We Need To Talk About Copycats

We Need To Talk About Copycats

I have spoken a little bit about my experience with copying, although at the time everything was a little too raw and I didn’t really talk about the topic subjectively or in much detail. I don't think it's right to "name and shame" but I do think we all need to talk more about what it means to copy, be copied, and how to deal with it.

In January, Deanna wrote this amazing post - I’ve Copied and I Bet You Have Too - I think this piece covers everything possible when it comes to copying and in a manner that is just so eloquent. I honestly can’t say I could write a better post but I do I feel it’s a subject we need to talk more about both as designer-makers and bloggers. As Deanna says, “it’s time for a rational discussion about “copying” in our creative field."

Rewatching Everything is a Remix reminded me of what it means to be original, the history of creativity, and how ideas evolve and transform as they are shared and reworked by different people. It reminded me of what it means to be creative; ideas shouldn’t be coveted and we don’t need to be scared when we see another creative using a similar idea to ours but in their own way.

We need to learn and acknowledge the law

As creatives, we should know the legal definition of copyright infringement and stop accusing others of copying when we just don't like that someone else has had the same idea as us and is using it to produce something new. We cannot copyright ideas, only the work we create from them. If someone hasn't purposefully tried to imitate or replicate our work, we have no right to accuse them of copying.

We can’t copyright an idea - so we can’t get upset when someone “steals” it

Your original idea could quite easily be someone else’s original idea; we are not the special snowflakes we like to believe we are. It’s unlikely we were the first to come up with a lot of the products and content we produce regardless of how original we think it is. Google is likely to debunk any ideas of grandeur we might have when it comes to our "original" idea.

There isn’t anything wrong with someone seeing an idea and using it

Which is tough to accept because we want to believe our ideas are totally original, never-been-done-before and we want to protect them. An idea is just the starting point and separate from whatever is created from it. Unless they are purposefully trying to replicate or imitate our specific interpretation, then there is nothing wrong with someone else using that idea to create something new. That’s how creativity works and it’s something we need to get used to as a creative community.

Just because someone has done it before doesn’t mean we can’t have a go

If you’ve seen a product or blog post and it’s similar to an idea you’ve had, that doesn’t mean you need to give up on producing it. Ideas aren’t sacred, they don’t become worn out; if you like an idea and see a new way of producing content, a product, a design, or an illustration from it - go ahead. The trick to ideas is making them your own and not replicating or imitating the original source of inspiration.

Our creativity isn't always as original as we like to think it is

It's actually very common for people to unknowingly produce identical creative pieces without any copying going on. A project or a design or a blog post that looks similar to our own doesn't automatically mean someone copied. Melody Miller, in her post, When Things Aren't Quite What They Seem, discusses what happens when two people have the same idea and use it to produce the same product without realising. There are common similarities we share with other creatives in our field, similarities that inspire our creativity and influence our work. Occasionally these similarities result in near identical finished results, this is something we have to acknowledge and deal with on a case by case basis.

We shouldn’t assume someone knows who we are and what we create

When we start accusing people of stealing our ideas, we're also assuming they know who we are and what we create. It’s rather arrogant, isn’t it? But there’s every bit of chance that they don’t know anything about us and they haven’t seen the work we’re accusing them of copying. In some cases it’s obvious but in others, not so much. If someone hasn't seen something, they couldn't have copied.

We should stop calling out "copycats" in public

In the fury of the moment it’s easy to turn to social media to back you up and of course, people will - they’ll jump to your defence. No one likes a copycat. But we should remember to keep things professional and private until there is no alternative than to make things public. Publicly shaming or humiliating someone for copying isn’t the right way to deal with these issues and only makes us look unprofessional. Also: you might have got it wrong. Blasting someone online only to discover they have never seen your work or even heard of you is embarrassing and makes you look like a bully.

I am in no way saying that if someone actually copies your work that you should ignore it - whether it’s word for word copying and pasting your written content; using your photographs without permission; reproducing a product you have made (that is protected by copyright law); using your illustration work to create products - that’s illegal and you have every right and all the support you need from fellow creatives to pursue legal action.

As someone who has experienced distressing copycat behaviour, I wouldn’t ever dream of telling someone to not fight for their intellectual property. But I have noticed a trend for designer-makers and bloggers complaining about being copied when really that isn't the case. Bickering over the ownership of ideas is ridiculous; let’s stop getting snarky about who copied who and publicly grumbling about it on social media. There are better things we could be doing with our time.