There’s an unwritten general rule in the tech world when it comes to original ideas – they get copied by smaller guys and acquired by bigger guys.

When a new idea takes off, a multitude of copycats spring up – whether it’s ‘Twitter for tennis-playing goats’ or ‘The Outer Mongolian alternative to Groupon,’ tech blog inboxes get flooded with pitches from niche-targeted plays that draw ‘inspiration’ from popular startups of the day. Meanwhile, bigger companies tend to react by acquiring these hit ideas. In the past 24 hours, Facebook has demonstrated another way – blatantly cloning a smaller company’s original idea – and it should worry every startup out there.

Seriously, Facebook’s Poke is such a blatant copy of Snapchat that it shouldn’t be given the grace of being called a ‘competitor’. There are differences (character count, location support, etc.) but the core concept is identical: private messages that are only viewable for a few seconds before disappearing.

Sure, this isn’t the first time Facebook has used ideas from elsewhere; it adopted the check-in idea from Foursquare for Facebook Places for example, but it’s not like it launched a dedicated app for Places, complete with points, leaderboards and mayorships. Poke is the equivalent of that scale of move.

Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel invoked a famous Apple ad when responding to the launch of Poke, saying “Welcome, Facebook. Seriously.” But this isn’t like IBM launching a PC to rival Apple, this is more like IBM launching a competitor to the Apple III called the Pear IV with an almost identical spec. Spiegel should be worried, even if he isn’t expressing it publicly.

I’ve no idea if Facebook tried to acquire Snapchat before developing its own alternative app, but Poke’s launch does remind me of Dalton Caldwell’s open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, in which he recounted the time Facebook tried to acquire a startup he had been working on. Most notably, this paragraph:

“The meeting took an odd turn when the individuals in the room explained that the product I was building was competitive with your recently-announced Facebook App Center product. Your executives explained to me that they would hate to have to compete with the “interesting product” I had built, and that since I am a “nice guy with a good reputation” that they wanted to acquire my company to help build App Center.”

Did Facebook try to buy Snapchat, get knocked back and decide to write a rival app in 12 days, just because it could? Maybe we’ll never know. One thing’s for sure – Facebook has the resources to take any idea from anywhere and turn it into an app that gets a heap of attention and rockets to the top of the App Store chart in less than a day. If Facebook can do that to Snapchat, what’s to stop it (or another company of a similar size) doing the same to the next hit app that comes along?

The long-term success of Poke (and indeed Snapchat) is as yet unproven. Maybe the kids and the sexting adults who took to Snapchat will stick with what they know and Poke will quietly disappear, or perhaps the two apps’ paths will diverge enough for them to co-exist happily – but maybe Facebook’s significant clout will see it crush Snapchat completely.

Whatever happens, every small team with an original idea has cause for concern today – instead of acquiring or aqui-hiring you, maybe the big guys will clone you and steamroller you instead.

Image credit: AFP / Getty Images