I’ve been hearing a lot of talk lately about people copying others in the online world. People on all sides seem to be upset; those who feel they’ve been copied and those that think they’re being unfairly accused of copying.
Here’s what I think is missing in this debate; a recognition of what it is to be a human being. The most basic truth about human beings is this; we learn through imitation. From the day we’re born we imitate the facial expressions of our parents. We imitate the way they talk, walk and laugh.
In the process of imitation we find our own quirky way of walking, talking and so forth but essentially we’re all still doing the same thing (walking and talking).
And so it goes through every aspect of society. Trends are, by definition, a large group of people copying one another. And in the instance of trends, no one seems to have a problem with the copying.
Interior design is one of my favourite passions/hobbies. I love it. I read lots of magazines and I’m constantly moving my rooms around trying new formats and styles. When I think about styling a room, the very first thing I do is look in my stacks of old magazines. Specifically, I look for things to copy. I don’t think about it that way though. I think of it as getting inspiration. But the truth is, if I see a lamp or rug or lounge that I like, I will try to acquire that very piece or something very similar.
So where’s the line drawn between inspiration and copying? Artists, writers, dancers have been copying each other throughout the ages as a way of learning and refining their craft. In this sense, online entrepreneurs are following a well trodden path.
Of course websites and sales pages are a melting pot of potential problems when it comes to copying. Firstly because as a society we’re all learning together about what is and isn’t possible when it comes to web design. Design features come in and out of style and people follow trends. Just as we do with clothes and hair, entertainment and holiday destinations.
So when you’re creating your first website there’s one thing that’s an essential part of your journey; looking at other people’s sites. Inevitably you’ll find an opt in button or a photo you like the look of. Perhaps you’ll find a turn of phrase that perfectly captures what you’re trying to express or a way of structuring and promoting content that you think will hit the mark with your own audience.
Personally I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking that inspiration and then putting it together with all the other pieces of inspiration you’ve picked up along the way, and then creating something new and wonderful with it.
That’s exactly what Baz Luhrmann did in Moulin Rouge; he took a tried and tested plot line, used other people’s songs and came up with something completely unique. It could have ended up as a horrible mishmash of other people’s work. But Baz didn’t stop at replication. He elevated the entire experience to something new. Something that had literally never been seen before in film.
That’s the invitation for all of us I think.
So before you start despairing about other people copying you or becoming fearful that you might be accused of copying, here’s my suggestion for pursuing a path that’s aligned and in integrity.[Tweet “Unsure of the line between taking inspiration and copying? When in doubt, ask first @samnolansmith”]
For the copied:
- Go back to when you were first starting out (assuming as I am here that it’s someone fairly new to your niche that’s doing the copying). I’m certain you copied things from time to time. A colour here, a font there. Perhaps people have taken it too far with regard to your work, but before you jump on your high horse, take a moment to remember just how overwhelming those first few years are in business. There’s so much to think about and do and so few resources with which to do it. Send up a flare of gratitude to the universe that you’re no longer in that space, take a deep breath and then choose to respond with compassion.
- Remember we’re all human and flattery is the highest form of praise. In that respect, the person copying you is quite possibly one of your biggest fans. Contact them and gracefully ask them to cease and desist. (And it pays to remember that if you manage this well, they could shift from fan to outspoken advocate, sending many clients and customers your way. On the other hand, if you respond poorly, or in a way that’s inconsistent with your business and brand, you may do great harm to yourself by handing them a very good reason to get loud and pushy about ‘the real’ you they think they’ve been exposed to.)
- Get your ego off its soapbox. You’re not the first person to put words together in a clever way. I noticed a friend of mine using the phrase ‘Business Bites’ on her blog recently. She doesn’t know this, but that’s a phrase I came up with about 4 years ago (I literally have a file called ‘Business Bites’ amongst my ‘Ideas to pursue’ folder). Was I the first person to come up with this phrase? I highly doubt it. Was my friend copying me? No. I’m very confident that I never actually ever shared that turn of phrase with her.
We’re all part of a collective consciousness. Many of us are going to be downloading similar ideas at similar times. The phrases you come up with are unique enough, but probably not that unique. After all, if two men can come up with the Theory of Evolution at precisely the same time in history – something slightly more complex that coining a phrase – I’m pretty sure more than one person can come up with the terminology you’re using on your site without them having necessarily copied it from you.
- If you’re truly worried about this in your own business, there’s a whole field of law that has been designed to protect you. It’s called Intellectual Property. Hire a lawyer and get them to deal with it.
- Or go down the route that Leo Babuta of Zen Habits took of uncopyrighting everything he has written since 2008. That means, he publicly releases all readers of the obligation to contact him if they want to use his work. They can do whatever they want with it and while he appreciates attribution, he doesn’t require it. Side note; the man has over a million subscribers so clearly this approach isn’t bad for business.
For those who might be copying (or accused of copying, or tempted to do so):
- Remember there’s a very big difference between taking inspiration and lifting great chunks of text from another person’s website. When you lift great chunks of text from someone else’s site and pass it off as your own, you’re stealing from them and you’re lying to your audience. And as Belle Gibson just found out, acting disingenuously may work for you for a period of time but inevitably that kind of thing comes back to haunt you. It’s called karma and it’s real.
- If you’re inspired by someone and really want to incorporate their ideas into your own work, contact them. Ask them if they’re ok with you using their material in a particular way. Copyright symbols don’t mean ‘I am not ever willing to let you use my stuff’, they mean ‘Contact me and ask and I’ll decide whether I want you to use my work.’ You might be surprised how happy people are for you to use their work, in the right circumstances. And if they say no, remember they’re completely within their rights to do so. If you then decide to proceed anyway, you’re breaking the law.
- Doing someone’s course does not give you the right to copy their work. As someone offering multiple courses online, I can’t tell you the months of sweat and toil that go into putting something like that together. Stealing another person’s work is just that – stealing. The price you paid for admission to their course wasn’t a carte blanche to use their work in any way you wish. If you’re inspired by something they’ve shared, note the bullet point above and act accordingly.
- If you’re sharing a concept from a book as I did in this post, make sure you’re clear this isn’t your work; name the source and be a force for good by sending some traffic their way.
- When you’re lacking inspiration, turn to industries other than your own for inspiration. My go to sources of creative inspiration are art galleries, cafes, great books and films, interior design blogs and magazines, and nature of course! Taking inspiration from spaces other than your niche gives you a great opportunity to appear unique and different in a crowded space of same same.
- When in doubt (and if you’re too afraid to ask the copyright owner or if you’re searching for a quick photo that you need in the next half hour and don’t have time for a protracted email chat with the owner of the image), find content that uses an alternative form of copyright – the creative commons licence. There are different forms of the creative commons licence but essentially this form of licence was created in recognition of the fact that creative inspiration is derivative to a large extent and in the online world there’s a need for greater copyright flexibility than was necessary pre the inter-web. When someone places a creative commons symbol on their work it means that they retain the copyright, but they authorise you to copy, distribute and make uses of their work with attribution but without needing to contact them in each instance. It’s a safe option that means you can be confident about drawing on their work whilst maintaining your integrity.
That’s my say on the copying v inspiration debate and I’d also love to hear from you. Have you been in a situation of either feeling copied or being accused of copying and if so, how did you handle it? What wisdom did you glean from the experience?