Over at our member forum, one of our members is hosting a discussion on the question of how to respond when someone copies your ideas. When (not if) this happens to you as a small business owner, the first response may be disbelief, maybe even hurt, especially if the copier is a friend, personal acquaintance or business colleague.
The second reaction will probably be anger, or something close to it, and it can be quite intense. This is a critical time in the chain of events because what you do next could compromise you and/or your business. Here are some tips to help you handle the sticky situation of someone copying you in business.
Accept That Copying Is A Fact of Business Life. This is a common issue for all business owners, regardless of size. There was a time when business took place behind a veil of secrecy. Most people didn't know what other people were doing or how they did it unless they played golf together, met in smoke-filled rooms or attended the same business group meetings.
Today, it's different. Because of the Internet and the democratization of business, everything is transparent. Everything is visible. Everything is available to everyone. There's nothing you can't do that the biggest company in the world does, proportionately speaking.
So, you, me and every other small business owner must accept being copied as a part of our lives as business owners. Accepting this should help you separate your emotions and deal with the situation in a professional manner.
Categorize The Copying. Once you separate your emotions from the situation, you must must determine whether the copying amounts to a violation or potential violation of your legal rights. This involves determining whether your intellectual property (trademark, trade dress, patent or copyright) is being violated. You will probably need legal advice in order to make this determination.
It is important to decide how you view the copying from a legal standpoint before you respond. If your intellectual property is being used without your permission, you must speak up for yourself and your business, regardless of whether you have a personal connection with the other person.
The details of making formal legal follow-up are beyond the scope of this post, but suffice to say that you want to tread carefully and make sure you have professional assistance.
Addressing The Relationship. If your intellectual property rights are not in jeopardy, then you have to figure out how to deal with the fact that someone liked what you did enough to copy it. You may also have to accept that she thought of the idea independently of you. But let's assume she didn't. What then?
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery perhaps, but those words are no consolation when someone else knocks off something you invested your heart and soul in.
But let's first be honest. This happens all the time. If you have not taken someone else's idea, massaged it to include your signature style and flair, and then used it, you're not serving your business well.
Success leaves clues, and it's not illegal or wrong to take something someone else has done, put your personal stamp on it and apply it to your business.
It would be foolhardy not to follow in the tracks of people who have gone before, so long as you do not violate the law or moral or ethical principles. (I am not going there — follow your conscience.)
If you don't know the person who is copying you, you'll probably stew over it for a few days and make a mental note to keep an eye on the person.
But if you know the person, it's easy to be uncertain how to proceed because there is a relationship at stake.
What if the person is a friend or close business colleague? Perhaps she's a FaceBook pal or you met each other at a Tweet up or a favorite social networking site. In other words, instead of a stranger, the copier is a “business-colleague-friend.” What then?
Preserve Existing Relationships Where Possible. Because of the subtle nuances in these types of relationships, no one can advise you about the optimal approach because no one knows the nuances of the relationship except you. Having said that, in general, you have a few options.
You could approach the copier, tell her you notice that her latest new items look an awful lot like yours and ask her to stop copying you. The chances are not good that this approach will turn out well because it doesn't give the copier a chance to “save face.” Moreover, it represents a threat to their bottom line, which means they may become quite defensive. Besides, even if they do stop copying you, someone else will come along and do it later anyway. So you've wasted your time and theirs, and perhaps created hard feelings without any resulting benefit to you personally or your bottom line.
In this situation, as unpleasant as it may be, it could be that the person is using you and the relationship to further their own purposes. In that case, you must invoke some healthy boundaries to insulate yourself from the negativity that could result from such behavior. How do you do this?
Well, I don't know. It will be different for everyone. Usually, unless the copying rises to the level of violation of your intellectual property rights, the the situation is somewhere between blatant copying and the mistaken assumption that, to be competitive, they have to copy someone else's success instead of create their own.
When some people see you doing a good job of executing new ideas, it seems easier to use yours than it is to make up their own. The person may like you and your business, and want to emulate both. All of these things are possible. And the copier can still be a really nice person.
In any event, you have to set healthy boundaries around you and your business. And if you perceive that someone is using you, then you have to do something. You may not verbally confront the person, but you still must decide how you will proceed in the relationship and act accordingly going forward.
- Don't Stress Over It. The worst thing you can do as a business leader is let the fact that someone is copying you hold you back. You must continue to produce. You must create and execute new ideas. When you continue to innovate, even when people copy you, you are blazing a trail and, at the end of the day, your industry and the people it serves enjoy great benefits.
Business is business, and if your intellectual property is at stake, you must be proactive and protect it. If your intellectual property rights are not at stake, but you are still being copied, whether or not you decide to discuss it verbally, you must establish boundaries that serve you and your business. You must make it possible to continue without slowing your progress or creating hard feelings that would only make the situation worse.
Question: Have you ever been copied? How did you handle it? Are my suggestions helpful? What did I miss?