Every now and again, I get a question from a reader on the topic of plagiarism. These questions tend to take the form of what’s what – what constitutes plagiarism, what’s copyright infringement, and what’s just being a boring old copycat? And on the other hand, what to do about it.
Well, I’ve been creating content online for 11 years now, so I’ve acquired some thoughts. REQUISITE NOTE: I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not going to tell you what to do. But I can tell you what I do.
First, I will give you three outstandingly brazen examples of Things That Are Written By Other People That Look Startlingly Like Things I Have Already Written from the last few months. Then I will tell you what I do about it.
Ready? OF COURSE YOU ARE.
Let’s look at copyright.
First up, we have The Ultimate Digital Marketing Template Pack. I received an email from a frequent customer expressing concern over a coach she’d recently hired. She was working with this coach and struggling to write her About Page. She wanted to reschedule her appointment with the coach to give her more time to consider what to write.
“No problem!” says coach.
She just had them made.
Here are a few sample pages.
SHE EVEN COPIED MY TERRIBLE STOCK PHOTOGRAPHY.
Apparently, my customer noticed the similarities because when she was struggling her About Page, her daughter suggested she dust off her copy of the Template Pack.
She was READING IT WHEN SHE GOT THE EMAIL FROM HER COACH.
As far as I know the law, this is copyright infringement. It’s taking somebody else’s copyrighted work and using it in a way for which you do not have the rights. (It’s also hilariously ironic, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Next up, plagiarism.
There’s a new writing class on the market! Actually, it’s not new. It came out a while ago, and it’s being relaunched. The creator is a fairly well-known writing teacher.
You may remember that I’m currently leading a group through a program called Write a Book With Me. A few of WABWM students are on this writing teacher’s mailing list, and are seeing the launch content for this other course. They, kindly, passed the emails along.
For your entertainment, I have screenshotted a few examples of the launch content for this new writing course, alongside my launch emails for WABWM from earlier this year.
From what I understand about legal and ethical stuff, this is plagiarism. This is taking somebody’s writing and stating or implying that it is your own.
Copycatting is a little different. It’s not illegal, it’s just boring and embarrassing.
Have you seen this ebook of mine?
Cool! Here’s a neat book on Amazon.
Might be a coincidence, though, right?
Like, people come up with similar ideas all the time!
Well, do you remember this ebook of mine?
Here’s another neat book on Amazon by the same author.
Titles are not subject to copyright, and therefore this is simply copying. Embarrassing when you’re found out, but not illegal. As far as I know, I could come out with a book called The DaVinci Code tomorrow, and there’d be nothing Dan Brown or anybody else could do about it.
The thing about copying is that you can never really know for sure. Maybe they're copying you and maybe it's just a really, REALLY weird coincidence. So in this case, it is entirely possible that this person isn't being a copycat – we just have an eerily similar taste in book titles.
Now… what do I do about plagiarism?
I do nothing.
I mean, every time it happens I fantasize about uncopyrighting my work, just to mess with karma.
(And I’m thinking of buying the writing course, just to scare the shit out of the creator.)
But other than that, I do nothing.
Why???? But!! But!! It’s YOURS!
I don’t care. I don’t care I don’t care I don’t care.
Here are my thoughts:
I grew up Christian. In the Christian faith, we do not punish. On our good days, we try to be compassionate, and remember not to judge people for sinning differently than we do. (On our bad days, we comfort ourselves with the image of an Old Testament God.)
Since deciding I’m not really into being Christian, I align much more strongly with Buddhist precepts. Plagiarism is a Buddhist’s field day. Non-attachment, right speech, karma… you could study Buddhism for the rest of your life on the back of one episode of copyright infringement.
But above either of those, I’m human. And as a human, I cannot imagine what life must be like for someone who copies or steals another person’s work.
I used to shoplift as a teenager. I did it because I had ADHD, and poor impulse control, and I loved the thrill of knowing I might get caught. It was like a drug. I was in a lot of pain – to go against my morals, my ethics, and my religion for the cheap thrill of getting something I didn’t earn.
I have a lot of confidence in my work. I’ve built up that confidence over many years. There have been some good times, and some not so good times. But ultimately, I’m happy with what I make. I like my ideas, my content, my products. It gives me joy to bring those ideas to life.
People who copy don’t get that joy, because they do not have the confidence to let themselves create. That sucks for them, and living with those feelings makes their life hard enough. They don’t need a lawsuit on top of it.
That’s what I do.
What should you do? Well, I don’t know what you should ultimately do.
I can tell you that you start by processing the shock. I’ve found Dillon’s Rose Gin to be helpful with that. (Hey, I didn’t say I was a good Buddhist.)
Then you fantasize… about all the nasty, passive aggressive, dramatic, soap opera theatrics you can engage in.
Then you calm down. (See: Dillon’s Rose Gin, above.)
Then it shocks you again, over and over. You’ll do well to let that pass without trying to fight it. You’ve experienced a betrayal of what you believe the world to be, and processing that takes as long as it takes.
Then you do what feels right. Maybe you do nothing. Maybe you uncopyright your work. Maybe you create an epic, attention-seeking Facebook post about how betrayed you feel. Maybe you call a lawyer and try to sue their ass to Hades.
But know this –
It happens to all of us who are publicly creating good work, and it’s not as scary as you might think it will be. Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery.
(Oh, and one more thing? If this ever happens to you, you can kiss your impostor syndrome goodbye. Cause if you’re good enough to steal from? You’re good enough.)