This page has supplementary material for another post, How Replit used legal threats to kill my open-source project. Go read it first, if you haven’t already.
In this appendix we examine the following two questions about my open-source project, called Riju:
- In developing Riju, was I making a clone of Replit?
- In developing Riju, did I make use of any trade secrets of Replit?
1. Is Riju a clone of Replit?
Q: In developing Riju, was I making a clone of Replit?
Here’s a screenshot of Riju’s user interface:
And for comparison, here’s what Replit looks like:
As you can see, there are exactly two similarities:
- There’s a text pane on the left and a terminal on the right.
- There’s a button that says Run, and it’s colored green.
Personally, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that Replit has a monopoly on putting a text pane next to a terminal and a Run button, but if that’s the case, they should also consider suing the following six companies from the first page of Google results for “run python online”, all of whom do basically the same thing:
Here’s a collection of a few screenshots showing the similarity between all these webapps:
Replit might also say I was copying the fact that you can run multiple programming languages online in a single place. If that’s the case, they should also consider suing the following six companies from the first page of Google results for “run multiple programming languages online”, all of whom—again—do basically the same thing:
There’s no universe in which Riju is more a clone of Replit than any of these other services. Enough said.
2. Does Riju use any of Replit’s trade secrets?
Q: In developing Riju, did I make use of any trade secrets of Replit?
Let’s start with the obvious: I wrote all of Riju’s code myself, and this would be trivial to prove publicly if Replit hadn’t forced me to take down the code.
But Replit didn’t say I stole the code, they said I was “copying internal design decisions”. In other words, they’re referring to this part of standard employment terms:
I agree that during and after my employment with the Company, I will hold in the strictest confidence and take all reasonable precautions to prevent any unauthorized use or disclosure of Company Confidential Information.
Replit is claiming that my design decisions in Riju are “Confidential Information”, i.e., trade secrets. But we shouldn’t forget another part of employment law:
Company Confidential Information shall not include any such information which I can establish (i) was publicly known or made generally available prior to the time of disclosure by the Company to me; (ii) becomes publicly known or made generally available after disclosure by the Company to me through no wrongful action or omission by me; or (iii) is in my rightful possession, without confidentiality obligations, at the time of disclosure by the Company as shown by my then-contemporaneous written records.
In other words, if your trade secrets are public knowledge, or I already knew about them before you told me, they aren’t trade secrets. As such, it’s easy to prove that Riju doesn’t incorporate any trade secrets of Replit. To do so, I will explain every aspect of Riju’s design using only information from the public Internet and my prior published work.
(Of course, I am not a lawyer; I’m an open-source developer who has other things they’d rather be doing.)
Riju’s API design
In Riju, the frontend and backend communicate primarily using a
persistent websocket in JSON format. There are data events like
terminalOutput to control the tty, and control
formatCode that are sent when the user
clicks buttons on the frontend.
Is it a trade secret to use a websocket API with these kind of messages for code evaluation? No, the fact that Replit uses websockets is publicly documented on their blog, and there is a complete public reference for the exact format of all their code evaluation websocket messages in their official documentation. You might think this is supposed to be a secret internal page, but no, it’s linked directly from Replit’s public GitHub.
Riju’s use of per-language config
Riju supports multiple languages by having a JSON configuration per language, which specifies information like
- how to run the language
- how to start a REPL for it
- how to run a code formatter / LSP server
- what the main file should be called
Is it a trade secret to support multiple languages by abstracting out a common interface and writing per-language JSON files? Nope, you can read right on Replit’s blog that Replit’s approach is to “take every programming language that has a repl and expose them all behind the same command-line interface”, and the blog post even has an example JSON configuration file for one of Replit’s languages.
Riju’s use of Docker to install and run multiple languages
Riju uses per-language configuration to generate shell scripts to install all its programming languages into a single Docker images (originally) or into multiple Docker images (later on).
Is it a trade secret to run programming languages online by installing them into a Docker image, or to set up this installation by generating shell scripts from per-language configuration? Nope, this process is documented on Replit’s blog, and there’s even open-source code to generate shell scripts and build such a Docker image on their public GitHub. In case you thought the one-image-versus-many-images decision might be a trade secret, nope, there’s a discussion of that issue right in the GitHub README along with a note about what Replit ended up going with.
Riju’s build system
Recent versions of Riju have a rather advanced build system in which:
- for each language, a shell script is generated, which is used to install it in an isolated environment and generate a Debian package, which is installed into a per-language Docker image
- all build artifacts (generated shell scripts, Debian packages, per-language Docker images, and environment base images) are hashed based on their source code, and the results are used to generate a dependency graph and compute the minimal set of operations necessary to propagate any given configuration change
Is any aspect of this build system a trade secret? No, because it simply has no equivalent whatsoever at Replit; the design was purely my own innovation. If you’d like to verify this fact for yourself, you can check out Replit’s implementation on GitHub.
Riju’s deployment configuration
Riju was hosted on a single DigitalOcean server (at first) or EC2 instance (later on), and runs the server as a single Docker container. All user sessions are run within a single container, using standard UNIX permissions to provide isolation.
Riju’s tech stack
Here is an exhaustive list of all the languages, libraries, technologies, and platforms that Riju and Replit share (or that you might think they share) as part of their tech stacks:
- Configuration: JSON, JSON Schema, YAML
- Build tools: Make, Webpack
- Infrastructure: Docker
- Libraries: Express, Monaco, Xterm.js
Is the use of any part of this tech stack a trade secret of Replit’s? No, and here’s why for each one:
- Configuration: JSON and YAML are the top two most popular configuration formats, and it’s easy to find both in my pre-Replit projects. I’ve used JSON Schema in projects predating my work at Replit.
- Infrastructure: The fact that Replit uses Docker is public knowledge, and besides, my technical work with Docker at Replit is open-source.
- Libraries: Express is the #1 most popular Node.js web framework, and (as with Node.js) I’d been using it years before working at Replit. The fact that Replit uses Monaco is public knowledge. The fact that they use Xterm.js is also public knowledge.
3. Was it unethical to develop Riju?
See the main post.