What I Learned From Being an Accidental Copycat

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The mini-furor and speculation that Melania Trump lifted lines from a well-regarded Michelle Obama speech brought to mind this article from last year on the dilemma of realizing your good idea was, at least in part, somebody else's good idea first. - Editor.

Last week, I read a blog post about being plagiarized and how terrible it is. I immediately messaged the author to praise her and commiserate over how hard it's been on me. I felt so dignified in my rage (don't we always?). Being plagiarized or copied in any way feels horrible; I've had it ruin entire days.

In fact, I can't count how many times in the course of my business I've been convinced I was being ripped off. I'm not kidding: I have some sort of meltdown about it at least once a week. Once a week! That's a lot of time and energy that I spend completely certain that someone looked at my brand and then decided to do something just like it. And I get really angry and feel really justified in that anger.

After I sent this message, not a full day later, a question came through our website about a special bag we had created, asking if it was made by another company. Essentially, this customer was calling us out for making something too similar to another product.

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She was right; it was similar. But it gets worse. The hard truth of the matter is I had sent the exact bag she was referring to in an email to our designers with the words, "I love this bag let's make something like this." So while the print and end design felt totally original to me, the bag itself clearly wasn't. My intent was not malicious. But that doesn't matter, I felt called out and embarrassed (and yes, we are discontinuing the bag now).

But there I was doing the exact thing I judge so harshly. I could walk you through all of the reasons I thought it was OK when I did it, but the important fact is that I'm not different. Maybe I'm justifying my behavior, but I don't think any of us are innocent. And ultimately I got a lot out of this realization.

Don't let it happen again.

It sucks. It feels terrible to be caught doing it, and it probably gives you bad karma. So let's not let ourselves off the hook for it. I try as hard as possible to be original and not use ideas that I've seen elsewhere (even if I think I had them "first"). Clearly I don't always try hard enough but this experience reinvigorated my resolve.

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Get over it.

I need to stop obsessing over my copycats. The truth is lots of people are thinking of the same ideas that I am. And if they did happen to come across what I'm doing at some point and it's influenced them somehow, they might not even realize it. We don't live in a vacuum, and while I'm not going to make some insulting allusion to flattery, I will say I'm trying to embrace that we all have an effect on each other and that's unavoidable.

It just doesn't matter.

Take it from me, I've ranted to many trademark lawyers. Often, no patent, law or court can protect you. Sure, you have the right to protect your ideas and should maybe communicate with people you believe to be infringers but at least in our economy, tweaks of old ideas make up the basis for most new ones. Examples are everywhere -- from Hellman's to Coke and Pepsi and the bakery that launched the Cronut.

It's not that I've forgiven myself for my bad copycat behavior or for my now unjustified rage at other people, rather, it's that I I've learned my lesson and decided to move on. I'm not sure it won't always at least aggravate me. I do truly believe we should protect and support each other's ideas and at least try our best to be original. But I feel a new commitment to quieting my judgements, scrutinizing the integrity of my own ideas and then doing my best personal work.

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