Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, until it starts to bug the hell out of you — or worse, you learn someone has flat out copied or stolen your work. Navigating the gray area of admiration versus duplication can be challenging, but we’ve got six tips to help you keep your cool and stay inspired while protecting your sense of self and your creative work.
1. Believe there’s room for everyone.
It’s normal to get defensive when someone copies you, especially after you’ve put time and effort into expressing yourself, but try not to take it personally. At best, imitation is simply someone admiring your style or approach and wanting to try it on for size in order to find their own voice or path forward. At worst, that person could be struggling with low self-esteem, a creative rut, or a little bit jealousy.
“When someone steals your shit, it sucks. I used to take it so personally, and then I looked at why it bothered me so much,” said Alex Lynn Ward, a Los Angeles-based actor, writer, and comedian. “When it came down to it, it was because I was insecure. I was worried that the thing that I poured my heart and soul into, the thing I wanted to be my ticket to the big time, would be stolen by someone else.”
Scary, right? We’ve all been there. But remember, there’s only one version of you, which means nobody can ever quite duplicate your voice and your vision. Be confident about what you can uniquely bring to the world, then compassionately invite the person cloning your vibe to develop their own ideas, goals, or methods.
And keep Ward’s words in mind: “Whenever I see someone ‘stealing’ something from me, I always reflect back on the fact that there’s room for everyone.”
2. Just walk away.
A colleague of mine had a friend who asked her for photography advice. She wanted to be supportive, but slowly realized she was handing over a lot of information that took years of research to figure out. In the meantime, her friend started mimicking certain tactics without ever once giving proper credit. And since the copying involved minor things — such as utilizing the exact same social media captions, or borrowing styling ideas and even hashtags — she wanted to believe her friend was merely inspired by her work.
But then it started to mess with her business. So she stopped giving free advice all the time to this person.
The moral of this story: you can’t always know what might be total coincidence, so attempt to avoid quick judgments and assume positive intent. HOWEVER. It’s completely fine to distance yourself from people who can’t seem to take a hint or find their own mode. Helping others grow is a choice, so if “helping” feels more like getting taken advantage of or cornered, you can politely decline.
3. Have the awkward conversation.
Ughhhhh, I know. This conversation is the worst — because how do you properly call someone out? If you’re non-confrontational like I am, you also want to avoid, um, publicly humiliating them, going down the road of defensiveness, or backtracking entirely without making your voice heard… you get the point. It can be incredibly difficult to know what to say or do in this situation.
That’s where a script becomes your BFF. Interior designer Becky Leu uses this one:
“Hey, [name], I’ve noticed that you take quite a bit of inspiration from my work, but I love when we both have variety in the styles and ideas that we bring to the table. Is there a way I can help you find some sources of inspiration? I think it’s really valuable to be unique and expressive in your own way, so if you need some help talking through your ideas, I’m happy to be a good listener!”
Will that work for everyone, in every case? No. But it’s a start, and you can certainly edit it to fit your voice and predicament. Another piece of advice: frame your perspective as an observation rather than an attack, and, if at all possible, have the discussion in person versus email or phone. And if you don’t know this person, or there’s a serious breach of copyright involved, you can also reach out to the offender and ask him or her to make it right (i.e., remove the copied work from a website, add credit where it is due, etc.).
4. Protect your work.
From a legal standpoint, ideas can’t be copyrighted — but expression of them can. This sometimes puts creatives in a weird position of deciding which is worse: receiving mass exposure with no credit or being overly protective and consequently unable to grow.
“One of the best things you can do is to constantly innovate, so that by the time someone can steal or copy your work, it’s already outdated. But that obviously takes work!” said Maddie Eisenhart, Chief Revenue Officer at A Practical Wedding. “That said, this really only counts when an up-and-comer is utilizing the resources of an established brand. When big brands steal the work of independent artists (examples: Zara, Urban Outfitters, and Forever 21), it’s no longer about inspiration or learning. It’s just stealing. But again, I’ve only discovered some great indie brands because they got ripped off by a major label. So I think you have to decide what matters more to you.”
At a minimum, do your due diligence. Keep proof of ideas such as email exchanges, notes jotted down during a conference call, and side-by-side snapshot comparisons of artwork. View your business-oriented conversations as hotspots for sensitive material, and ask partners or collaborators to sign NDAs. Add copyright/watermark symbols to your images and content, and use Google to check for online plagiarism of any sort.
5. Make someone else the bad guy.
Again, if your work is being directly copied and/or used without permission, get a lawyer involved. You can pursue a cease and desist as well as go through the trademark process to cover your name, services, or products.
“I find it’s best to get a lawyer involved to play bad cop. It takes the emotion out of it and presents things in a professional, businesslike way,” said Grace Atwood of The Stripe. “I am lucky in that I haven’t dealt with much of this, but one year a blog took all of my holiday gift guides. They literally took my graphics and added their own affiliate links. I only found out about it as a brand asked me. We sent a scary cease and desist letter and boom — the graphics got taken down.”
If your situation is more along the lines of “she duplicated my PowerPoint and took all the credit,” then talk to your boss or manager immediately. Bring it up from the perspective of how it is negatively impacting your work, the company bottom line, or team productivity. Look for solutions, and avoid making it personal by sticking to objective facts (i.e., “I spent six hours creating that presentation and emailed it to her, and my name doesn’t appear as an author now.”).
6. Keep confidently creating.
If someone copies you repeatedly, take all necessary steps to mitigate the situation — and then move on. People who rely on others’ work for their sole source of inspiration won’t last in the long run, and worrying about them takes away from focusing on you.
“I have seen some of my photos copied nearly exactly for very similar recipes, and I laugh about it. But I think that comes with age. If I was 19 or 20, I’d probably be all bent out of shape. Now that I’m over 30, I don’t even think about it. I’m confident about my own work,” says Jessica Merchant of How Sweet Eats. “I generally believe in helping other people, because I remember what it was like to be just starting out. I remember when no one would help me! The difference is that it takes constant work; even if you learn a bunch of “secrets,” you still need to put them to use every single day. Most people starting out don’t realize how hard you have to work to see results.”
Really, the same mindset you would use to differentiate yourself from competition is a good mentality for copycats: do your best in terms of protecting your work, and continue to be creative. After all, the “heart” of what you do can’t be duplicated — so keep showing up as your unique, hard-working self.