepared to sort of "justify" their set if comparisons get drawn to something else (like I did above with Analog Dreams). Or in the worst case, should be more willing to take one on the chin and say "yeah this is too similar, gonna scrap it and move on". Learning to navigate this space is just one other duty that falls on designers that I think has somewhat fallen by the wayside in recent history.

Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.

Thanks for your thoughtful response.  What I think is currently the problem is that so much of the discussion about what is and isn't a copy isn't always even happening in spaces where designers can respond.  Moreover, navigating the various corners of the hobby becomes arduous in and of itself as the hobby grows.

While having specific rules, as I'd like to see, is probably going to be a possibly-impossible process, I do think at least outline a few core rules ("absolutely don't do X, Y, or Z") as well as some grey-area rules would be an immense help.

Because right now, "ask the original designer" isn't always going to work so great, as it relies almost entirely on the good will and understanding of prior designers.  If X is similar to Y in some small ways, and different in several more significant ways, but Y's designer decides to not yield an inch, then what is X to do?

Right now the only consensus I've seen on Discord is basically "just release it, prepare to be roasted, and let the market decide."  That may be most realistic, but it seems really unfortunate. "Let the market decide" isn't necessarily a good measure (since it might perversely reward greater similarity), and unfounded accusations that come as part of the "roasting" could hurt sales of what was meant to be a niche set.


Offline NoPunIn10Did

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Re: Formal rules for determining what is and isnít a copycat IC/GB?
« Reply #14 on: Fri, 12 June 2020, 10:12:43 »

But for the love of God, talk to each other, be gracious and work things out. This is supposed to be a community, not a cut-throat marketplace.
Definitely in agreement there.  Particularly the "be gracious" bit.

Offline NoPunIn10Did

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Re: Formal rules for determining what is and isnít a copycat IC/GB?
« Reply #15 on: Fri, 12 June 2020, 10:21:20 »
Edited to add:

Were prior works acknowledged and given credit, were previous designers consulted and have they given their blessing? I only added this because the copycat IC yesterday made zero mention of the obvious sources and hoped nobody would notice, and also because I have seen older posts from other GB organisers to the effect of "yes, anyone can use or modify this as they see fit" or "we spoke to XYZ and he was cool with it."

I do think that contacting prior designers of similar keysets is a sign of good faith and therefore a good step.  I'm not sure what to do in the scenario where a prior designer is being unreasonable; for instance, what if one lays claim to a color that is specifically intended for wide usage (GMK/SP stock colors, RAL K7 colors, et cetera)?

Online jamster

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Re: Formal rules for determining what is and isnít a copycat IC/GB?
« Reply #16 on: Fri, 12 June 2020, 11:56:21 »
Right now the only consensus I've seen on Discord is basically "just release it, prepare to be roasted, and let the market decide."  That may be most realistic, but it seems really unfortunate. "Let the market decide" isn't necessarily a good measure (since it might perversely reward greater similarity), and unfounded accusations that come as part of the "roasting" could hurt sales of what was meant to be a niche set.

I think that we should try to rise above "let the market decide", because from what I have observed over the years, the market', whether it be some hobbyist niche or some vast chunk of the global economy, is largely oblivious to the ethical dimensions of products. The vast majority of people are simply unaware of, and don't care about, points of contention. That people don't care about ethics, in my view, doesn't mean that ethics are unimportant. "Let the market decide" is really a way of saying "I don't care, I just want my products cheaper!"

I mentioned this in an earlier post, but perhaps a designer's ability to explain their eventual design might be an important consideration? Certainly, the triple set 'designer' who popped up out of nowhere yesterday* couldn't come up with a coherent answer as to how he arrived at those colourways. I've spoken to product designers, interior designers and architects, and they tend to be able to explain their designs in thematic and evolutionary terms. And more tellingly, when they interview potential hires, this is the kind of thing they will ask about to verify whether a portfolio contains original work.

It's certainly not a definitive answer and it's a very coarse mechanism, but it's a difficult question that does deserve a lot of thought.


* Has that thread been deleted? I can't seem to find it anymore.
« Last Edit: Fri, 12 June 2020, 12:05:22 by jamster »

Offline NoPunIn10Did

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Re: Formal rules for determining what is and isnít a copycat IC/GB?
« Reply #17 on: Fri, 12 June 2020, 14:02:57 »
Right now the only consensus I've seen on Discord is basically "just release it, prepare to be roasted, and let the market decide."  That may be most realistic, but it seems really unfortunate. "Let the market decide" isn't necessarily a good measure (since it might perversely reward greater similarity), and unfounded accusations that come as part of the "roasting" could hurt sales of what was meant to be a niche set.

I think that we should try to rise above "let the market decide", because from what I have observed over the years, the market', whether it be some hobbyist niche or some vast chunk of the global economy, is largely oblivious to the ethical dimensions of products. The vast majority of people are simply unaware of, and don't care about, points of contention. That people don't care about ethics, in my view, doesn't mean that ethics are unimportant. "Let the market decide" is really a way of saying "I don't care, I just want my products cheaper!"

I mentioned this in an earlier post, but perhaps a designer's ability to explain their eventual design might be an important consideration? Certainly, the triple set 'designer' who popped up out of nowhere yesterday* couldn't come up with a coherent answer as to how he arrived at those colourways. I've spoken to product designers, interior designers and architects, and they tend to be able to explain their designs in thematic and evolutionary terms. And more tellingly, when they interview potential hires, this is the kind of thing they will ask about to verify whether a portfolio contains original work.

It's certainly not a definitive answer and it's a very coarse mechanism, but it's a difficult question that does deserve a lot of thought.


* Has that thread been deleted? I can't seem to find it anymore.

I believe the thread was indeed deleted.  There's a link to the google cache of it somewhere, but I don't know how long that will last.

I like the idea of having people discuss their choices and design process.  Do you think that would quell accusations though?

Offline breakbeatzors

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Re: Formal rules for determining what is and isnít a copycat IC/GB?
« Reply #18 on: Fri, 12 June 2020, 14:42:17 »
I do think that contacting prior designers of similar keysets is a sign of good faith and therefore a good step.  I'm not sure what to do in the scenario where a prior designer is being unreasonable; for instance, what if one lays claim to a color that is specifically intended for wide usage (GMK/SP stock colors, RAL K7 colors, et cetera)?

After participating in the community for a while, I haven't seen a self-respecting designer attempt to claim individual colors. GMK and SP stock is absolutely out of the question. RAL K7 is unclear for now, but it's a relatively limited and popular palette used across many domains. Claiming K7 doesn't seem realistic either.

When someone attempts to reproduce a distinctive palette (Nautilus, say) in its entirety, the community strongly disapproves.

I think the presence of well-defined branding qualifies a set as off-limits, to pwade's point. Some sets are absolute classics: Sky Dolch, Violet on Cream, Nuclear Data, anything riffing on Cherry dye-subs. They riffs on classic palettes - there's no "identity" associated with them.

Nautilus is tightly-coupled to Zambumon's community presence, though. He designed iconic novelties, has run the set three times across two different profiles, as well as a nightmare-themed offshoot. Similar for pwade's Taro: two runs, an enormous artisan collab for R2, novelties, etc. There are many others: MoDo, Mizu, Hyperfuse. If you want to run something close to these, you'd ideally chat with the original designer.