When Facebook announced a new dating feature at its annual developer conference this week, it drew quick comparisons to existing apps like Tinder and Bumble. But the social network’s matchmaking service, simply called Dating, most closely resembles another, lesser known dating app: Hinge.
Facebook hasn’t yet begun to test Dating, but the demo version touted on stage by CEO Mark Zuckerberg and chief product officer Chris Cox looks nearly identical to Hinge. This isn’t the first time Facebook has ripped off a competitor; Instagram famously lifted Stories from Snapchat in 2016. And as in previous cases, Hinge probably doesn’t have much recourse to stop them.
Based on the demo shown at the F8 developer conference, Facebook Dating doesn’t have a Tinder-like “hot or not” swiping feature for quickly sorting through potential matches. Instead, it works like Hinge, which has users scroll through detailed profiles. Both Hinge and Facebook Dating also allow users to post answers to questions on their profiles, like whether they prefer dogs or cats. And in the biggest similarity, singles on both services can start conversations not by merely saying hello but by commenting on a specific profile item. For example, you can click on a picture of a crush’s trip to Morocco and mention that you’ve been there too. You can also simply “like” an image, video, or question response to signify your interest.
Hinge and Facebook Dating also share the same ethos. On stage, Zuckerberg stressed that Dating focuses on finding meaningful relationships rather than hookups. Hinge advertises itself the same way. In 2016, the app added a paid service; for $7 a month, users can interact with an unlimited number of potential matches and gain access to other exclusive features. The assumption is that people willing to pay to find a relationship are looking for something more substantial than casual dating. Facebook wants to do the same, just without the price tag.
Like most popular dating apps, Hinge also largely relies on Facebook data to operate; you even need a Facebook account to sign up, though the company says it’s developing a workaround. Hinge uses info from the social network to show you potential matches that have friends in common with you. You can also automatically pull in your Facebook photos and other information.
Again, Facebook Dating has yet to launch, so it’s impossible to know exactly how much it has in common with Hinge. But at first glance, they seem nearly identical, not just because they have the same features but also in the way they’re designed. Facebook didn’t respond to requests for comment about the similarities. Hinge, meanwhile, is playing it off as a compliment.
“When the Hinge team saw the similarity between our designs, particularly the profile and liking interaction, we congratulated each other. It’s gratifying to have one of the world’s biggest technology companies enter the dating space and draw so much inspiration from Hinge,” Tim MacGougan, Hinge’s vice president of product, said in an email. “We’re interested to see how their product evolves as they find their footing, and we’ll keep our focus on innovating at the forefront of the anti-swipe, pro-dating movement.”
Besides, it’s not like Hinge can really do anything about it. The reality is tech companies have ripped off each other’s interfaces for years, even if Facebook has a few recent, brazen examples. And legally, they’re entitled to.
“I don’t think any claim that Hinge could plausibly raise would stand much of a chance of being successful,” says Evan Brown, a partner at the firm Much Shelist who specializes in technology and intellectual property law. Brown explains that copyright laws are designed to protect creative expression, rather than methods of doing something, like crafting a successful dating app. “When you look at the similarities between how Hinge looks and Facebook looks, those similarities—as I see it—are purely factual or methodological,” he says.
Brown points to a 1996 Supreme Court case, Lotus Development Corp v. Borland International, in which a software company tried to assert that a drop-down menu it created was protected by copyright. The high court was split, but a lower court held that copyright doesn’t extend to the user interface of a computer. Brown says many of the same issues would come into play with Hinge. “No one would think they have exclusivity under copyright, it’s the very same thing here,” he says. “These are just stock elements of how interfaces look and operate.”
That hasn’t stopped other dating apps from suing each other, though. In March, Match Group, which owns Tinder, sued competing dating app Bumble for violating its patents and trademarks, as well as misusing trade secrets. Bumble quickly countered with a lawsuit of its own—accusing Match of coaxing it into revealing confidential information under the impression that it might purchase it. Whitney Wolfe Herd, the founder of Bumble, was previously one of the earliest employees at Tinder.
Daniel Nazer, a staff attorney on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s intellectual property team, thinks Tinder’s case faces many of the same pitfalls. “I think most utility patents in this space face the same problems,” he says. (Utility patents protect new machines, processes, and other inventions). He specifically cites Alice Corp v CLS Bank International, a landmark Supreme Court case from 2014 that found an abstract idea doesn’t become eligible for a patent just because it’s implemented on a computer. The decision is largely seen as having been crucial in helping software companies fight back against patent trolls. He thinks the case decision makes Tinder’s patents invalid. IAC, Match’s parent company, declined to comment on ongoing litigation.
Facebook’s copycat moves can still feel unfair, especially for a company of its size. But bringing already successful features to new products mostly stands to benefit users. If Stories are any indication, people won’t mind that Facebook Dating’s look originated elsewhere. The social network announced earlier this week that a whopping 450 million people use WhatsApp Status every day, the Facebook-owned app’s version of Stories. Snapchat, by comparison, has less than 200 million users total. For now though, all Hinge can do is keep talking to Facebook, and hope the social network doesn’t kill its business.
“Since the announcement, our team has been in touch with Facebook about what our relationship will look like moving forward,” says Hinge’s MacGougan.