The suit metaphor and Intellectual Property

Written by Jamie Freeman

In web development (and many other professional service industries too, I guess) the suit metaphor is used a lot. But it's a useful metaphor for our purposes, because of the 'off-the-peg' element. Some people will sell you an off-the-peg website, or you can have one made specifically to your requirements - in other words, bespoke.

But a new thought occurred to me the other day; even a hand-made suit uses fabric off the roll.

Introducing the fabric metaphor...

When you buy a bespoke suit you get to say exactly how it should fit; chest, neck, arm length and width... Every detail tailored to your exact body shape. You get to say choose the features, the number of pockets, type of flaps, number and length of vents, number and type of buttons, width of lapels...

You get to choose virtually every aspect of the finished product. Rather obviously, you get to choose the fabric. The tailor will show you any number of different materials of course, in different colours, weights and patterns from any number of different, er, sheep!

But at the end of the day, your bespoke suit is made of fabric that comes off the roll.

We don't make bespoke suits; we make bespoke websites. Our 'fabric roll' is our code-base. The libraries of objects and functions built up over the years; or even full online applications, like our own SweetCMS or Todobedobedo.

When we build a website for our clients they get to choose the exact scope and specification, the functions, features and designs that make their website unique; bespoke. But much of it will still be built using cloth from our existing roll.

OMG, the weaving metaphor?!

As well as being the tailor in this (ever-stretching) metaphor, we are also the weaver. We actually create the very cloth on the roll in the first place. (Picture hard-working Hebridean islanders, weaving away creating rolls of Harris Tweed...)

Like most people, we use a certain amount of 'fabric' that we don't weave ourselves. For example, jQuery.

And finally, to Intellectual Property (IP)

When you buy a suit, do you expect to 'own' the fabric it's made of? You might reasonably expect to be able to do whatever you like with your suit. You might want to let the trousers down, let the waist out, add another arm, fill the pockets with sweetie wrappers, who knows?

But what about other suits made of cloth from the same roll? Can the tailor even make other suits from that cloth? Most suit buyers would certainly say 'yes'. But when it comes to websites, buyers seem to think 'no'. What we tend to say to our clients is that you can make whatever adjustments you wish, let it out, take it in, add more pockets, more buttons, longer vents, whatever you wish. You can even get another tailor to do it for you if you like.

There's only one thing you can't do with your bespoke suit; you can't take the pattern, the fabric, and replicate it to make other suits. (I am trying extremely hard not to introduce a 'Hong Kong Tailor' metaphor at this point.)

Compared to licensing agreements from virtually any other commercial software company this seems pretty tame. After all, you don't expect Microsoft to let you 'replicate' your copy of Word.

So the 'bespoke' part of your suit is actually the design and the way it's been put together; it's not the underlying fabric.

In much the same way, an architect might own the copyright in the design of a building, but they don't own copyright in the bricks. But that's a whole other blog post...


  • Alex Farran -

    Personally I'm not worried at all about what a client does with code I've given them after they've paid for it. The value is in much more than the code, its the knowledge and experience in using it to build a custom site.

    That's why I prefer to use open source tools and frameworks rather than rolling my own. It also gives a simple answer to the question of copyright assignment. I can't give clients copyright to the majority of the codebase because I don't own it.

  • Jamie Freeman -

    Good point Alex (hi!).

    The very fact that we can't assign ownership of some parts of a given site (because we might use some open source stuff, for example) is largely what's led to the need to explain the situation to clients. So even if we wanted to assign copyright to the client (which we don't!), in most cases we couldn't.

  • Ian Clay -

    Is that fair on Mr. Tailor? Should the customer pay for the development of a product?

  • Jamie Freeman -

    Hey Ian, great to hear from you.

    I'm assuming Mr Tailor and McWeave discussed this beforehand and had a suitable contract drawn up! ;-)

    I'm also assuming the Tailor in your example actually designed the new blue fabric, in which case he would own the copyright. Our clients never design the systems we build them; we're not some offshore coding house.

    We're also a bit different from the people in your example because, like I said, we're also the weaver.

Any questions? Please get in touch…

We'd love to talk to you about your web project, e-commerce, EPOS system or bespoke web application.

Message Digital Design Ltd

+44 (0)1273 772247

© Message Digital Design Ltd. 2018