“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 7 Twitter clones,” Jack Dorsey tweeted earlier this month, quoting a side-by-side comparison of the Twitter app with four other Twitter-inspired social networks—including Meta’s new Threads, which shortly before had surpassed 30 million users.
Dorsey wasn’t exaggerating. Since Elon Musk’s messy takeover, scores of startups have raced to build and offer a less glitchy and more responsibly run Twitter replacement. There are close to a dozen Twitter-like social media platforms now, many of which are no more than a few months old, and founded by Twitter alumni.
Each new rival caters to varying audiences. But you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart just by looking, as there’s one trait common among them all: their user interface designs are practically indistinguishable from Twitter itself. Some, like Meta’s Threads, are so similar that Twitter has even threatened to sue.
Blood in the water
“There’s blood in the water,” Chris Messina, a tech evangelist who first came up with the idea to use hashtags to group tweets, told FWD. “There’s now an opening to create a new, fresher space that serves the job-to-be-done that Twitter once held that reverses many of Elon’s mistakes.”
Nearly every competitor, including Threads and the Jack Dorsey-backed decentralized social platform, Bluesky, appears to have cloned the same, familiar Twitter-inspired template for its UI: a left-aligned home feed populated with posts, each of which has reply, repost, and like buttons underneath the text; a floating “plus” button to compose a new post; and a tabbed app layout with sections dedicated to search, trends, notifications, and profile—often in that exact order. If these companies weren’t actively fishing for Twitter’s market share, you’d think they were its design’s biggest fans. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.
Take the web app of T2, a new social media service from former Twitter and Facebook execs, for instance. Like Twitter, it too has a menu on the left side for “Home,” “Notifications,” and “Profile” with near-identical icons, the home feed in the middle, a text box atop it, and a search bar at the top right corner. It even enforces the same 280-character limit as Twitter does on non-paying users.
T2 isn’t alone. The rest of Twitter’s rivals seem to have made no bones about capitalizing on Twitter’s struggle by ripping off its layout, either. As Mark Zuckerberg recently said on Threads, for instance: “I think there should be a public conversations app with 1bn+ people on it. Twitter has had the opportunity to do this, but hasn’t nailed it. Hopefully we will.”
Easy to copy, harder to prove
All of which begs the question: how close can designers get to an existing design before becoming a target for copyright and IP lawsuits?
First, you need to know the difference between trademark, copyright, and patent. Trademarks protect brand identities. It can cover a word, slogan, design, or a combination of all that identifies a brand's goods and services, such as Coca-Cola. Patents are reserved for technical inventions, like the machinery behind a 3D printer or the navigation system that makes GPS work. Copyright secures an original intellectual or artistic creation like a song or a painting. (In Elle Woods’ voice: What, like it’s hard?)
For functional designs like software user interfaces (as opposed to non-functional aspects like logos), the bar is quite high, says James Grimmelmann, a digital and information law professor at Cornell Law School. Most of Twitter’s UI features are too simple to be patentable as inventions and can’t be protected by copyright or trademark laws. Unless a new app has the exact same branding, art assets, and icons as Twitter, they are in the clear, he says.
“I have yet to see a Twitter clone that is close enough in all of its details to Twitter to strike me as a serious IP risk,” Grimmelmann added.
A court will likely consider Twitter’s underlying visual elements like UI as its idea, and ideas can’t be protected by IP law, said Pamela Samuelson, a law professor and co-director of the Berkeley Centre for Law and Technology. What is protected, however, is Twitter’s technical aspects like how a pull-to-refresh system works, which it patented over a decade ago, and nomenclature for certain functions like tweets, which it trademarked in 2011 and that rivals haven’t ripped off yet. Mastodon, for example, calls posts the unfortunate “toots” instead. Now that Twitter has rebranded as X, Elon Musk seems to have thrown that baby out with the bathwater. Musk tweeted earlier this week that tweets should now be referred to as “X’s”. (Guess we’ll wait and see.)
It's competitive common practice
Besides, over the years, knocking off a competitor’s idea has become a common practice in tech, more so in social media. Twitter Spaces was a reincarnation of Clubhouse, Instagram Reels and Stories were borrowed from Snapchat and TikTok, and the list goes on. In the US, Samuelson adds, such reuse of unprotected features is not considered stealing; it’s competition, and beneficial for a capitalist economy.
Of course, Twitter can still argue in court that when put together, the seemingly generic features are evidence enough that a competitor is forging its brand, but it’s unlikely to work.
In 1988, Apple tried to prevent Microsoft from deploying dozens of fundamental GUI elements like rectangular windows and menu commands, claiming on the whole, it infringes the “look and feel” of the Macintosh operating system. The judge ruled in Microsoft’s favor, concluding those elements were not copyrightable either because they were unoriginal or the only possible way of expressing a particular idea.
“Most software and other technical designs lack the kind of expressiveness that copyright protects,” Samuelson told FWD, who in a 1989 research paper argued since the sequence of software is generally reflective of the functions performed, it should be protected through patent law rather than copyright. Besides, Twitter vowed to use its patents, such as the one on the pull-to-refresh action, for defensive purposes a decade ago, which means it won't litigate against the companies that adopt it. Although that may change under Musk’s leadership as so much else has.
For designers, copycats are a natural course for any new, successful UI pattern once it’s out in the wild. “The best patterns will be copied, adopted, tweaked, and improved on until it is an accepted pattern that everyone uses,” says Josh Brewer, a design advisor who worked as a principal designer at Twitter in the early 2010s.
“If you want to snag Twitter’s audience,” Cennydd Bowles, an ex-Twitter ethics-focused designer, “you need to make a product the Twitter diaspora easily understands.”