What a predicament!

Subject: What a predicament!
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 1 Mar 2002 13:29:12 -0500

Anonymous reports: <<somehow, between design and execution, the VP of
Engineering got it into his head that if we wanted to be successful, we
needed to "embrace" an already successful product that sells to the same
market... "We need screenshots in the help, we need context-sensitive topics
in the TOC, we need you to document the print dialog, we need you to copy
this manual as closely as possible,...">>

Whether this is legal depends entirely on what the VP means by "copy".
Emulating a design is easy, and unlike in the fine arts and advertising
graphics, documentation designs are far less well protected by copyright.
For one thing, nobody can claim a patent on all-caps level 1 headings or the
use of underlining in a third-level heading; these have been used in so many
places, in so many variations, that they're effectively in the public
domain. Ditto for any documentation technique discussed in several
techwhirler textbooks, such as chunking information or using illustrations.

Also, please note the word "variations" earlier in this paragraph. It's easy
to take a basic design and modify it to your needs without permission;
change the Times Roman body type to Palatino, for instance, and change the
headings from Helvetica to Arial. (Not recommending those choices, by the
way; just exemplifying.) Put the page numbers on the outer margin instead of
centered. Use indented paragraphs instead of flush-left. Etc. etc.

You indicated that you're not competing with the product you're emulating,
so it's unlikely you're copying their actual text and graphics; that's much
more clearly a case of copyright violation. But adding screenshots and
context sensitivity in the help, and making sure that you write about all
the same items as another writer has done for a different product is not at
all a copyright violation. Copyright protects what was done, not how it was
done. Also, don't forget that some things such as dialog box designs are
going to be identical for every programmer who uses the same programming
toolkit; a Windows "OK" button and the window title at the top of the dialog
box both look pretty much the same in every program, and nobody would ever
sue you for using either in a screenshot.

<<I countered with a response and a half-inch of supporting docs that
basically said, "you are making my breaking the law a condition of my
employment and I consider this to be harassment.">>

Given that the situation has already become this adversarial, you need to
take a step back and see if there's a way you can't achieve some kind of
compromise. Accept the fact that bad stuff has happened, and make tomorrow
an entirely new day: start from scratch, and leave the historical baggage
behind you. Sorry if that sounds "new age spacey"; it's also immensely
practical. Focus on how you can emulate the "best practices" used in the
other manuals, but make how you actually accomplish this your own creative

<<Each time I reached a goal, the VP pushed the bar a little further away. I
was supposed to have the doc set done yesterday. But the day before that,
the team tore the UI apart and began to rearrange it>>

There's not much you can do about that beyond starting over from scratch.
Make it clear to the VP that each time he changes the interface, you have to
rewrite everything related to that change, then review the changes with the
experts to make sure the new text is accurate. And if they don't tell you
what changes you're making, do they really expect you to check every single
screen and dialog box every day to see what's changed? Most managers will
agree that this is unreasonable, and will work with you to find a way to
work more efficiently.

<<the doc manager who wrote the book I was supposed to "embrace" is a friend
of a friend and I have spoken to her on the phone in the past. I have never
met her personally.>>

One thing you could do is contact the friend of a friend, explain the
situation*, and get them to send you a letter giving you permission.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and most people are happy to be

* Tread carefully. Don't describe the whole political situation at your
company, and certainly don't discuss your plans for the product--the last
thing you want is their lawyer calling your company and saying "Cease and
desist!" or their marketing manager putting your company out of business by
taking over your market niche. Simply say "We really like your manuals. Do
you have any objection to us revising our manuals so they look more like
yours?" I don't think they can stop you from doing so, but you'll feel much
more confident if they give you permission.

<<Will blowing the whistle hurt my chances for getting another job?>>

Yes, and for two reasons. First, it's possible you'll be given a bad review
by your current employer when they call to check references, and even if
that doesn't happen, you'll have a hard time explaining why you left the
current company without sounding like a whiner. (The fact that you're
justified doesn't count: as soon as you complain about an employer, an alarm
bell goes off in the interviewer's head.) Second, this sounds like a
situation you can save, and doing so is better than bailing out; quitting
before you have to can become a habit, and that's not going to do you any
good in the future.

Best of luck!

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

Hofstadter's Law--"The time and effort required to complete a project are
always more than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's

Now's a great time to buy RoboHelp! You'll get SnagIt screen capture
software and a $200 onsite training voucher FREE when you buy RoboHelp
Office or RoboHelp Enterprise. Hurry, this offer expires February 28, 2002. www.ehelp.com/techwr

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