You hear about it all the time, people engaging in questionable business practices like copying, plagiarism, using other people’s photos and images, coming to work for you or under you and then disappearing to start their own company. I’ll be honest, it sucks to get screwed over. It puts all this bad energy into your life and makes you feel like awful. Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery actually. Nevertheless, there are some lessons you can learn and I’ve got some thoughts on what you can do when someone screws you over. Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, so do not take any advice I may say as legal advice and always consult a lawyer before making any legal decisions.
There are three major ways that people can screw you over in business and what you can do about it.
When someone copies your stuff: whether it be ideas, marketing, words, names, the way you structure things in your business, etc. While this is frustrating, don’t become obsessive (you could go crazy and spend way too much time on Copyscape). Keep in mind that many things ARE going to be similar in the same creative spaces. I mean there’s only so many words to describe a wedding so naturally there is a lot of overlap in the wedding industry for example in business names. Unless whatever you created is SO out of the box, understand it could be a coincidence.
If you do come across it or it’s brought to your attention, you should probably do something to handle it. First send an email, next maybe a Cease and Desist if necessary, and then let it go. As Gary Vaynerchuk says, “ideas are crap, execution is the game.” If someone is not creative or business savvy enough to come up with an idea on their own or a product name on their own, guess what, they are in for a rough road in business. Once I realized that 99% of the businesses and people that were copying some aspect of my business or marketing materials were no longer in business a year later, I stopped worrying so much about it. Those people don’t have the worth ethic or the business sense to have a successful or sustainable business on their own so it’s only a matter of time before they give up.
Even worse than copying is when someone outright steals your stuff. They are flat out using things that belong to you like images, products, or programs. The key distinction here is that you own the materials in question (i.e. you have a copyright or trademark, etc.) In this instance, I do feel that you should consult a lawyer and consider taking action because if you do not, it could truly harm your business.
You do have several courses of action here; such as, sending a cease and desist, initiating a DCMA takedown, and pursuing further legal action if it gets that far. Honestly though, I feel like a good starting place is just sending an email and saying “hey, that image or product or name is mine, I own the copyright or trademark for it, please take it down or stop using it, or I’ll have to pursue legal action,” and go then go from there. Most of the time the person will blame it on someone else like their web designer (which was always really odd to me, like web designers don’t choose the images for a creative website, you choose the images you want to include because you should have your own images), but deep down they know they did it and they just got caught so they’ll make the changes and move on. Nonetheless, if that doesn’t work, then you’ll have to consult with a lawyer to get an idea of what your best course of action should be.
3) Using you for experience/education
This one is tough because as a part of the creative industry, there isn’t a typical path for education. There is no Bachelor of Arts in wedding planning for example. There is in graphic design or photography or some other creative professions; however, those programs often do not actually teach you what you REALLY need to know in running your own business. So people have to learn somewhere.
Often times someone comes to work with you as an employee or a member of your team, and the next thing you know, they’ve taken everything they’ve learned, and opened up their own shop. Similarly, this is something that happens to me as a consultant and a coach from time to time. For example, I had someone who bought The Pricing Workbook and then about a year later showed up as a “pricing strategist” and I noticed much of what she was teaching was straight out of the workbook. It’s frustrating for sure, but again I go back to what I said earlier: if a person cannot come up with an original idea on their own, and constantly chases right behind someone else, copying their stuff, then they are always going to be one step behind. They will never be an innovator and they will never a leader. That person will just be getting your sloppy seconds, so try not to worry too much about it.
Just remember, when it comes to business, only you can do it the way that you do it. You are not replicable. You are the most important piece of your business! Someone can never completely copy you, unless you’ve put yourself in that position, by not being original yourself.