biz ladiesLife & Business

Biz Ladies: How To Deal with Copycats

by Stephanie

Today’s Biz Ladies post comes to us from Kim Kuhteubl, an award-winning producer and writer who works with interior designers, product manufacturers and hosts on business strategy, branding and audience engagement.  She is also a speaker at this year’s Image 360˚ Telesummit (Aug, 21 – 22), where she will be discussing branding within the the design industry.  Today Kim offers some advice on how to avoid copying others’ work, as well as general steps to keep your work safe from copycats.  Thanks, Kim, for sharing your insights with us today! —Stephanie

Read the full post after the jump…

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery or so the saying goes and copycats are

par for the course when you’re successful in creative business.  It’s an increasing problem on the internet where business has gone global and foreign poachers serving up stolen copy in other languages can be hard to track.

The good news is that closer to home, a well-defined brand can make the blogosphere a lot smaller.  One of my clients recently had an office design ripped off by a fellow blogger.  Luckily the design had already been published, so said blogger was not as smart as she was nervy.   In another case, someone hired a client of mine to design her first home and then started a blog and business claiming the work was entirely her own.  In the first case, it was my client’s fans who came to the rescue and pointed out the copycat, before taking her, and the blog that published the rip-off to task.  In the second case, a strongly-worded lawyer’s letter resulted in a take-down and the end of a friendship.

Watch & Due

I’m a big believer that certain ideas pop into the zeitgeist because it’s time, which is why it’s common for more than one person to have the same idea at once.  It’s why Apple and IBM came onto the scene at the same time or why as a story producer, I got the same pitch idea from strangers on different sides of the country, more than once.

Some ideas get traction, media attention, become mainstream, create opportunity and earn big bucks.  Others don’t.  The same goes for the people who have them and that’s where the trouble starts. Who knows how many people thought up personal computing devices on the planet, but none took action and communicated the vision of them in the same way that those two now ubiquitous brands did.  From a legal standpoint, it’s why ideas can’t be copyrighted but why the expression of them, can.

It’s a slippery slope because the foundation of learning is imitation.  It’s how as babies we learn to hold a spoon and how later as artists, we’re taught the how-to of our craft.  In the beginning, copying is a requirement of the creative process; so is inspiration.  You’ll often hear creative people say, I was inspired by (insert name of recognized creative genius) when I made this.  Being inspired by the work of another maker, artist, or designer is one of the most beautiful parts of the creative process.  But that’s the difference between a copycat and a pro.  Pros are generous with credit and give it where it’s due.  They’ve given up copying for something far greater, self-expression.

If you’ve been copied, you may be tempted to stop creating, to keep your ideas underground, or play a smaller game.  Don’t.

From a practical standpoint, here are a few things you can do:

  1. Watermark Images Of Your Work.  Add the copyright symbol and your name — or my preference, your url — to every single image of your work that exists online.  You can also include copy on your website reminding site visitors that none of the content may be used without your permission and that there are consequences for ignoring your request.
  2. Google Yourself.  Over the years, I’ve found articles I’ve written on the websites of well-meaning (I’m sure) folks who are using my content to help them pimp their services.  I’ve reached out and offered them two choices: a use license or to take it down.
  3. Google Your Images (At Least Quarterly).  To check your images if you’re using a mac, drag the image from your site into the search box at http://images.google.com/.  Google searches for your image and shows you the list of sites where that image is found.  Using this method one of my client found her images on two overseas stock photography portals.
  4. Lawyer Up.  If you’re positive you’re being ripped off, contact a lawyer for advice and to draft a Cease & Desist letter.  Consider trademarking your name and/or products that you want to have a long shelf-life early in business.  Just because you own the URL does not mean you own the trademark.  LegalZoom is another way to do some inexpensive preliminary research around patents, copyrights and other forms of concept protection.
  5. Keep Creating.  It takes courage to be creative and you are.  You’re doing the work, putting yourself out there and as much as other people want to be like you, it is genetically impossible.  Thank biology for that.  Fans who are devoted to you, want what you offer, not the copy, like all of us Apple fans, a company with rabid fans, brand ubiquity despite having less than 15% market share.

As for those inclined to copy, I get that you’re not sure who you are yet and that’s why you’re trying everybody else’s image on for size.  But you can’t get there following someone else’s roadmap; first because you don’t know where it’s going, and most importantly, because you’re driving another car.

So take the shortcut to your success.   Look in the mirror and get to know yourself. That’s you. Then, stop believing the lie you’ve been telling yourself, the one that says you have to be someone other than who you are to succeed.  You are enough.  So forget about copying someone else and their work and start doing you.

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  • This was such perfect timing, thank you for the encouragement to keep going & the ideas. I’m so bad about watermarking.. but it’s come back to haunt me.

    Great post!

  • Great article! What drives me crazy is people who post other blogger’s content almost word-for-word and add a little note at the bottom that says, “original source: xyz blog.” I think they think that by giving credit somewhere on their post, that makes it OK to publish someone else’s content on their own blog. It’s frustrating. :(

  • BRILLIANT!! I love your tone here – lots of great advice in a clear voice, because when copycatting happens, it’s hard to think clearly – all sorts of other emotions get in the way and it’s easy to get crabby and stabby. Props to those who continue to create in the face of copycats and downright thievery – the world is a brighter, more beautiful place because of them!

  • Thanks so much for these tips! It’s something that so many small creative businesses deal with and I completely agree that it’s so important to keep moving forward while taking the appropriate precautions. Total believer in karma, too. We’ve all got to keep that good energy flowing…

  • I love that Kim gave props to the existence of KARMA when discussing a serious (and super frustrating) topic like copycatting. Karma is real. And this is fabulous, too: “It takes courage to be creative and you are.”

  • Thank you for this post, which I’m going to share as soon as I finish this comment! The internet is certainly a double-edged sword: it’s an amazing way to share our work, but that opens us up to theft. As an artist, the rewards far exceed the risks as far as I’m concerned. I’m always grateful that fellow artists watch out for each other and report misuse when they see it.

  • Thanks for the tips. I’ve owned an online shop for 7 years and a new site keeps stealing my marketing ideas. They don’t even attempt to revise them a little and it’s all extremely obvious. I sent the owner a nice and decent tweet about how it’s obvious they’re straight up copying me, and suggesting they use their own creative ideas but she just ignored it. I think that the owners thrive off drama and a controversy would help them get more clicks, so I’m biting my tongue. I have a running list of the blatant copying they’ve done but don’t want my Attorney to contact them yet.

    The most important advice I can offer anyone who’s trying to make a name for themselves is to be original and unique if you want to be successful. People don’t want to see the same thing done again. They want to see something different. Copying someone else is lame. Bringing a new idea to the table is much cooler.

  • This article comes at a perfect time. The idea of copying vs. being inspired by someone is something that we’ve been talking about in our studio for a while now and seems to be becoming more of an issue that ever. THANK YOU for putting this wonderful post together and putting it on such a great platform.

    It is terribly un-motivating to have your work copied or to see others copycatting someone’s work you admire a lot. We hate that we have to search Etsy and Google from time to time for people directly ripping off our designs…but without fail, we usually find at least one with every search.

    I love Lauren’s last bit of advice on her comment above. It is so very true. Copying some else is very, very lame.

  • Well thanks Stephanie for tis article and advice. As you said I googled some of my images just after i read it and for my nasty surprise I found nor 1 but 2 and 3 companies in the far east selling a copy of some of my products. I am so upset and sick in my stomach that I can’t go to sleep almost 2am in London. Just wanted to say how grateful I am about reading this article and to let you know that you have helped at least one person out there by doing so. All the info about the copycat is over at my blog in case you are interested. Night night from London, Marga

  • Great article and thank you for highlighting this issue with such good advice.
    The exact same thing happened to me a few weeks ago. Don’t think words can explain how angry it makes you feel. When you work so hard to be individual and creative and then to see another company launch copying your concept, styling and products is really heartbreaking.
    Some people have no integrity at all.

  • Great article, great advice. The blogosphere is such an incestuous world, but I agree with Lauren above, that being original is the best way to be – while still taking inspiration and crediting others. Here’s to move lore and originality on the internet!

  • My good friend E teaches art and is always really annoyed when her students try to turn out bad copies of her work. E’s solution is to school her students about doing their own work and keep working hard on refining her own stuff. Luckily for her, her work has been getting more and more complicated and I’d be surprised if anyone thought they could get away with copying it.

    I love the little karma note to the copycats at the end. Who knows? Maybe it will help people do the right thing?

  • Great post! I know how to watermark but I just get lazy – especially at 2 AM. I will definitely be better at watermarking and googling my images regularly. I always credit if I use images from other sources and assume that all people are the same, but apparently (and sadly) that is not the case.

  • When I was just starting out as a Graphic Designer, a respected Art Director I worked with actually stole a piece of my work he had absolutely no part in, and placed it in his online portfolio as his own work. I fumed to my fellow colleagues at the time, but I did not take him to task. I was young and not confident at all. Today he is a highly paid Creative Director. I’m not sure that copycats always get what is coming to them. Sometimes they just get away with it.

  • Shirley, if it helps, a friend of mine who works in advertising dislikes specific Creative Directors because he’s been asked by these people to rip off images from independent illustrators “but change it enough so, you know, it’s not EXACTLY the same”. It’s doubly infuriating because he knows many of these people personally and knows they would do the work for an absolutely reasonable price. Laziness and fear are the roots of copying, and that guy only thrives because copying’s currently an industry standard. If we all calmly call people out on it, wherever and whatever the case, we’ll all benefit.


  • Brilliantly insightful, especially love the part about karma.
    Its got to be about self belief, and this post really helped us remember that, thank you so much.
    Aimee & Helen

  • Very important topic that the creative community needs to deal with (I almost feel like we are in a bit if a crisis about this subject) I especially like your point about keep putting yourself out there. I follow many of these threads (being a licensed artist myself) and there is always someone in the comments who refuses to participate in their own creative process because they are afraid of being copied. Weird but true. I think the best way to address it is to drop the fear, get to know yourself and love what you are producing and stand your ground. I want the community to believe that they too have original spirits so they won’t be tempted to look else where for ideas but will look to themselves. (getting preachy, sorry!) I am in the midst of developing a program based around this topic!!

  • Thank you for your great insight on this matter. I’ve been dealing with this in a couple of times and it’s not a very pleasent situation to handle. Sadly it’s a matter you just cannot ignore when you are in a creative business, but I can’t understand why people do it. Most of them even have a personal connection with me and one of the copycats even forgot to take my name out of the copy…ouch!

  • I like your karma paragraph best – about not thinking you have to be someone else. Thanks for that, I can tell it clearly came from time letting the dust settle on the bitterness of being copied.

    My mother gets ripped off often in the online world, she shrugs it off and says she always has fresh ideas coming and the copiers are a dry well. I am so intimidated by the copiers and mean-commenters, I have stayed away from doing a blog at all about my own ideas.