I wanted to share with you a really hard situation I encountered last week as a business owner, one that I know a lot of creatives with online businesses have experienced.
It began when I saw a tweet with a link to an article that had the exact title of a lesson I created inside the Better Branding Course.
This article was a guest post on the blog of an online friend that I respect (who has been a part of the Made Vibrant community for a long time.) The reason the post title stuck out to me in particular is because the title wasn’t some general branding principle; it named a unique process that I had developed over hours of working with my one-on-one brand coaching clients, something I believed to be unique to my own teaching and approach.
As I read further and further into the post, it became clear to me that the similarities between the post content and my course curriculum were beyond coincidental. (I later discovered that the author had in fact been a student of the course.)
That’s when it really started to sink in that a part of my paid course curriculum was being given away for free, under someone else’s name and, additionally, being shared socially without any mention of my name — one pin being repinned over 70 times.
My heart sank. Tears welled. My hands even began to tremble.
I can’t quite fully explain the emotional nerve this kind of thing strikes, but if any of you out there have been in a similar situation, you know how much it hurts.
So, what do you do when you suspect your work has been copied?
First, I think it’s important to pause and recognize the source of your hurt (and remind yourself that your borrowed idea is not your last idea.)
Some of you may have seen this Abstract Affirmations Daily post of mine on Instagram about the ordeal, but it explains how I made the realization that part of the hurt was coming from a place of scarcity:
Today I came across a blog post that made my heart sink. The post was teaching a concept I had coined a few years ago, one I teach exclusively inside the #BetterBrandingCourse, and it was written by a student of the course, outlining the exact steps I go through in 2 of my lessons.
I spent a crazy amount of time constructing the course curriculum to make it clear & to put my unique spin on the process of branding, so I’ll be honest, seeing the idea passed off as original sent me into a mini tail-spin filled with all sorts of emotions. First the sting, of course. The bruised ego saying “That is MINE.” Then the “I have to get to the bottom of this” mentality of wanting to assign blame. Then the pain of feeling like this thing I was so proud of, this concept I (naively) felt was somehow truly original, had been taken from me. And then this final realization: NOTHING is truly original. We’re all cross-pollinating and remixing and putting our spin on things — that’s the nature of creating. So why did it hurt so much?
My conclusion: The feelings of hurt were coming from a place of SCARCITY.
The hurt of “someone stole this” is predicated on the false fear that my knowledge or my creativity is FINITE. That I’ll somehow run out, so it feels scary to have an idea taken away. But, if I’ve proven anything to myself over the years it’s that there are always more ideas waiting to be born, & I know deep in my heart that WHAT you say is only a small piece of the pie; the more important parts are HOW you say it & WHY you say it.
For the record, I don’t think this person shared my ideas maliciously. I think they learned something that helped them & wanted to share it with others. But the lesson I want to share today is less about the ownership of ideas & more about the FEAR I felt the moment I saw one slipping away from me.
Today I’m reminding myself (and YOU!) that our ideas and creativity are not finite. I’m emerging from my mini tail-spin with this one simple mantra when I feel myself believing in the false scarcity of ideas: there’s PLENTY more where that came from.
"The hurt of 'someone stole this' is predicated on the false fear that my knowledge or my creativity is FINITE. That I’ll somehow run out, so it feels scary to have an idea taken away. But, if I’ve proven anything to myself over the years it’s that there are always more ideas waiting to be born."
I think taking a minute to source the hurt and to get a grip on the emotion of it all is is the first step in making sure that your response is thoughtful and intentional.
The second thing is to seek an open dialogue with the person you believe to have borrowed your work.
I’ve seen bloggers publicly tear into copycats on their blogs and that never felt like the right solution to me. I think it only breeds more hurt and alienation, and that’s not ever something I want to be responsible for.
I think it’s only right to allow the other person involved a private opportunity to explain themselves without fear of being harassed by your audience or followers.
This is a lesson I learned about this same time last year when I had my branding and business card design completely ripped off by a copycat (that’s a link to an old newsletter if you feel like learning more about my experience with that.)
Ultimately, the lesson I gleaned from that ordeal was that taking the high road is always the right thing to do. It’s important not to jump to conclusions, and to remember that there is a real person on the other end of these situations.
When things like this happen, it’s an opportunity to actually practice what you preach and intentionally act based on your values, and not out of things like revenge or frustration. Be careful not to let your HURT turn into HATE.
I also think that in your communication, it’s important NOT to put the other person on the defensive with accusations. Explain your perspective and your feelings, but make it clear that your desire is just to open up the conversation, not to instigate any sort of confrontation.
Here’s an example of what my email looked like to the person I suspected had borrowed my work:
I’m reaching out because I happen to come across a blog post you wrote that I wanted to talk to you about. The post was titled [_______________________]. (link)
The reason it caught my attention is because this is a topic I cover extensively inside the Better Branding Course (which I see you purchased back in October) throughout the two lessons titled [______________] and [______________________].
The reason I felt compelled to reach out to you is because the steps you cover throughout your blog post are the exact steps I cover in those two lessons. Even your points of [___________________] are pulled straight from the course.
I know that your intention was likely not to copy the course or share proprietary info — I’m sure it was just coming from a place of influence and hopefully the concepts were helpful enough for you that you felt compelled to share them with other people.
However, I don’t feel that the information you shared offered your own twist or approach in addition to my concepts — I feel like you were simply repackaging my course content and giving it away for free, and that hurts. I spent an unfathomable amount of time breaking down the branding process in a way that I thought would be teachable and to see that work passed off as someone else’s is very hard. I hope you can understand that. Which is why I wanted to open the dialogue for us to chat more about this.
In the future, if you do intend to share content related to what you’ve learned in the Better Branding Course, my hope is just that you would either give me credit or if you would be sure to put your own spin on it and apply your own approach so that it doesn’t feel like a direct copy of the BBC content. I hope you understand that.
Please let me know if there’s been a misunderstanding or if you have any questions about my reaction to your article and why it hurt me in the way it did.
My goal in that email was not only to express how this person’s actions had hurt me, but to also communicate that I didn’t believe her intentions to be malicious and list ways that the situation could have been handled differently.
I’m only sharing it with you guys now in case you find yourself in a similar situation in the future and need a basic template to start with.
***I do want to say that the response I received to this email from the blog post author was exactly what I could have hoped for in a response. No defensiveness, no confrontation — just a pure apology for any hurt that was caused and a thorough explanation of how the post came to be.
She wanted me to know that she truly didn’t intend to pass off my content as her own. It had been helpful in explaining the branding exercise to her clients, who found it extremely practical, and she wanted to share that with other people. She admitted that looking back she should have changed it more or added more of her perspective, but she was grateful to use this situation as a learning experience.
Through some additional email exchanges, she and the blogger who posted the article and myself all reached an agreement in updating the post with a credit to the Better Branding Course, and ultimately I felt a huge sense of relief and closure from resolving the situation in such a mature way all the way around.
(So to be clear, in no way do I want this article to paint this person in a negative light. My goal is simply to talk about this type of thing more so that the online entrepreneur community can communicate about the standard we want to uphold and learn how to handle these situations in the kindest, most compassionate way possible.)
The last step is simply to let it go and move on.
Now listen, I’m not saying this whole story ends with everyone holding hands and riding off into the sunset.
I’d be lying if I said that when I still see tweets and pins related to this one post that it doesn’t sting. It does.
But if I choose to dwell on that feeling and focus on the hurt, I know it will only distract me from the good work I could be doing. Plus, in the grand scheme of things, no ONE blog post can make or break your business.
(In the words of my former self after the ordeal last year:)
YOU are more than what you create.
You (and I) are the glorious combination of an infinite number of experiences, traits, gifts, values, beliefs and moments in time. NOBODY can steal or borrow that. Keep creating from within, keep expressing yourself in the purest way you know how, and any imitators won't matter.
In that same vein, I also invite you to remember that the person who steals from you or borrows your content is MORE than that one poor decision too.
So, the last point that I want to bring up in today’s newsletter is: Where is the line?
When does influence bleed into imitation and imitation become plagiarism?
I think we all know how to spot plagiarism, right? A word for word rip off makes the moral answer pretty black and white. But what about all the grey? What about borrowed phrases and processes and styles and hacks and all of it?
While I don’t know what the answer is, I know that there are two things that I think we all can do to make sure we stay on the right side of that line, wherever it is:
1. Throw CREDIT around like confetti.
It’s actually cool to shout out other people in your content and let your audience know where you’ve derived your inspiration from. It makes you look like a curator of awesome things and your audience will continue to show up for you as you turn them on to awesome stuff.
Still to this day, if I use the concept of “Start with WHY” I link back to Simon Sinek and his TEDx talk. Even if I refer to the word WHY as a person’s mission or driving belief I still do it. I cite him inside my course, on my blog and often in this newsletter. Why? Because I respect him, and I respect his ideas. He took a concept that existed long before him and he explained it in such a specific way that it resonated with so many people. He deserves to be recognized for that.
Speaking of, this quote is inspired by the quote, “throw kindness around like confetti” which I believe you can find in @biancacash’s shop here. :)
2. Bring your own spin and perspective to EVERYTHING you do.
I don’t just mean re-writing a concept in your own words; I mean adding NEW concepts. Offering your own approach. Get really honest with yourself and ask: “Am I just repeating what someone else said/did/made? Or am I taking what they said/did/made and turning it into something else?”
If you ask yourself that question and the answer isn’t abundantly clear, than it’s simply not different enough and credit needs to be given.
As online creators, I think we have an obligation to uphold a standard of respect and recognition for one another.
This experience has taught me that it’s important to stand up for your ideas and for what you believe in, but it’s also just as important to do so with kindness, compassion, and understanding.
This week I challenge you to identify one person you've been influenced by and give them a shoutout letting them know.
And in the future, if you see someone else's work without proper credit, stand up for them and politely ask whoever posted it to cite the reference.
If we promise to have each other's backs on this, we'll all be able to keep on creating without fear of being replicated.
I hope sharing my experience with this has not only showed you how a similar situation can be resolved amicably, but I hope it also inspires you to think more critically about giving credit to those that have influenced you in the future!