You’ve worked hard to build your business or freelancing career to where it is today, no matter where you're at on your self-employment journey. It goes without saying that your ideas are worth preserving. As a writer with a close attention to detail, I can get unintentionally precious about the smallest of phrases. Because I’m particularly picky with my words, I can also be quite proud and possessive when my communications flow and express clearly with intention and meaning. I also have a particularly good memory, so this means I notice when another has a similar vocabulary to me. It also means I can spot a copycatter, which I’ve had the misfortune of dealing with.
I create content for the internet, and the thing is with online content is that it’s those small incidences which make up the majority of copycat complaints. Prominent enough to make you feel irksome, yet too small to really make a fuss beyond complaining to your barista.
Here’s what to do if you feel someone has committed a small-scale copycat crime against you, and you just can’t let it slide.*
*If someone’s blatantly ripped off a large portion of your work, this advice is not applicable. I would suggest lodging a Google take-down request.
1. Take a screenshot if applicable.
There was an occasion two years ago where an aspiring online writer copied and pasted my entire LinkedIn ‘About Me’ section. Being a highly-strung egotistical copywriter in Melbourne who was desperately trying to make a name for herself, I was livid that someone had stolen my carefully crafted bio. Those were my minty-fresh words! My puns! My golden ideas! Unfortunately, I gave into my ego and attacked the girl on Twitter, which made me look like a crazy Twitter troll. She was able to change her profile within 20 minutes, so I had no proof beyond a Linked In notification that she’d viewed my profile (which was how I found out about her lack of originality). Get as much visual evidence as you can before you approach them or go public with an accusation.
2. Forgive them.
You didn’t see that one coming, did you? There’s an episode in Mad Men where an aspiring copywriter has a job interview at Stirling Cooper. Don, our tortured protagonist, rubbishes his ideas and sends him away…and then ends up using his tag lines in his own pitches to a client. The thing is with Don, our confidently charismatic anti-hero, is that he believes his own efforts to be superior to others. Which is why he didn’t intentionally copy another’s ideas…he absorbed them via osmosis. This is common amongst friends and subcultures who absorb each other’s customs and language.
We can see this with the rise of the term ‘soulpreneur’. Originally coined by Earth Events as part of their 2014 summer series, The Soulpreneur series was an online paid membership community for women interested in mindful business, health and wellbeing. You can now see a number of ‘soulpreneur’ communities online which have no real affiliation with Earth Events original community, but exist they do using that very same verbiage. ‘Soulpreneur’ has entered the health and wellness lexicon now, but Earth Events aren’t even mad.
I like to think of creativity as a huge well we all gain sustenance from. One ring we create in a ripple has an effect on the entire eco-system, which means what you say and do will cause another ring in the ripple.
Ask yourself: do you think this person intentionally copied you? Is it possible you both just had the same idea at the same time? Is your tagline or e-course name a common phrase in your industry? Can you forgive this person in the name of sharing the same mission, goal or vocabulary?
3. Be gracious.
As I mentioned, when I took to Twitter like a scorned woman, I ended up looking like an egotistical troll. In all honesty, it was a small-scale offense, and probably not worth my time and energy. In fact, I occasionally see bits and pieces of mine copied. A tagline here, a subject line there. But I don’t approach these people unless they’ve copied 2 sentences or more. Why? It’s just not worth my time or energy to argue over a few words strung together, unless I were launching a book, or an online course, or those words were central to my branding.
But what if they were central to my branding? It’s important to be polite, respectful and firm. Do you know how hard it is to be rude to a nice person? It’s frustrating and near impossible to argue with a person who is showing you warmth and compassion. This isn’t a suggestion to turn the other cheek, or to allow people to walk all over you. But there is a way to defend yourself while letting the other person save face.
In The Power of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini says that you don’t win people’s respect by proving them wrong (even if they’ve really missed the mark). You win their respect with kindness and by showing them respect, even if you don’t feel like they deserve it.
Avoid exclamation marks. Don’t outwardly accuse. Ask questions. Allow them to explain themselves.
And if that doesn’t work? Refer to points 1 and 2, or issue a Google take-down notice.
Hey, wait a second!
Is imitation really the best form of flattery? Has your work been copied before? Have you copied someone? Let me know how you’ve dealt with it in the comments.