Instagram’s new Layout app has an unsettling secret

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Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac
Layout from Instagram? That name sounds oddly familiar. Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac
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What happens when a multi-billion-dollar social network steals your app’s name?

Independent developer Mike Swanson asked that question Monday when he learned that Instagram had released Layout, the Facebook-owned company’s new iPhone app for creating photo collages.

“I was very surprised,” Swanson told Cult of Mac. “If this had been accidental, or if they had at least reached out to me at some point, this would be a different story.”

Swanson, whose development company is called Juicy Bits, also has an iPhone app named Layout in the App Store that lets you make photo collages. It’s been on sale for years, and was even included in the App Store’s yearly “Best Of” list in 2012.

The only discernible name difference between Instagram’s new app and Swanson’s is the tacked on “from Instagram,” a clarification that’s hardly enough to keep Swanson’s Layout from ever getting the coveted first result placement in App Store searches again.

“Is it just me, or does it seem insincere for Instagram to release a similar app with the exact same name only differentiated by the inclusion of their company name?,” he wrote in a blog post. “Do you think they’d be OK with me releasing an app called ‘Instagram from Juicy Bits?’ Neither do I.”

Swanson's Layout (left) vs. Instagram's Layout (right)
Swanson’s Layout (left) versus Instagram’s Layout. Both apps let you combine photos, but some of their features are different.

It’s challenging enough for indie developers to rise above the App Store noise. More than 1.4 million apps vie for the eyes and dollars of iOS users, and the App Store generated a record $10 billion in revenues for developers in 2014. Getting a slice of that pie is tough enough without a giant corporation “borrowing” the name of your popular indie app.

Swanson says he has never been contacted by Instagram about using the name Layout. He first heard about the new app Monday by reading a news article which incorrectly linked to his app.

“You might think I’d be happy that some people will inadvertently come across my Layout app and buy it, confident that they’re buying the Instagram app,” Swanson wrote. “While I like sales as much as any independent developer, I don’t like sales that I haven’t earned. And I certainly don’t like sales where customers are confused. I’m sure I’ll hear from many who didn’t get what they expected, and that will lead to one-star reviews and refunds.”

Instagram declined to comment for this story.

Nice guys finish second

Swanson never applied to trademark the name Layout, mainly because it was “an expense that didn’t seem worth it at the time.” He has instead “relied on common app naming courtesy and the desire to avoid obvious confusion.” It’s questionable whether a descriptive term like “layout” could even be trademarked in the first place.

This isn’t the first instance of a Facebook property borrowing a name from an existing app. The release of Paper by Facebook in the App Store created some controversy with FiftyThree’s popular drawing app of the same name. Admittedly, FiftyThree has done just fine — it just closed a $30 million Series B round of funding.

“I’m an indie developer without the resources to fight.”

But Swanson’s app has a less certain fate. It shares not only similar functionality, but the same name with an app that’s backed by the most popular photo social network on earth. Even if Swanson adds new features that set his Layout apart, the chance of someone stumbling upon his app in the vast expanse of the App Store just went down. A quick search of “Layout” in the App Store today shows Instagram’s app as the first result and Swanson’s second.

“I’m an indie developer without the resources to fight,” Swanson explained over email. “So, I’m trying to spread the word, so it doesn’t just pass silently, as it potentially affects other people like me in the future. It’s certainly not the right thing for them to do, and sadly, they know it. Is it OK to have ‘Layout from ____’ x 100? Of course not.”