One of our Lift Off alums recently asked how to deal with copycats and idea thieves. She’s been rocking it, getting great press, and things are taking off for her – and, as it always happens, copycats and idea thieves have started showing up and taking her work and phrases as their own.
One of the surest signs you’re doing something right is when people start swiping and imitating. A far worse fate is remaining in obscurity or creating ideas that aren’t worth stealing and spreading.
There are a lot of ways to deal with copycats and idea thieves, but there are three main strategies that come to mind:
- Mark your territory by protecting your ideas, seeking trademarks, etc.
- Be more prolific
- Go where the air is thinner
While it’s smart to develop relationships with trademark specialists and lawyers as your body of work grows, you have to be careful about how much time and resources you spend protecting your ideas. In the end, the copycats and idea thieves win, either because they’re going to dance around your marked territory or because they’ll simply run with the memetic momentum that you started but didn’t seize because you were busy protecting kernels of your idea rather than developing them.
This second strategy is much better. The memetic momentum stays in your court and on your own terms and eventually you’ll win with a greater, more comprehensive body of work. The more prolific you are, the more them stealing your ideas is actually favoring you.
This is my favorite of the three. As you advance your body of work into deeper levels of depth and connection, the copycats simply won’t be able to coherently follow you; and, even when they can, they won’t because it’s too hard. Combine depth of work with your own unique voice and it’ll be impossible for people to successfully copy you. Your work will never fit them, any more than Jack Johnson can sound like John Mayer.
To switch metaphors, you’ll be able to canvass the treasures on the bottom of the sea that the surface divers simply can’t reach because they haven’t developed their lung capacity.
There’s only so much that protecting and withholding your ideas will do for you. The absolute worst thing to do is to keep your great work private once you hit the stage - you’ll only see people publishing ideas that are so close to your own and you’ll have nothing to say but “I shoulda / coulda wrote about that.”
To paraphrase Kevin Kelly’s contribution to End Malaria, you should thank the person that starts sharing and developing an idea as well or better than you, for they’ve just saved you the time of figuring out what you shouldn’t be developing. A significant part of the journey of thought leadership is figuring out which ideas you shouldn’t be developing.
Lastly, instead of pushing people out, make it easier to work with you than to work against you. Encourage collaboration and spreading; if your work is making a difference, get over yourself and get the medicine out there in the world. Copycats and thieves always take the route of least resistance; use that to your advantage.
Be public. Be prolific. Go where the air is thinner. Lead the pack rather than worrying about who’s nipping at your heels.
p.s. Watch how much you unintentionally borrow ideas, too. We consume so much online that it’s hard to tell where ideas are coming from. Model the behavior you want to see.